Believe it or not, that pungent pepper is actually a fruit, which is perhaps even less believable than that the melon is a vegetable. What it really is, however, is a fleshy fruit with a seed inside that, like a vine, grows in elongated clusters on a plant known as pipper nigrum, or black pepper tree.
The plant is native to the Indian subcontinent but is now cultivated in a number of tropical areas, particularly in south-east Asia. They say that money doesn't grow on trees, but that was actually the case for pepper in days gone by. In medieval and even modern times, it was a highly sought-after commodity that was traded like gold.
The black pepper tree is a very slow-growing plant, best described as a liana that only begins to bear fruit after four years of growth. It takes seven years for it to reach its peak size and fertility, but after that, black gold, as the pepper plant used to be called, can continue to produce for another 20 years.
Surprisingly, the pepper plant does not like direct sunlight and therefore thrives mainly in partial shade. The most common method of cultivation is plantation.
The usual height of lianas grown in this way is 4 to 5 metres. However, the plant can grow up to 15 metres if the conditions are right. When it is harvest time, the pepper is harvested, usually by hand, cluster by cluster. The pickers place it in prepared bags and then process it.
The pepper is harvested green to give it its characteristic black colour. It is then spread out in the sun and, through the action of the sunrays and the air, it turns black, shrinks and its flavour intensifies. It is only when the pepper is cracked and has the right ash-black colour that it is the ideal time to pack and ship it. Perhaps straight to your table.