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The pepper plant is a perennial woody vine Pepper vines (Piper nigrum) propagated from cuttings and growing up to 4 metres in height on supporting trees, poles, or trellises. It is a spreading vine, rooting readily where trailing stems touch the ground. The leaves are alternate, entire, 5 to 10 cm long and 3 to 6 cm across. The flowers are small, mostly bisexual and produced on pendulous spikes 4 to 8 cm long at the leaf nodes, the spikes lengthening up to 7 to 15 cm as the fruit matures. The berries ripen in about 7 months. They are at first green, then turn yellow then dark red and the catkin can have berries in different stages of ripening. The fruit of the black pepper is called a drupe and when dried it is a peppercorn. Black, white and green peppercorns all come from the fruit of Piper nigrum. However, they are picked at different stages and processed differently which affects their flavour. Black peppercorns are the most pungent variety, followed by white, then green.

Black pepper is produced from the green unripe drupes of the pepper plant. The drupes are cooked briefly in hot water, both to clean them and to prepare them for drying. The heat ruptures the cell walls in the pepper, speeding the work of browning enzymes during drying. The drupes can also be dried in the sun or by machine for several days, during which the pepper around the seed shrinks and darkens into a thin, wrinkled black layer. To test whether the berries are dry, bite on a dried berry. If it snaps in two, it is not dry enough. It has to shatter into little bits to get the go ahead for grinding. Once dried, the spice is called black peppercorn. On some estates, the berries are separated from the stem by hand and then sun-dried without the boiling process. Once the peppercorns are dried, pepper spirit & oil can be extracted from the berries by crushing them. Pepper spirit is used in many medicinal and beauty products. Pepper oil is also used as an ayurvedic massage oil and used in certain beauty and herbal treatments. In New Zealand the seeds of Kawakawa Macropiper excelsum, a relative of black pepper are sometimes used as pepper.

Green pepper, like black, is made from the unripe drupes. Commercially dried green peppercorns are treated in a way that retains the green colour such as treatment with sulphur dioxide, canning or freeze-drying. Pickled peppercorns, also green, are unripe drupes preserved in brine or vinegar. Fresh, unpreserved green pepper drupes, largely unknown in the West, are used in some Asian cuisines, particularly Thai cuisine. Their flavour has been described as piquant and fresh, with a bright aroma. They decay quickly if not dried or preserved. If you can’t use them immediately, blanch them in boiling water for 1½ minutes then dip into ice cold water. Seal in a bag and place in the coldest part of your freezer to snap freeze and keep frozen til ready to use. The vine bears green berries, which may be canned in their unripe state. These green peppercorns give a pepper flavour but without much heat. They can be used in subtle ways and will not overpower poultry or fish. If these green berries are dried rather than canned, they darken to form the familiar black peppercorns. If, instead, they are left for longer on the vine to ripen, they turn bright red. One method of cleaning the red skins off the berry is by fermenting in hot water but it will need several changes of water. Fruit club members John & Lyndall Picone grow pepper at their property at Tyagarah NSW and sell the fresh peppercorns at the Byron, New Brighton and Mullumbimby Farmers Markets.

White peppercorns are made by taking the ripe, red berries and removing the skin and pulp. The inner white seeds are then dried in the sun. White pepper is more expensive and less aromatic than black, but it is preferred for use in some sauces where black pepper would look unattractive. This is usually accomplished by a process known as retting where fully ripe red pepper berries are soaked in water for about a week, during which the flesh of the pepper softens and decomposes. Rubbing then removes what remains of the fruit, and the naked seed is dried. Sometimes alternative processes are used for removing the outer pepper from the seed, including removing the outer layer through mechanical, chemical or biological methods. Ground white pepper is sometimes used in Chinese cooking or in dishes like salad, light-coloured sauces or mashed potatoes where black pepper would visibly stand out. White pepper has a slightly different flavour from black pepper due to the lack of certain compounds which are present in the outer fruit layer of the drupe but are not found in the seed. A few years ago, I visited the Kampot area in Cambodia that specialises in White peppercorns.

Pink peppercorns are the berries of a different tropical bush – Schinus molle or Schinus terebinthifolius. Schinus terebinthifolius is classified as a weed in certain areas of Australia. You’ll see Schinus molle growing along creek banks on the Darling Downs. Here in Brisbane they are very susceptible to a borer. They are picked ripe and then dried. Pink peppercorns have a fruity heat and spicy flavour that is reminiscent of both cinnamon and allspice, but must be used sparingly as they are toxic when eaten in large quantities. All dried peppercorns should be freshly ground in a mill to maintain their flavour, which is quickly lost after processing. An opened can of green peppercorns can be transferred to an airtight jar and stored for six weeks in the refrigerator.
There’s a commercial farm at Silkwood in Nth Qld which was affected by Cyclone Yasi a couple of years ago.