Samui Wining & Dining
Crush Me, Shake Me

This month we take a look at pepper.

 This month we take a look at pepper.It’s quite staggering, really. We take life as it comes. We go to school, then work in a shop or go to college. Get married. Have babies. We’re busy. Our lives are full. And yet there are just so many things we know nothing about. And even more things that we simply take for granted. We never think twice when we turn on a tap or flick a switch. We use telephones that, a generation ago, were the stuff of Sci-Fi movies. We buy things online from all over the world. All around us, every day, there are a thousand things we just take for granted. And one of these is pepper.

Yes, pepper. The powdery stuff that we shake on our food. It’s just there, on the table. And, like salt, the only time we ever actually notice it, is when it’s not there! And yet, these two things together, salt and pepper, have a value that’s timeless. At one time, salt was so rare and so hard to come by, it was worth its weight in silver. For a long time the Roman Empire paid its soldiers in salt. And likewise pepper was priceless; although, to be honest, the same

holds true for most of the spices we know today. All these things, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric and pepper, together with saffron, used to be the rarest of the rare. Unlike other spices which grew in cooler climes (nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, cloves), these spices were found only in hot, humid conditions, growing near sea level. And, until the machinery of the Roman Empire moved across half of the northern world, all such spices were indigenous to India, the near and middle East, and some parts of the tropics.

But what opened everything up was the explosion of discovery in the 15th century. Adventurous seafarers realised that you didn’t just drop off the edge when you got to the horizon and so, enthusiastically, kept on going. During the first half of the 15th century, the Portuguese explored the coasts of Africa. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed further west into the Atlantic Ocean. And, a few years later, Vasco de Gama reached India by sailing all the way around Southern Africa. Columbus might have been a top-notch sailor, but a botanist he was not! And so, one way or another, he really went and messed up the whole concept of ‘pepper’ for the next 30 years or more!

But, if you think about it, even today, pepper can mean several things. There’s the ground pepper that goes on our steaks, the blistering ‘chilli peppers’, and also the big, colourful capsicum peppers that aren’t spicy in the least. In fact, what we think of as pepper (and the stuff that was so valued in Roman times) is the ‘peppercorn’. This is botanically classified as ‘Piper Nigrum – and to prove the point about just how diverse all this is, Piper Nigrum is just one of about 1,000 species in the piper genus that is part of the larger family of peppers called Piperaceae.

And so it’s hard to blame Columbus when he brought his ‘peppers’ back to Europe. He discovered three varieties. One was an aromatic berry he called the ‘Jamaican Pepper’ (today this is known as allspice). His second peppery discovery was the capsicum. These big apple-sized fruits were straightforward enough. But the confusion started to pile up with the third set he found – the red-hot chilli peppers that also came in red, green and yellow, and were also capsicum, albeit of a different family branch. And then, to muddle things even more, the Spanish word for pepper is ‘pimento’, so all were dubbed ‘pimentos’, whether they were spicy or not.

It’s interesting to look at all of this in the context of Thailand. Back in this period 99% of the Thai people were farmers or fishermen, with a bland diet of rice and vegetables, chicken or fish. And when, finally, they had access to such flavourings and spices, they seized upon them with relish. Anything was better than eating a never-ending diet akin to moist cardboard. Suddenly, their food actually tasted of something, even if it was mainly only blisteringly hot chillies!

But, getting back to the table variety of pepper (the peppercorns), even these come in a whole variety of different flavours. The Piper Nigrum is a climbing shrub that, left wild, grows up to about 30 feet, but is usually pruned back to 12 feet in cultivation. Its flowers are slender spikes with about 50 blooms on each, and their berry-like fruit eventually grows into long strings of peppercorns.

The flavour of these peppercorns can change, depending on where the pepper is grown, when it is picked, and how it’s processed. The most common are the black peppercorns – these are the peppers that we put into our pepper mills or are sold ready-ground. These are simply the mature fruits of the plant. The green variety is exactly the same thing, but picked before they’re ripe – they’re milder and softer in texture, and used a lot in Thai cuisine. And the white ones are simply the seed of the mature plant but with the black husk removed. This is really just an aesthetic choice as they’re usually only used to season dishes where the black colouring would stand out too much, like potatoes, soups or pasta.

And then there are the rarer pink and red varieties, often favoured by gourmet chefs. The red ones are the same fruit as before, but picked exactly at the point just before it begins to turn black. The pink, however, is actually from a different plant, the Brazilian or Peruvian pepper tree. The flavour here is similar to black peppercorns, but not as acidic and slightly fruity.

So there you have it. All you need to know about pepper, and you’ll never have to take it for granted again.


Rob De Wet


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