Black pepper is one of the most important spices and is valued all over the world. It is generally believed that the epic voyages undertaken towards the end of 15th century by pioneers like Vasco da Gama, Columbus and others were in search of this “black gold”.
Pepper grows on a perennial climber, which thrives best in humid rainy tropical lands.
India is a major producer, where it is harvested during December to March. Other major producers are Indonesia, Brazil, and Malaysia. Vietnam has become the latest entrant to pepper producers, where systematic cultivation is poised to give it the title of leading producer and exporter to world market. Pepper is also produced in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia.
Pepper is known for strong spicy aroma and hot pungent taste. It is present as bunch on a spike. As it matures to harvesting stage, size of a normal berry grows to a sphere of 2 to 4 mm, deep green in colour due to chlorophyll on the outer layer of skin. But on plucking and sun drying the outside colour turns to black. This colour change is due to action of enzyme on phenolic compounds present on the compact pulpy skin. Chlorophyll does not disappear but is masked by the black pigments formed by enzymatic action. A fresh pepper berry consists of a hard core and a soft outer rind. The dried black pepper will have a typical spicy aroma, caused by the essential oil, which is mainly distributed in inner portion of the outer rind and a very small amount in the core. The hot pungent taste is caused by piperine, which is distributed in the hard core. The essential oil can be separated by steam distillation of the ground pepper. But separation of piperine would require extraction by a suitable organic solvent. The essential oil content of pepper varies between 2 and 4% and piperine content between 4 and 10%.
In the dry pepper, the outer colour is black. If the rind is removed the inner core comes out as ivory coloured smaller sphere. The hard core represent white pepper of commerce, which is made by retting harvested berries in water for a week or two, and then removing the rind by abrasion. Slight retted off-flavour is a part of traditionally produced white pepper.While dried black pepper has a typical spicy note, at green stage berries have a welcome “green” flavour. Green pepper is liked in Continental Europe. For this purpose, the greenness is preserved by canning, by pickling in brine or by dehydrating after killing the enzyme by hot water blanching.
While white pepper and green pepper are popular, the main consumption of the spice is in the form of dried black pepper. In a spike while majority of berries are fully grown, there inevitably will be some which are under- mature or otherwise damaged. Some berries will be eaten away by insects and fungus and these will result in hollow berries known as “light pepper”. Slightly immature berries also have a lower density but much heavier than light pepper. These are the “half pepper” or as popularly known now in trade as “light berries”. These grades are separated by winnowing.
Very small unfertilized and hence undeveloped berries are known as “pin heads”. These will have a diameter of less than 2 mm. The bulk of the harvest (over 90%) will be average sized black berries, diameter between 2 and 4 mm. In India, this grade is known as the world famous “Malabar” garbled pepper.
Bigger than 4 mm diameter berries are the “Tellicherry” grades of “bold”, “extra bold” “special extra bold” etc. Most of the average sized pepper are used after grinding, while bigger grades are used in unground form to take advantage of display value.
In recent times pepper oil is produced by steam distillation of the essential oils of black pepper. This is used where aroma of pepper and not hotness is valued. When both aroma and taste are required, pepper oleoresin is made by solvent extraction. Both pepper oil and oleoresin have widely used in flavouring of processed foods.
Black pepper has medicinal property especially good for congestion of respiratory track.
In Ayurveda, pepper along with long pepper and ginger forms Trikatu which is used as a rejuvenating medicine. Based on these and further research, piperine of pepper is found to be a bioactive material enabling body to absorb other drugs more effectively.