Monday, May 9, 2016

Celebrating the 2016 Herb of the Year, Capsicum! Well Almost!

My Favorite Pepper Mill from Penzey's!
It has pepper in its name, but it isn't quite what is being celebrated.  A couple of readers have asked about growing peppercorns, one who lives in Florida and one who lives in Vermont.  And silly me thought it was perfect because the 2016 Herb of the Year is pepper.  Well, not really pepper.  It is capsicum, the true pepper.

Pepper was prominent in the ancient world and was a source of fabulous wealth during the medieval and colonial spice trade.  Pepper provided the pungency of Indian food until it was partially replaced by chilli peppers from the New World.  It remains the most important and popular of all spices in overall value and trade volume.  Peppercorns are from the genus Piper which has a very large number of species, but only P. nigrum has any importance as a spice.  Black pepper is native to the Indian equatorial and tropical forest regions, especially along the Malabar Coast (South India).  Besides India, it is cultivated in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and China.

The plant is a climber, with stems that have green oval to heart-shaped leaves, 3 to 7 inches long and adventitious (meaning they are formed accidentally) roots anchoring it to the ground.  It has inconspicuous flowers.  The fruit or peppercorn is a berry like drupe about 3/16 inches in diameter.  They are green when they are unripe and then red.  Plants are propagated from seed or cuttings.  The developing seedlings need to be staked and are kept low so that growth is horizontal.  In their native lands they can grow to 20 feet.

Production begins 5 years after planting.  The spikes of fruit are harvested before they mature so as not to lose the fruits.  The spice that is obtained from the fruits is made up of black, white and green pepper.  Black pepper comes from whole fruits picked just before they are completely ripe and are briefly cooked.  White pepper from ripe fruit with the endocarp (the inner most membrane surrounding a seed in the fruit) of the pulp separated from fermentation.  Green pepper are made by pickling the unripe fruit to keep them from darkening.

Ground pepper quickly loses its aroma, so that ideally it is stored whole.  The spice has stimulant, digestive and eupeptic (good digestion) qualities.  Black pepper is used in practically all savory dishes and even in sweet ones.  When I was at the Spice Festival at Kew Gardens last fall, a chef combined strawberries with black pepper.  They were delicious.  Because I am into jam and jelly making, here is a  strawberry and black pepper jam recipe! May have to substitute raspberries instead!

The pungent principle is piperine (only 1% as hot as capsaicin from chili peppers).  White pepper is more pungent and has musty flavors resulting from the fermentation process.  The peppery aroma is due to rotundone, a compound also found in Shiraz wine.

So the real question is can Florida or Vermont grow peppercorns?  My guess is that Florida has a better chance than Vermont just by location.  I did find a post from my friend, Jim Long's blog about growing peppercorns from plants he purchased in Florida!  It is called Growing Black Pepper.  Hopefully his tips will be helpful to Linda in Florida.  I would just say to my Vermont reader, Bev, buy the best quality peppercorns and use a pepper grinder to get the best flavor.  I would also mention buying in bulk is not always the best way to buy spices.  Even though it may be more expensive, the spices will be used up in a timely fashion.  If you have a favorite spice company, please share it.  I buy a lot of spices from Penzeys Spices.  Hope you are having a great day wherever you may be.  A gloomy day here in the 'Burgh.  Talk to you later.


Linda Goudelock said...

Thanks! Learned a couple new things today. I only wish I could garden, we travel most of the year and have to limit myself to a few pots. Right now I have oregano, amaryllis, succulents in four pots outside. Inside I have a ponytail palm, Christmas cactus and an air plant. In August I'll replace the two amaryllis with an herb or two

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing so much research on growing peppercorns. Jim Long's article was very interesting--but I'm not ready to try his suggestion of growing them in the bathroom! I guess there just will always be some things that must be purchased.
The cross stitch in the gold frame looks just awesome. Very nice, and good job!!

Lemon Verbena Lady said...

Well, I am happy to give you new information that you may not have known, Linda! I am not sure I could live without my garden!

Thanks Bev! The cross stitch was a labor of love over many years! Yes, a plant growing in the bathroom may not be the most ideal of conditions, but I bet lots of gardeners have done just that! Glad I could provide you with some new information.