Black pepper is everywhere, but doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. India, right? Why are we so concerned with where some food comes from but not others? Black peppercorns adorn dinner tables around the world, yet their origins, their terroirs, are rarely discussed. This may be why there are so many myths about black peppercorns. A quick response to the question, “where does black pepper come from,” will highlight just how important this question is. And where better to start than with the two most famous pepper varietals: Malabar Pepper and Tellicherry Pepper.
Where do Peppercorns Come from?
Black peppercorn varietals are particularly place-based: their most distinguishing features tend to derive from where they are grown and processed. The pepper vine in general, piper nigrum, originated in the hills around Kerala, in southwestern India, where is has been dried into black, white, and green pepper for millennia. Learn more about the process here.
Kerala is, of course, the famed the Malabar coast, also called the “Spice Coast:” it’s where many spices, including cardamom and the peppercorn plant, grow, and where many more have been traded for thousands of years. And along the Malabar coast is a little town called Tellicherry.
Tellicherry pepper is simply named for the small, pepper-growing town on the northern coast of Kerala where spice merchants have traded for millennia (it seems Tellicherry is the name we settled on in English. The town itself goes by many names.), particularly for black peppercorns.
To receive and official Tellicherry peppercorn designation, the pepper plant must grow in this region. As an ancient spice terroir, this region is responsible for some of the highest grades of peppercorns– called Extra Bold– which are large, dense, and flavorful. A true Tellicherry peppercorn should be single-estate, that is to say, from a single farm or village, although many are in fact local blends.
Tellicherry peppercorns are sorted first by provenenance then by density and size. The larger and denser the black peppercorn, the more flavorful. Large peppercorns, or Grade 10, are some the hottest available, while Grade 12 are exceptionally rare and packed with flavor.
Tellicherry is the city and Malabar is the region. So logically, Malabar pepper comes from a wider range of places. More accurately, Malabar peppercorns are a blend of similar peppercorns from different regions, selected more because they are alike in appearance, size, and flavor than they are alike in geographic origin. Think of Malabar pepper as a nice, blended scotch or wine. And just like with wine or spirits, “blended” doesn’t necessarily translate to low-quality: the quality of a Malabar peppercorn blend depends very much on the blender themselves.
Telicherry pepper and Malabar pepper are two of the most popular black peppercorn varietals for good reason: they are familiar and reliable table peppers that are packed with pepper flavor. Learning these two means opening yourself to the world of other Indian varietals: Mlamala, Rajakumari, or Shimoga black peppercorns. Better yet, explore the well-rounded flavor of Madagascar black pepper, or the bite of Sri Lankan. You can even try a taste test of several different pepper spices!
And when the day comes the young ones ask, “where do peppercorns come from?” You can respond, “which kind?”