PEPPER.
(Piper nigrum L.)

The pepperer formed an important member of the community in England during the Middle Ages,
when a large proportion of food consumed was salted meat, and pepper was in high request as a seasoner.
— S. Dowell, Taxes in England, IV. 35.


The plants yielding the black and white pepper of the market are climbing or trailing shrubs. The stem attains a length of from 15 to 25 feet. The climbing portions cling to the support (usually large trees) by means of aerial roots similar to the ivy. The leaves are entire, simple, alternate, without stipules. The flowers are very insignificant in appearance, sessile upon a long, slender, pendulous spadix. They are mostly unisexual, either monoecious or dioecious, that is the staminate (male) flowers and pistillate (female) flowers are separate, either upon different branches of the same plant (monoecious) or upon different plants (dioecious). The fruit is berry-like, with a thin, fleshy pericarp enclosing a single seed. The young fruit is grass-green, then changes to red and finally to yellowish when ripe. In southern India the flowers mature in May and June and the seeds ripen five or six months later.

Piper nigrum is a native of southern India growing abundantly along the Malabar coast. It thrives best in rich soil in the shade of trees to which it clings. It also grows in Ceylon, Singapore, Penang, Borneo, Luzon, Java, Sumatra and the Philippines. It is cultivated in all of the countries named especially in southwestern India. Attempts at its cultivation have been made in the West Indies.

In India the natives simplify the cultivation of pepper by tying the wild-growing vines to a height of six feet to neighboring trees and clearing away the underwood leaving just enough trees to provide shade. The roots are covered with heaps of leaves and the shoots are trimmed or clipped twice a year. In localities where the pepper does not grow wild, well drained but not very dry soil not liable to inundations is selected. During the rainy season or during the dry season in February cuttings are planted about a foot from the trees which are to serve as support. The plants are manured and frequently watered during the dry season. They begin to yield about the fourth or fifth year and continue to yield for eight or nine years. The methods of cultivation differ somewhat in different countries. The harvest begins as soon as one or two berries of the base of the spike begin to turn red, which is before the fruit is mature.

     

Two crops are collected each year, the principal one in December and January, the second in July and August. The spikes are collected in bags or baskets and dried in the sun on mats or on the ground. Ripe berries lose in pungency and also fall off and are lost.

Pepper is of extreme antiquity. It received mention in the epic poems of the ancient Hindoos. Theophrastus differentiated between round and long pepper, the latter undoubtedly P. longum. Dioscorides and Plinius mention long, white and black pepper and dwell upon the medicinal virtues of spices. Tribute has been levied in pepper. In 408, Alaric the daring ruler of the barbaric Visigoths, compelled the conquered and greatly humiliated Romans to pay as part of the ransom 3,000 pounds of pepper. During the Dark and Middle Ages pepper was a very costly article, as is evidenced by the fact that it was frequently found among royal presents. The pepper-corn rents, which prevailed during the Middle Ages, consisted in supplying a certain quantity of pepper at stated times, usually one pound each month. The high price of pepper was the prime motive to induce the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India, the land of pepper. The route via the Cape of Good Hope led to a considerable reduction in price. About this time, also, began the extensive cultivation of pepper in the Malay peninsula.

The black pepper is the unripe, dried fruit of the pepper plant. The white pepper consists of the ripened fruits from which the pulpy pericarp has been removed. It is not nearly as pungent as the black pepper, but it has a more delicate aroma. Occasionally the dried black pepper is "decorticated" by blowing, thus giving the "corns" a smooth appearance resembling the white pepper. This is a very absurd proceeding, as by this process the most spicy portions are removed. The quality of the pepper is almost proportionate to the weight of the corns; the lighter the poorer the quality. After the fruits are dried they should be carefully winnowed to remove light grains and all refuse. Very frequently these winnowings are ground and placed on the market. Adulteration of pepper is quite common, especially when ground. A wise plan is never to purchase ground spices. Buy them whole and grind them at home or have them ground before your eyes. Good whole peppers should sink in water and should not crumble between the fingers.

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