Peppercorn and Pepper History
Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, About.com Guide
Black pepper is such a common pantry item these days, it may be hard to believe it was once so valuable that it was used as currency. We take it for granted, but the vast majority of savory recipes include some form of black pepper as an ingredient.
Pepper is ranked the third most added ingredient to recipes, with water and salt leading the race. To get basic ground black pepper, one must begin with whole peppercorns, not as commonly used nowadays, but definitely a culinary experience extraordinaire.
Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum (piper being Latin for plant, and nigrum meaning black) vine, originating on the Malabar coast of India. Peppercorns are not only the oldest used spice, but also the most widely-used. Said to be found more than 4,000 years ago, peppercorns were cultivated as long ago as 1000 B.C.
Pepper was considered so valuable that unscrupulous suppliers often mixed in mustard husks, juniper berries, and even floor sweepings and ground charcoal to stretch its value. In 1875, the British Sale of Food and Drugs Law imposed restrictions against the selling of adulterated pepper.
Today, pepper, known as the King of Spices and the Master Spice, still accounts for one-fourth of the world's spice trade. Tunisians lead in pepper consumption with half a pound per person per year, whereas Americans consume about one-quarter pound per year.
Although always prized as a flavor-enhancing spice, the peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. Its hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress as an aid to cough up offending phlegm and mucus. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives.
Black pepper is also an effective deterrant to insects. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish, and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas.