Peppercorns are the dried fruit of the piper nigrum or pepper vine, which is native to Southern India. Though occasionally fresh varieties are used in Asian cuisine, we normally use dried ones in the west. They may be used whole, but are more frequently used in peppermills that provide the “fresh ground pepper” many enjoy on their food. Alternately, many purchase ground peppercorns in what is simply sold as black pepper in most markets.
The use of peppercorns in cuisine and medicinals dates back to ancient history. In addition to being a common spice in cooking, they were used in embalming and were often found in the nostrils of embalmed Pharaohs. Peppercorns were also used to treat a variety of health conditions, including indigestion, heart disease, gangrene, and toothaches. There’s no proof that they actually work for any of these conditions and actually their use for stomach problems are highly questionable. In fact many people undergoing abdominal surgery are asked to forgo pepper for several weeks prior to the surgery.
Peppercorns were a hugely valuable commodity in medieval Europe. The sharp taste and its accent to food were very desirable. Principally, medieval Europe got their black pepper from Java, Sumatra, Sundar and Madagascar. The fruit and ground pepper traveled the trade routes that flowed to North Africa and to the Arabian Peninsula.
They are also part and parcel of Europe’s unsavory history with India. Direct trade with India by sea was highly desirable, prompting European explorers to find a sea route to India. This would of course later lead to European control of parts of India that lasted into the early 20th century.
There are actually three types. Black peppercorns are picked from unripe or green pepper fruit. They are dried for a few days to produce the familiar tiny wrinkly black fruit. Peppercorns contain a seed, and this is the portion of the fruit that produces white peppercorns. The white type has the fruit flesh removed before being dried, and is said to evoke a slightly fresher and less “hot” spice. They’re also desirable in recipes where black pepper would stand out.
Green peppercorns are harvested at the same time black ones are picked. Instead of being dried they are packed in brine. They may be sold in brine, or later dried after brining so they retain their color. Most are still grown in India or Southeast Asia, because they grow best there. It is possible to obtain ones that state their origins, but most of us simply purchase whatever peppercorns are available. Recent trends include producing and marketing certified organic varieties.
Many modern cooks insist that spices taste fresh when they are ground just prior to using them. Because of this popular insistence, it is quite easy to find peppercorns at most local grocery stores.