SOUPSONG HAS GONE HARDCOPY!
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Originating in India and Sri Lanka, peppercorns--the pungent fruit of a perennial climbing shrub--can truly be said to have launched a thousand ships. Pepper's ability to spice up the bland European diet made it an item of extreme luxury and a staple of trade between Europe and India from the earliest days of commerce--worth its weight in gold...because overland traders squeezed every penny out of the pepper business that they could. (Remember, the hot capsicum peppers were isolated and biding their time in the New World at this time.)
Just a few pounds of black pepper was truly a gift reserved for kings. I particularly like the story of the Venerable Bede, wonderfully humane English monk and scholar of the Dark Ages who, on the point of death in 735 AD, carefully divided his greatest treasure amongst his friends: a handful of pepper.
Thus Columbus and other intrepid European explorers set off around Africa and into the unknown Atlantic to try find a direct route to India that would cut out the middlemen. Thus is history made.
The pea-sized berries of the pepper shrub are bright red when ripe. When the skin and fleshy parts are removed from the fully ripe berry, the remaining hard seed is white--our "white pepper." When the berries are picked when not quite ripe and are then dried and winnowed, they are black and biting, with a sweet undertone. The best black peppers are, reputedly, the Tellicherry and the Lampong. And they are best when they are ground fresh in a pepper mill. Green peppercorns are the soft underripe berry of the Piper nigrum--usually preserved in brine, but also sold dried.
The active--and hot--ingredient in pepper is piperine, an alkaloid of pyridine. Hippocrates prescribed it as a medicine--and even today it is used as a heart and kidney stimulant.
Two other "peppercorns" that aren't peppercorns at all are: 1) the Szechuan pepper, which comes from the prickly ash tree, and 2) Pink peppercorns, which are actually the dried berries from the Baies rose plant. These latter are pungent and slightly sweet.