Pepper probably comes from the west coast of India, near Malabar, where it is still widely cultivated. Its name comes from the Sanskrit pippali, which became peperi in Greek and then piper in Latin. It then spread to other Asian countries.
It is thought that Alexander the Great discovered it in India and took it back to Greece in around 324 BC.
The Romans used it extensively. It is found in some recipes in the Apicius. Through their conquests, they spread this spice, which they carried with them and made trips to India to obtain.
Pepper was also used as a currency in trade. It was hugely popular in the Middle Ages, but only among the wealthy classes because it was prohibitively expensive.
It was on a mission to find pepper that Columbus began the expedition in which he arrived in South America, believing he was in India.
From the 15th century, the Route to India was established, and Vasco da Gama landed there in 1498. The Portuguese settled there, having won the pepper monopoly. They lost it to the Dutch and the English in the following century. The cultivation of pepper developed from one country to the next following battles and conquests.
In the 18th century, the aptly named Pierre Poivre (poivre is French for pepper), who had discovered pepper when he was a missionary in the Far East, persuaded the French East India Company to grow pepper in the Île de France (now Mauritius) and the Île Bourbon (now Réunion). His wish was granted.
Then, with the development of transport, pepper, which had previously been the cause of fierce battles and unfair trade, was turned into an everyday and ordinary spice – except when it is of exceptional quality.
The international quality standard for pepper is expressed in grades from 1–5. The major named peppercorns (see above) are always of the highest quality.
As for peppercorns that are not from a specific origin, whether black pepper (especially when it is ground) or white pepper, the quality is very variable and sometimes contains other berries that are similar to peppercorns.
Ultimately, the price and the supplier are the best indicators of good-quality pepper.
Black and white pepper is sold in the form of whole peppercorns or ground pepper.
Green pepper is sometimes sold fresh, but is usually packaged in brine or freeze-dried.
Vietnam is the largest producer of pepper, followed by India, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.
Both black and white pepper should be kept in a tightly sealed container in a dry place.
Green pepper should be stored in the refrigerator whether it is fresh or in brine. Fresh green peppercorns can be frozen.
Pepper is rich in vitamins and minerals, but such tiny quantities are used that its nutritional value is not particularly important.
Piperine, the substance responsible for the spicy flavor of pepper, can stimulate appetite and promote digestion. However, it can irritate the mucous membrane and so should never be consumed by people suffering from a stomach ulcer.