Ah, pepper! Just ponder for a moment, if you will, the culinary delights contained under this rubric, from the ubiquitous seasoning ground onto and into dishes around the world to the capiscums, ranging from the delicious sweet red pepper to the fiery rockets of chili peppers. Let's take some moments to savour and caress them here at their most broad: pepper.
Indulge me if I choose to begin with peppercorns, piper nigrum. One of the most ancient and popular of spices, pepper comes third only to salt and water as the most commonly used cooking ingredient in the world. Once so rare and precious that it was literally worth its weight in gold, pepper came to Europe after Alexander the Great attempted to conquer India in the 4th century BC. The Greeks used pepper as a medicine, digestive, and expectorant, but the Romans discovered that it added pizzazz to food. The main street through Rome's spice market was known as Pepper St. and one of the gates of Alexandria, chief port through which pepper was shipped from India to Rome, was called the Pepper Gate. When the Visigoths besieged Rome in AD408, they demanded 3000 lbs of peppercorns in ransom; though the Romans reluctantly complied, the Goths added insult to injury by sacking the city anyway.
With the fall of Rome trade routes fell into disuse, and pepper gained in value. During the Middle Ages Venice and Genoa controlled the flow of pepper into Europe, and kept the price high; so valuable was it that workers at the docks and warehouses were forbidden to have pockets or cuffs on their clothing. It was used as currency, and dowries, rents, and taxes were often paid in peppercorns. "Peppercorn rent" meant paid in full, though today it means a nominal sum. One of the major gustatory uses of pepper was to disguise the taste of rotting meat in the days before refrigeration.
Desperate to break the pepper monopoly and thereby become rich, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries explorers like Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Drake, and Columbus set off in search of the Spice Islands - in essence, India, home of pepper. Vasco de Gama actually reached there, though his route was perilous, and Columbus' Indians, of course, were on a totally different continent altogether. But the Dutch, British, and French set up East India companies, all in search of spices, primarily pepper. From its home in India (pepper actually derives from the Sanskrit pippali, berry), the spice was introduced throughout Southeast Asia by European and Asian traders, where it throve; it is also grown today in most tropical areas near the Equator.
The pepper plant is a climbing perennial vine which produces spikes of flowers which bear clusters of about 50 berries. For black pepper, the berries are picked when green, fermented in water, and then dried in the sun, during which they shrivel and blacken. White pepper is made from ripe berries which are soaked in water for a week to soften the husk, which is then ribbed off, after which the inner white part of the berry is dried. Since some of the aromatic oils are in the skin, white pepper is milder and less complex in flavour than black pepper. Sometimes you can find fresh green peppercorns, used by the Thai in curries, but more usually they are pickled in brine, then canned or freeze-dried. Because they are not fermented, pickled green peppercorns are less pungent and more herbal than black peppercorns. Red peppercorns are very rare; they come from fully ripened berries. They are as spicy as black peppercorns but with the fresh herbal tones of green ones. Rarely seen now is long pepper; this is what the Greeks and Romans mostly knew. Szechuan pepper and pink peppercorns are from different plants than other peppers, but have a similar pungency and roundish berry shape.
What gives black pepper its characteristic bite - and makes you sneeze - is piperine, though there are other essential oils in pepper that enhance its bouquet. These oils are volatile and will evaporate when exposed to air, which is why you should really use a peppermill to achieve freshly ground flavour and aroma. These oils also stimulate gastric juices, making you hungry and improving your digestion. Though in the west we tend to use pepper only on savoury dishes, a grind of pepper adds a surprisingly wonderful dimension of flavour to fresh strawberries, chocolate desserts, or vanilla ice cream. Pepper is also commonly used in alternative medicine, to stimulate the appetite and give relief from nausea.
Satiated on the berry front, I move now to capiscum, hailing from the other side of the globe, Latin America. Capiscum comes from the Latin capsa, "container", because peppers encapsulate seeds within them. They have been an integral part of cuisines in the Americas for thousands of years, but made their way to Europe with Columbus in the late fifteenth century, who brought back small hot ones which began to thrive in southern Europe; later Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought back many more varieties . Though peppers came from their home lands much later than pepper did, their spread was equally dramatic: soon Hungarian cuisine was red with paprika, Italian food rich with red peppers, Thai food fiery with hot chiles, African dishes burning with new flavours. Today peppers have become integral to cuisines throughout the world.
There is much more variation among members of the capiscum family than the piper family; there are over 2000 named varieties, many of which cross-pollinate easily, making the pepper possibilities infinite. Mild sweet peppers can be round, bell-shaped, heart-shaped, or long and pointed; their colours range from red, green, orange, to yellow, or even purple or black these days. They can be huge or tiny, looking very much like jalapenos or other hot chilis, but not all small peppers are hot, not all big ones mild. Generally red coloured bell peppers are sweeter than green ones and will make roasted peppers more easily because of their higher sugar content.
Hot peppers contain capsaicin, which gives them their characteristic heat; the relative heat of hot pepper varieties are measured on the Scoville scale using Scoville heat units. Bell peppers are at the bottom of the scale, scotch bonnets and habaneros weigh in at the incendiary other end. Like sweet peppers, hot peppers range widely in colours and sizes, and it's impossible to tell just by looking whether a pepper is hot or not. I recommend nipping off a tiny bit and touching it to your tongue; if the pepper is hot, that'll be enough to induce a pleasant burn. If you feel nothing, eat the bit, but be cautious. Don't just throw a whole hunk into your mouth without preliminary testing, or you could get really shocked.
Fresh peppers are easy to fry, bake, boil, roast, grill, stir-fry, or can. In addition, many types of pepper respond well to being dried, and bundled strings of dried peppers hanging in the sun are a common sight in New Mexico and France. Peppers can be smoked as they're dried, turning a spicy jalapeno, for example, into a fragrant chipotle. Dried peppers can be ground to yield mild or spicy paprika, cayenne, or pepper flakes, and peppers are also commonly mixed with other tasty ingredients to make hot sauces of many descriptions.
Capsaicin is said by some to stimulate the release of endorphins, inducing euphoria; others say it's an aphrodisiac. But I just get the hiccups when I eat a really hot pepper, which is no turn-on at all.
Thanks to "Choosing and Using Spices" by Sallie Morris and Lesley Mackley and "Peppers" by Marlena Spieler