Black pepper and its origins

Black pepper (Piper nigrum L.)

The black pepper plant cultivated in Brazil represents a different cultivation from the one commonly used by other countries. In fact, the difference lies in its peculiar and easily recognizable organoleptic characteristics, among which the typical aroma and the colour of the pulp.

The Brazilian pepper has an aroma particularly appreciated in some Italian Regions, especially for the production of fresh sausage. It isn’t particularly spicy and after being ground the pulp is yellow to greenish. It isn’t recommended for the production of mortadella or salami, as it frequently causes phenomena of detachment of the pericarp, sometimes causing unpleasant colouring of the meat with a black-green aura. The loss of the pericarp causes many berries to appear completely or partially without external peel, therefore of an average lighter colour.

Brazilian pepper on the market, whether B1 (Brazilian Black Pepper grade 1 – apparent “declared” specific weight: 560 g/l minimum, apparent “real” specific weight: around 550 g/l), B2 ( Black Pepper Brazil grade 2 – apparent “stated” specific weight: 500 g/l minimum) or BASTA (Brazil Asta), is considered a semi-finished product. In fact, it contains a significant percentage of sticks, stones and other heavy contaminants. The presence of Salmonellae is also statistically high, despite the fact that in Brazil has been set a couple of years ago a “ban” to wash the raw material using river water, which is not subject to any specific purification treatment.

The original Brazilian pepper is a suitable product for grinding, after appropriate cleaning and sanitization to remove pathogens that may be present, or to be used as an ingredient in products that will undergo suitable thermal treatment of pasteurization or cooking.

In terms of sails, in recent years this pepper has been economically desirable since the United States, which have always been the first market for Brazilian pepper, have reduced consumption precisely because of the numerous import problems due to the presence of Salmonellae, with consequent blocks operated by the FDA.

Black pepper from India

India produces around one million tons of spices per year, 90% of which are destined for consumption on the domestic market and only the remainder are destined for export.

This origin is certainly the best known in Italy and in most of the world, traditionally renowned for its organoleptic characteristics and above all for its exceptional experience in the processing and cleaning of this product. The fame probably comes from the fact that India was the first country in the world to offer a clean product at the origin, defining specific quality standards. The following definitions are known to all and represent the subject of law in India:

MG-1 – Malabar Garbled, Grade 1. (95% of the grains have a diameter of not less than 3.25 mm and have an apparent specific weight of 550 g / l minimum);

TGEB – Tellichery Garbled Extra Bold. (95% of the grains have a diameter of 4.25 mm and have an apparent specific weight of 530 g / l minimum);

TGSEB – Tellichery Garbled Special Extra Bold (95% of the grains have a diameter of 4.75 mm and have an apparent specific weight of 530 g / l minimum);

It should be noted that the granulometry tests must be conducted in a standard manner using sifters with round holes.

Lastly, in order to extend the range of offers, on the international market you can also purchase a Malabar 500 g / l, which, unlike the above mentioned qualities, presents a greater quantity of “light berries” (grains that have reached apparently normal dimensions, but which are practically empty inside) and “pinhead” (very small grains, not developed), and which is of varied size because it is not calibrated.

The Malabar 500 g / l and the MG-1 are usually used for the production of black pepper powder for industrial use, which normally has a slightly dark color especially in the first case, due to the high content of light berries and pinheads.

The TGEB is normally used in the production of salami, while the TGSEB, being of a larger caliber, is particularly suitable for the production of mortadella or those meat products where it is preferred, for purely aesthetic reasons, the presence of a well visible grain on the inside of the slice.

In recent years with the progressive intensification of Vietnamese pepper production, Indian exporters have been authorized by the Government of New Delhi to import this product from Vietnam without applying any customs duty, solely in order to work it and then carry out a subsequent re-export. This possibility gave birth to a more or less legal practice: when there is a great disparity in price between the Vietnamese and Indian product, the exporters of this latter country buy pepper from abroad, they work it according to their own standards and then sell it with the classification of Indian product, in order to obtain even more advantageous prices. Therefore, it’s not certain that buying black pepper directly from an Indian exporter is automatically a guarantee of the origin of the product.

Black pepper from Vietnam

In the last ten years Vietnam has represented a new reality on the international pepper market, exerting an increasingly important influence on the world scenario. The success that has led this Asian state to become the world’s leading black pepper exporter (with about 85,000 tons per year) is mainly due to two reasons: on the one hand a predisposition, both for the climate and for farming habits and traditions, to cultivate pepper; on the other, an almost nonexistent consumption on the domestic market.

Initially, exports from Vietnam consisted exclusively of the product FAQ (Fair Average Quality) with an apparent specific weight equal to 500 or 550 g / l nominal, synonymous with semi-finished raw material capable of containing any type of contaminant inside it. However, the progressive increase in Vietnamese production has led the world’s biggest pepper dealers, including of course some Indian export companies, to open their own processing plant in Vietnam, in order to offer properly cleaned products. Over the last three years, the Vietnamese industry has also started the production of machines specifically designed for pepper cleaning, based on Indian know-how and also allowing local companies to offer a partially or completely cleaned product. However, it must be said that, to date, only very few producers are able to offer a finished product that is really “ready for use”.

Currently the Vietnamese producers are able to offer, in addition to the aforementioned semi-finished FAQs (from 500 to 550 g / l), practically the same calibers produced by the Indians with the following denominations:

VGEB (Vietnam Garbled Extra Bold) equivalent to the Indian TGEB;

VGSEB (Vietnam Garbled Special Extra Bold) equivalent to the Indian TGSEB.

It is to be noted that for this reason on the technical sheets of some importers black pepper is described as “TGEB type” or “TGSEB type”, meaning that it is a product with the same granulometry of the Indian TGEB or TGSEB.

Speaking of quality, Vietnamese pepper is characterized by its considerable size and higher content of piperine compared to the one of other countries, although it has an aroma which is very similar to the Indian pepper.

In Vietnam there are also systems of “Steam Washing”, a process that consists of washing the pepper using water vapor, followed by the subsequent dry out of the product. This treatment is carried out to eliminate any superficial molds that may be present, to dissolve pieces of dirt or other impurities, and to guarantee the absence of Salmonellae. The use of steam has been changed by the Indian tradition of washing black pepper, made with the use of cold water.

It is to be noted that often the name “Steam Washed” is mistakenly confused with the “Steam Sterilization”, or the sanitization (improperly called “sterilization”) steam. In reality, the first method, very cheap and performed using machines of simple design, guarantees a modest reduction of the microbial load (which is around one million ufc/g), but it doesn’t give sufficient warranties regarding the absence of other potentially pathogenic microorganisms (E.Coli, Lysteria etc.). Vice versa, steam “sterilization” allows to reach total bacterial charge values ​​lower than 50,000 ufc/g, or even less depending on the different needs of the customer, with a total removal of potentially pathogenic germs. Furthermore, steam sterilization has the effect of inhibiting the enzymatic activity, something that is not well known by the market but certainly very useful.

Black pepper from Lampong

It comes from the Lampong region on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, and is not well known in Italy. The largest market is the United States, due to the fact that it is almost exclusively used for grinding. In fact it is a small-sized pepper, with a strong pungent aroma and greyish color when ground.

The traditional commercial qualities are the Lampong FAQ 500 g / l, the Lampong FAQ 550g / l and the Lampong ASTA (product cleaned up with an apparent specific weight of about 570 – 580 g / l). Let’s remember that FAQ means “Fair Average Quality”, which corresponds to a semi-finished product with the presence of foreign bodies and contaminants of various kinds.

The pepper originating in Lampong, due to its organoleptic and technical characteristics, can not easily be marketed on the Italian market.

Black Pepper from Sarawak

It comes from the region of Sarawak, Island of Borneo (Malaysia). The harvest is held from April to September, with a peak of production in the months of May and June. Sarawak produces about 25,000 tons per year, 90% of which is exported.

This is a medium-sized pepper, very aromatic, with grains of light yellow pulp. It is very popular in Japan, where its prices are usually higher than those of other origins. Considering this and the limited quantity produced, it is easy to understand how the Land of the Rising Sun is the main market for this type of black pepper, although in some periods of the year it has an accessible cost and therefore can also be bought in Europe, both for the grinding and for the packaging.

Commercially you can find on the market the qualities called “Brown label” (12% maximum humidity – apparent specific weight: 570-580 g / l), “Yellow label” (14.5% maximum humidity – apparent specific weight: 550 gr / lt) and the “Black label” (15% maximum humidity – apparent specific weight: 500-520 g / l). There are also other different selections, such as the “Purple label” and the “Gray label”, which are to be considered as raw material or not worked at all, not destined  to an European market.

A curiosity: the traditional practice of washing pepper is with cold water, passing it in boiling water and re-drying it again, which gives the berries a shiny and bright appearance, visually very appreciable.

Black pepper origin Madagascar Black pepper origin Sri Lanka

These two countries offer a small-sized black pepper, suitable for grinding, after which a fairly dark powder is obtained. Imports from these origins, usually very modest, are usually carried out by small operators who, wanting to typically buy cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cloves from Madagascar, do not however have sufficient consumption to load a “single product” container, so they are forced to buy some black pepper to complete the shipment.

Overall, the original product of Sri Lanka and Madagascar has little value and little interest on the Italian market.

Black pepper other origins
Black pepper is grown in many countries in addition to those already mentioned, including Thailand, China, Ecuador and Honduras. In all cases the quantities produced are small and used in production countries, only exceptionally exported.

Ecuador produces about 3000 tons of pepper per year (such a small amount that it doesn’t have any relevance on the international market), but using a unique method of its kind. The berries are harvested when they’re still immature, that is when they are green, and immersed in boiling water – followed by appropriate drying. In this way a black pepper with a characteristic taste is obtained, with a low bacterial load but characterized by a high number of grains without the pericarp.

Honduras also has a small production of black pepper, of little commercial value.

White pepper (Piper nigrum L.)

White pepper from Muntoq (Indonesia)

The Muntoq white pepper is certainly the best known and famous on the Italian and world market. It is produced on the island of Bangka (otherwise known as Banka) located in the Java Sea near the southeast coast of Sumatra and Borneo. The traditional process consists of immersing fresh pepper harvested when it is fully ripe (when the berries have turned red) in water for a period of about a week. During this time a natural enzymatic process is activated and fermentation phenomena that alter the taste and the smell of pepper, making the aroma unique and typical. In the next phase of the process, the pepper is peeled by a slight rubbing, as the pericarp is already almost completely detached from the maceration, and finally laid on the ground and left drying in the sun.

The commercial qualities found on the international market are the white pepper Muntoq FAQ, the Muntoq “Double Washed” and the Muntoq HPS (Hand Picked Selection). The differences between one quality and the other lie substantially in the percentage of black berries present and in the granulometry, usually larger in the most valuable grades (ie the last two mentioned). It is important to underline the fact that, compared to the past, the quality and selection of the Indonesian product has deteriorated considerably, and that nothing has been done by local producers and exporters to try to improve the degree of cleanliness of white pepper, for example through the use of mechanical equipment.

The white pepper originating in Indonesia is particularly appreciated by some salami factories for its typical “cowshed-like” aroma, which sometimes can also be considered unpleasant, even if obviously once mixed with the meat it takes on a different fragrance. After being ground it takes on a beautiful straw yellow color.

Muntiq has been widely used in the past, but today its consumption is falling sharply due mainly to its high cost, not offset by better processing compared to other origins such as Brazil and China, which have very similar organoleptic characteristics. Like any other origin, in fact, the white pepper that comes from Indonesia in Europe must necessarily be subjected to cleaning processes designed to remove the many naturally occurring impurities such as sticks, pebbles, vegetable and plastic fibers, fragments of plants, peels and more.

Pepe bianco origine Sarawak

In all similar to the Muntoq white pepper, both for the type of processing undergone and for its organoleptic characteristics, it is produced in the region of Sarawak, Island of Borneo (Malaysia), not far from the island of Bangka.

It is known in Italy under the name of “Blue Label”, which basically corresponds to a quality FAQ, but it is not imported a lot because of the very high cost. The best qualities are represented by the “Green Label” and above all by the “Cream Label”, the equivalent of the Muntoq HPS white pepper.

There are also the qualities “Orange” and “Gray” label, products to be considered as agricultural raw materials, therefore of little interest.

The data presented by the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture indicate that in 2007 only 30 tons were sold in Italy, and no quantity in the first 7 months of 2008, thus confirming the negligible importance of this origin for the market of our country.

White pepper from China

Produced in the Henan peninsula, Chinese white pepper has only been commercially known for some years now. The quality has not yet been sufficiently standardized, so it is frequent to find lots of goods that present an excessively unpleasant smell, mainly due to the fact that it has been soaked in too much water, consequently exaggerating fermentation and enzymatic action. Therefore, even when the product may appear attractive from an economic point of view, we must always take into account the risk that may present unpleasant aroma and taste; in addition, the Chinese white pepper must always be subjected to rework and cleaning, with obvious price increases.

However, it remains a commercially interesting product. If the harvest is sufficient to cover domestic needs, China is able to offer white pepper at very competitive prices; moreover, if you are lucky enough to come across a properly produced set, the organoleptic characteristics are completely comparable to the white pepper of more “noble” origins, ie the Muntoq and the Sarawak.

White pepper from Brazil

Although made in limited quantities (about 2,000 tons per year) the white pepper of Brazilian origin is certainly valid and respectable. It is typically processed between October and November by soaking it in water, that, in compliance with the latest government regulations, must no longer be freely drawn from rivers and/or torrents more or less polluted, which leads to obvious positive effects on the quality of the product, even from a microbiological point of view.

The organoleptic characteristics of the Brazilian pepper, as well as the straw yellow color to the grinding, are very similar to the product of origin Muntoq or Sarawak, also because the production methods are substantially the same.

On the market can be found the quality W1 (White Pepper Grade 1) and W2 (White Pepper Grade 1), which differ primarily for the color (yellowish white in the first, yellowish white – greyish – brownish in the second), humidity (13 % for W1 and 14% for W2) and the content in dark grains (1% maximum for W1 and 2% for W2)

The two qualities basically offered are W1 (white pepper grade 1) and W2 (white pepper grade 2). In recent years it has been possible to appreciate a progressive increase in the presence of dark berries, probably due to the need to produce at lower costs, which did not help increase the accuracy of the selection made manually. It must however be said that the presence of black berries does not affect the organoleptic characteristics of the product, as these also underwent the necessary fermentation treatments. The problem, if we can call it like that, is limited to a purely aesthetic fact.

Similar to other origins, even Brazilian white pepper must undergo mechanical processing before use, even if it is intended for grinding. The presence of potentially dangerous foreign bodies (such as stones, glass, metal) or unwanted substances (hairs, various fibers, plant parts) is in fact a completely normal phenomenon in the original product.

This origin must also undergo mechanical processing before distribution, both in whole grains and in powder form. Otherwise it would not be accidental the presence of heavy foreign bodies (stones, metals, glasses, etc.) and light foreign bodies (fibers, hairs, parts of pericarp, etc.).

The Brazilian white pepper represents a valid alternative to the Muntoq pepper, offering greater guarantees of selection and completely comparable organoleptic standards.

White pepper origin Vietnam

Produced in large quantities from dried black pepper of high specific weight (from 580 to 620 and above g / l), it is soaked for about ten days, sometimes with the fraudulent addition of enzymes in order to speed up the process of natural fermentation and reduce production times. During this short period the pericarp is soaked with the almost complete detachment of the pericarp, however assisted by the use of rudimentary machines once the soaking is complete. At the end of this processing phase, the product is of a light brown color, and smells truly disgusting. The pepper is spread on the ground to be dried in the sun, and then washed with hydrogen peroxide. This last intervention bleaches the product, at least superficially, also breaking down the naturally occurring bacterial load.

Since the initial raw material is represented by dried black pepper, the Vietnamese white pepper retains a smell and a taste that can be traced back to this product, despite the undergone fermentation process. Moreover, the internal pulp of the grains acquires a white-greyish color, which is evident with the grinding, and which is different from the straw-yellow color of the white pepper produced “traditionally”.

These particular organoleptic characteristics make it a product particularly appreciated by those who do not like the typical aroma of white pepper.

Vietnamese white pepper is on the market as a quality FAQ and Double Washed. Similarly to all other origins, it must be mechanically worked and cleaned in Europe before being distributed or ground.


White pepper origin India – origin Thailand

Indian and Thai pepper have no commercial value in our country, also due to the very poor diffusion.

The pepper produced in India is obtained by mechanical decortication starting from black pepper, from which it retains most of its organoleptic characteristics. It has a light beige color. Its consumption is almost exclusively limited to India, and very few are exported. To demonstrate this, just think that the Indian Ministry of Agriculture has reported an export to Italy of 18 tons a year in 2007, and none in 2008. Even the white pepper produced in Thailand is hardly sufficient to meet local needs, so exports are, except in exceptional cases, practically nonexistent.


The typical “cowshed-like” smell of white pepper produced by “traditional” methods is due to some of the components of volatile oil. Out of a total of 22, only a few are responsible for intense smells: for example, 3-methylindole is responsible of the smell of pig feces, 4-methylphenol of the smell of horse stench, and another responsible is “scatolo” ( whose pungency is increased by the simultaneous presence of p-cresol).

These aromatic components develop from the biochemical processes that occur during fermentation. In order not to incur excessively harsh or in any case altered aromas, it is necessary to frequently change the water used for soaking, as well as to dry the product in a very short time.

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