Wednesday, 4 November 2009
'making' black pepper
The farmer has been producing organic black pepper for over twenty years here on the farm. Pepper was introduced as an alternative cash crop for cacao plantation farmers after the cacao blight destroyed farm incomes throughout this region. We are the only people still producing black pepper in this area. The pepper is marvelous: we sell to tourists at the garden and to locals and restaurants alike, the farmer receives emails regularly from all over the world asking for more of that "wonderful pepper we bought on holiday". People living here take it as a gift on their journeys and those who visit regularly stock up on pepper for their time back home. We mill just enough each Friday night to sell at the market on Saturday mornings, and we always sell out. It's just so good: fresh, hot, bright, clean, crisp, pure . . . organic, excellent!
The black pepper plant (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine native to India. Once the most expensive spice on earth, once more expensive weight for weight than gold, it was the main push behind the sea race to India (and hence responsible for the discovery of the Americas!).
The plant is grown on trees, stakes or trellises, here we use Madera Negra sticks which root and sprout branches giving some shade and protection. Madera Negra is leguminous and fixes nitrogen in the soil, thereby providing a nitrogen source for the pepper vines. We propagate through air-layers, production of fruit begins within a year, but for solid production we wait two years. pepper can be harvested throughout the year, though the main harvest comes in September through November.
Black (and green) peppercorns are produced from the unripe whole berries of the pepper plant. Each berry contains a single seed, covered by a very thin layer of pulp and skin. It is the skin and pulp which gives the colour and the special taste to black pepper. We pick our pepper when the seed is developed and cannot be squished flat between the finger and thumb. Berries ripen from the top of the stalk down, so we always try to squish the bottom berries to check for readiness.
White peppercorns are produced from the ripe berries. Ripe berries are red in colour, to produce white peppercorns the berries are soaked in water for a week until the flesh ferments and falls from the seed. the seed is then dried - this dried seed is a white peppercorn. We don't produce white peppercorns, just the black (although for our French and Italian clients we sometimes supply fresh green peppercorns).
To make black pepper first pick the perfect pepper.
Boil in water for 4 minutes, or thereabouts. The boiling cleans the pepper and begins to break down cell walls allowing the pepper to change colour from green to black.
After boiling, the hot pepper is rubbed across a mesh to separate the berries from the stems.
The stems are used as mulch.
The blackening berries are left to dry in the sun.