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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Black Pepper

From times immemorial, Black Pepper was a major component in world trade and continues to be very important even today. It also played a major role in world history. Voyages undertaken to distant lands were primarily  in search of pepper and other spices. Chance  discovery of the Americas and their colonisation by the European powers could be attributed to this very much sought after commodity. Provenance of black pepper on one hand brought riches to India but on the other hand it proved disastrous, for the sub continent got annexed eventually. India is the only country where this was grown from ancient times because of which the country had trade relationships with the Arabs, the Jews, the Roman Empire and the Chinese. Black Pepper was referred to as Black Gold then. The ships used to sail for Rome, laden with Pepper and other spices in exchange for Gold. The stuff used to be carried to other parts of Europe by land route even from the Arabian countries. It is said that the long trade between India and Rome resulted in depletion of the Roman Gold reserves to an all time low. Hoards of Roman Gold Coins discovered from the coastal areas of South India seem to support the above observation.

Apart from Black Pepper India is/was a producer of lot many other spices such as Cloves, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Nutmeg etc. Spices other than Black Pepper are widely grown elsewhere in South East Asian countries as well. May 20, 1498 would be considered as a black day for the Indians when the Portuguese explorer Vasco-da-Gama landed on the shores of South India near the port of Calicut (now Kozhikode). This saw Portugal establishing its trading centres on the Indian Soil and extending its business empire through out  South East by the turn of the 16th century. Portugal thus enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the spice trade. The other European powers followed suit and headed towards the East. By the 17th century, apart from the Portuguese, the Dutch, British, Danes and the French could also establish their ware houses for buying and stocking spices in various coastal areas of India. Eventually this paved the way for the colonisation of the Sub Continent.

We too have some Pepper Vines, at home in Kerala,  growing on Mango and Areca Nut trees/palms.  Kerala (South western part of India), because of the favourable climatic conditions had been the home for Black Pepper from ancient times. However, at our home, the growth is not very encouraging due to inadequate care. Still some of the vines do produce bunches of pepper adequate for home consumption. On my recent visit, I found one of the vines having long bunches of the fruit. I thought of using them for pickles. On examination I found some fruits having turned pink. This is supposed to be an indication that the fruits are ripe enough to be harvested. If they are left out, birds get attracted and cause damage. However my plans of having some pickles were thwarted as by this time the seeds inside would have become harder and unsuitable for the purpose. Nevertheless I decided to pluck the bunches and did so by hand, standing under the vine. When the bunches became unapproachable, I used a ladder to climb up and pull them down. The yield was around 3 kgs which were put to dry in the Sun.

When the small round fruits completely dry out, they look black. The outer skin develops wrinkles and becomes course/rough. If the outer skin is removed, the white seed will peep out. This when powdered is known as “white pepper”. However, removal of the black skin causes deterioration in the medicinal properties of the seeds. Similarly there are other variants such as Red and Green. The red/green berries are picked and compelled to retain their colours through chemical processes.
Apart from their use as preservatives, as spice, for seasoning and on our dining tables, they possess immense medicinal properties. They are often  used for the treatment of Cholera and Bronchitis. Researchers have also found out that they help in the reduction of body fat. Capsaicin, an element contained in Black Pepper which is responsible for the pungent taste, is said to induce fat cells to disintegrate. Therefore they are supposed to be able to control/cure Cancer, Gastric Ulcers and Arthritis. Needless to say that it is desirable to increase the intake of Black Pepper and also as a substitute for Chillies.
Soon we may see them in a capsule form, prohibitively priced and some multinational companies claiming their patents.
We have a betel vine at home which looks somewhat similar to the Pepper vine. Here is a photograph for comparison.