I was filling a order for someone, and in the herb bowl I spotted this peppercorn with the stem still on it.
I scooped it out and set it aside, not because there's anything wrong with a stem, but because I got so excited and I wanted to share it with all of you
(along with this giant photo of my hand with a tiny peppercorn in my palm)!
I love when this kind of thing happens. It helps me feel more connected to whatever plant it comes from. It's so easy to unconsciously distance ourselves from the herbs and spices (or any kind of plant or food) when we get used to seeing the processed versions. It's one of the reasons I stock herbs and spices in their most whole useful form, rather than powdered versions (though the main reason is that it's much better to process an herb as little as possible until right before you use it, for maximum freshness).
Little moments like this one, where I found this peppercorn with a stem, are a reminder that this tiny common kitchen spice does not just magically appear in a jar, it grows on a plant.
Piper nigrum is a leafy vine, native to southeast Asia, but grows in other tropical regions (it isn't grown commercially anywhere in the US). It produces "pepper spikes" - long, thin bunches of tiny berry-like fruits. Although they're often referred to as berries, botanically the fruits are "drupes" (fruits with a single seed, like a peach or a cherry).
The fruits start out green, then turn red as they ripen. For black peppercorn, the fruits are picked just as they start to ripen, when some fruits in the bunch are orange. White, red, and green peppercorns come from the same plant, but they are picked and processed in a different way (just like black/green/white teas all come from Camellia sinensis).
Peppercorns get processed in different ways, depending on the country and the farm, but there are two main ways the process starts:
- The fruits are picked and dried slow over a week or two
- The fruits are picked, blanched for up to ten minutes to speed up the drying process, and dried over a few days
The traditional way to dry the fruits is in the sun. They're laid out in a thin layer, and raked every few hours to turn them and make sure they're drying evenly. As they dry, their thin flesh shrivels and blackens, as they become the peppercorns we're familiar with.
After further processing (washing, removing the stems, etc) and grading, they are ground or left whole and shipped off to distributors who work directly with the farms, and then to restaurants, grocery stores, or shops like mine. And then you take them home, grind them up, and add them to your food or herbal blends.
I love the taste of pepper, so I add it to most foods I make, but I also love it in warming tea blends like chai spice blend, blends that support the digestion, and topical blends for warming muscles and joints. Just a small amount goes a long way to enhance the flavor of other herbs and spices.
What are some of your favorite ways to work with pepper? Let me know with a comment below, or leave a comment on our Facebook post where we shared this.