This humble table spice originates from the Indian state of Kerala, which lies on the Malabar Coast. For 1500 years, the only way to transport black pepper was a year-long voyage via China, South-East Asia and India. However, that all changed in the 15th century when long-haul sailing became viable and Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama became the first European to reach India by boat, creating a new faster access route for the higly-prized spice. This catapulted Europe into wealth and soured some international relations along the way.
While black pepper’s effect on world events has been profound, the story of Indigenous mountain pepper – which has been growing wildly in Tasmania and east coast of Australia for thousands of years – is just as fascinating.
Research by Griffith University has found that this ancient bush food known as Tasmannia lanceolata has a multitude of benefits, including antibacterial and antifungal qualities which indicates its potential as a natural food preservative as well as a medicinal agent in the treatment and prevention of microbial diseases.
Just 100 kilometres from Canberra is a mountain pepper farm in Braidwood that belongs to Tim Wimborne and Meraiah Foley. It sits at the base of Mount Budawang in the Budawang Range, surrounded by national park on three sides.
With 1250mm of annual rainfall, cool winters and summers with moderate temperatures, the site’s well-drained soils have provided the perfect setting for this wild pepper to grow for millennia.
While black pepper’s effect on world events has been profound, the story of Indigenous mountain pepper – which has been growing wildly in Tasmania and east coast of Australia for thousands of years – is also fascinating.
Wimborne, a qualified chef, revealed how mountain pepper packs a greater punch compared to the more common black pepper.
“While peppery in flavour, it’s much stronger in heat than regular black or white pepper - up to ten times in strength,” he says. “When you taste it, you feel that it’s peppery; but if you let it sit there on your palate for a while, it changes – even after 20, 30 or 50 seconds. The pepperiness will build and other flavours that weren’t initially evident after you first ate it – especially the citrus flavour – really come out.”
Wimborne named his farm in Garaywaa, after the local Dhurga Aboriginal word for Milky Way.
Budawang Indigenous elder Noel Butler is from the Yuin Nation and speaks the Dhurga language. Through his Nura Gunyu organisation, Butler has dedicated his life to teaching people about Aboriginal culture. Earlier this year, he performed a welcome to country ceremony at Wimborne’s mountain pepper farm in a show of support at his efforts in promoting this ancient bush food.
“It’s a food that grows in uncontaminated soil,” Butler says of mountain pepper. “It’s a great substitute for pepper and much better than it. We have the most poorest soils in the world, which have been developed in this country over millions of years. We have the oldest continent, the second-driest continent in the world and the bush foods have to adapt to the climate, and all these natural chemicals developed to survive in harsh conditions.”
While peppercorns grow predominantly in places like India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, there is a farm in Silkwood, North Queensland, with a latitude similar to those countries, allowing it to produce locally grown pepper.
Since 1986, L&L Pepperfarms, named after brothers Levis and Louis Campagnolo, has been growing pepper and Levis Campagnolo revealed how one vine makes three different varieties.
“Green peppercorns are the immature berries which are not quite as spicy or hot as the black or white pepper,” he says. “The black pepper we grind or sprinkle on our food is what you get if you wait a bit longer. The pepper gets hard inside and you put that out in the sun to dry and it turns black. White pepper is what you get if you wait even longer. The skin of the berry turns red, it becomes very ripe and you put those berries in drums of water for a week. It dissolves the skin and you are left with the white kernel inside, which you leave out in the sun and you dry.”
“The pepperiness will build and other flavours that weren’t initially evident after you first ate it – especially the citrus flavour – really come out.”
Other varieties of pepper include pink pepper, which originates from a South American plant called Schinus Terebinthifolius and while it has peppercorn flavour, it’s slightly different from black peppercorn. Szechuan pepper are not peppercorns either, but are the dried berries of the Chinese prickly ash bush. Cayenne pepper originates from Cayenne in French Guiana and gets its name from the American-English word ‘pepper’ which is used in place of the UK-English ‘capsicum’ or ‘chilli’.
With so many different types available, it’s hard to make a choice – but Campagnolo, whose farm is the only commercial producer of pepper in Australia, is adamant that you can’t beat the locally grown variety.
“The climate up here suits growing pepper, in fact there's quite a few varieties of Indigenous native pepper growing in the rainforest here,” he says. “Our pepper is never more than one year old. Our flavour is unique because it’s fresh. The aroma and the heat is world class. It’s also not steamed, sterilised, and we don’t use pesticides because it’s very hygienically prepared. Lots of people who buy that cheap fine ground black pepper from the supermarket don’t realise that it is all the dregs and skins of the main bulk of the other pepper.”
Matthew Evans explores a mountain pepper farm in the final episode of season 5 of Gourmet Farmer, 8pm Thursday October 3 on SBS and SBS On Demand. Visit the Gourmet Farmer website for recipes, the episode guide and more.
The scent of Tassie’s native pepperberry adds a lovely note to luscious ice-cream. You can make the basic custard, called an ‘anglaise’ in French, in a double boiler, which helps ensure you don’t overcook it.
This puts a twist on the classic pepper sauce, using native pepperberry, and pairs the steak with smoky onion.
These bite-size fried jalapeño peppers pack a punch with habanero and chipotle sauces stirred through the cream cheese filling, and the layer of bacon is a smoky, salty surprise.
Christine Manfield's Tasting India cookbook showcases recipes by home cooks, such as this southern specialty (known as "black chicken fry") by Mrs Meena Meyappan, a food and architecture expert in Tamil Nadu.
Stuffed roasted vegetables are a great make-ahead and reheat dinner. This is an ideal meal for those on a reduced-carb intake plan.