Black Pepper is probably the world's most widely consumed spice and originates from the Western Ghats, a hilly area stretching north-south along the west coast of India.
It is a perennial vine with woody stems up to 10 m (33 ft) long and 6 cm (2.5 in) in diameter, off of which branch soft, green, herbaceous stems. These soft stems have aerial roots that arise at nodes along the length and cling to structures they make contact with, in many cases tree trunks, supporting the vine as it grows and climbs.
On vertical structures, the criss-cross entanglement of vines usually assumes a columnar shape that may be anywhere from 3 to 5 m (10 to 16 ft) tall. Black Pepper vines also develop extensive root systems, with large roots up to 4 m (13 ft) long, but with most remaining within 1 m (3.3 ft) of the soil surface.
The leaves are elongated oval, 13 to 25 cm (5 to 10 in) long, pointed at the tip, dark glossy green and prominently ribbed on top, underneath paler green. They are borne alternately along the length of the soft, climbing stems and remain on the vine in all seasons.
Flowering is induced by increased humidity and moisture brought on by the rainy season. The individual flowers are tiny and insignificant, creamy-white and borne on pendant flower-spikes 5 to 15 cm (2 to 6 in) long. These arise at nodes opposite the leaves and have on them from fifty to one hundred and fifty flowers tightly clustered.
The fertilised flowers are followed by very small, round, green berries, becoming first orange-yellow then red when fully ripe and have fleshy pulp surrounding a single seed. They are slow to mature, taking about seven to eight months to fully ripen and they ripen unevenly, with green and red berries usually present on the same cluster, which may have up to sixty berries.
Black Pepper vine with strands of peppercorns (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
The peppercorns or berries are the source of a range of flavouring products, chief among them, in terms of the volume produced, is black pepper, which is made by drying the whole green berries until they become black. Other significant products derived from the berries include white pepper, green pepper and pepper oil.
To produce black pepper, the spikes are harvested when the berries are at the mature but still green stage. The berries are then stripped from the spike, soaked in hot water for around ten minutes and dried under the sun, usually on bamboo mats spread out on a large, flat, concrete surface or patio. They are then raked and shifted under the sun for around two weeks, after which they are bagged for shipping, processing and packaging into whole or ground black pepper.
While black pepper is the whole dried berry, consisting of the pulp and seed, white pepper is only the seed, the pulp being removed and discarded. Also, the berries used for producing white pepper are at a riper stage than those used for black pepper.
If white pepper is to be produced, the spikes are harvested when most of the berries have turned red. The berries are then stripped from the spike and soaked in running water for about two weeks so as to macerate them and remove the pulp. The cleaned seed are then dried under the sun as for black pepper, but instead of becoming black develop a grey-white colour.
Black pepper and white pepper are widely used as a flavouring agent in food and beverages, including meat and meat products, baked goods, sauces, condiments and relishes, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. White pepper is less pungent, has a more mellow flavour and because of its light colour, is preferred for white sauces and light-coloured dishes.
Green pepper is made from berries harvested at the same stage of ripeness as for black pepper but are processed in such a way as to maintain their green colour. After harvest, the green berries are either dried or preserved in vinegar or brine. If being dried, the berries are dehydrated under controlled conditions that preserve their green colour. Drying is done simply to reduce transport costs, as the berries are re-hydrated before they are used. Green pepper is popular because of its attractive green colour, aroma and mild pungency. Green peppercorns are mostly used whole, mainly in sauces that accompany meat and seafood dishes.
Pepper oil is a colourless to green free-flowing oil extracted by steam distillation, mostly from black pepper but also from the pulp discarded when making white pepper. However, pepper oil lacks the pungency and flavour of black and white pepper, as the active constituent giving pepper its sharp taste, a compound known as piperine, is insoluble and only present in small amounts in the oil.
Pepper oil is increasingly being replaced by oleoresins, which are extracted from the berries using an edible organic solvent and then emulsified using Gum arabic (Senegalia senegal). Pepper oleoresins are rich in piperine and are used as a flavouring agent in place of black and white pepper, particularly in canned meats, pickles and bottled sauces.
As a fragrance, pepper oil is used for its peppery notes, mostly in men's colognes and after-shaves but is also blended in small amounts in selected perfumes, such as 'Le Jardin D' Amour' and 'L'Interdit.'
Green peppercorns (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
Black peppercorns next to white peppercorns (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
Black pepper berries owe their peppery or acrid taste to the alkaloid 'Piperine', which is present in quantities of up to 9% in the dried berries. Piperine by its action has a stimulant effect on the digestive tract and the circulatory system, which led black pepper to be used in traditional medicine.
Black pepper is commonly used in home remedies to treat digestive complaints, including stomachache, flatulence, constipation and bloating. It is also ground and added to warm drinks given to patients with fever.
Piperine acts as rubefacient causing dilation of the capillaries, thereby increasing blood circulation to the area where it is applied. It is sometimes added to topical ointments and creams for this effect and has shown promise in the treatment of some skin problems, including vitiligo.
Black Pepper was initially used by Europeans as a preservative, particularly to preserve meats and it is still today regarded as an essential natural preservative in sausages.
Grows naturally in humid tropical lowland climates, generally frost-free areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1500 to 5500 mm, and a dry season of 4 months or less. Black Pepper vines may fail to thrive in areas where the average low of the coldest month is below 15 °C (57 °F).
New plants are usually started from cuttings but can also be raised from seed or using air-layering (circumposing) techniques. When cuttings are used, they are best taken from new growth on high-yielding vines and should be about 60 cm (2 ft) long with five to seven nodes present. These are then planted cut-end in containers with a free-draining potting-mix and kept under 50 to 75% shade in a nursery for about four to five months.
Planting out is best at the start of the rainy season and the cuttings should thereafter be trained to climb up on a pole or trellis. In less formal, backyard type cultivation, the vines are usually trained to climb up a tree or palm trunk, especially those with a combination of a slim trunk and textured bark, such as a Coconut (Cocos nucifera) and Areca Palm (Areca catechu).
Black pepper performs best on deep, humus-rich, free-draining clay-loam, loam and sandy loam soils of a moderately acid to neutral nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 7.0, and on sites with partial sun to light shade exposure.
Vines start to flower and fruit when about two years old but do not come into full production until they are seven or eight years old but will continue bearing for up to twenty years if well managed. Yields from mature vines range from 1.8 to 2.3 kg (4 to 5 lbs) of dried berries each season.
Harvesting pepper (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
Peppercorns drying in the sun (Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam)
Black pepper is listed as a weed in more than one reference publication, but there does not appear to be any records of it anywhere as a serious weed, despite its widespread distribution and cultivation.
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