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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Foraging Pink Peppercorns- and the Difference Between Different Types of Pepper

Some people, like my husband, think everything tastes better with ketchup.
Other people, like myself, think everything tastes better with salt.
My uncle Jay, on the other hand, thinks that there isn't a single thing in the world that doesn't taste good with pepper on it. In fact, his motto is "Nothing can ever have too much pepper." Before tasting anything, he'll put some freshly ground black pepper onto it.
See, I'm not that extreme. I don't put pepper on everything in the world. Just most things. And I do taste my food before adding pepper.
Usually.
And pepper, like all spices, I've discovered, can end up being rather expensive. (I recently noticed just how much money I spend on spices... Not fun!)

I was very happy to discover that pink peppercorns grow near me- I now use them to replace nearly half my pepper in my cooking, cutting my cost of pepper in half.

"Wait- what are pink peppercorns?" you probably want to know.

Well, I'll tell you one thing- they're not just another variety of peppercorn.

In fact, they're not even related to black pepper. Or white pepper. Or green pepper. (All of whom are actually the same exact plant.) Or red pepper.

This is getting confusing.
How many types of pepper are they anyhow?

Ok, so lets start with the vegetable, the pepper, and their specific variety- the hot pepper. They're in the genus Capsicum, in the Solanaceae family, known as the nightshade family. They're native to America, and closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and tobacco. The nightshade family is one of the more common allergens. These grow on low annual plants.

But people who avoid nightshades can still have black pepper, as black pepper is just about as unrelated to cayenne pepper and bell pepper as a turtle is unrelated to a human. The only thing black pepper has in common with bell peppers, other than the name, is that they're both plants. And flowering plants. That's about it.
Black pepper, called Piper Nigrum in Latin, is a flowering vine, native to South India. These peppercorns grow in a cluster, and are green when unripe, red/orange when ripe. They've got a think red coating over a white seed, and when dried, they turn black, becoming the peppercorns we're familiar with.
White peppercorns are black peppercorns with their red coating removed, either before or after drying. Green peppercorns are unripe peppercorns.

In my local spice shop, there is a specialty spice blend called "The Four Seasons Pepper Blend" containing white, black, green, and pink peppercorns.

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But pink peppercorns are not related to the other three peppers in the Four Seasons Pepper blend. Because while those are Piper Nigrum, pink peppercorn is Schinus molle in Latin, and again, completely unrelated both to black pepper and to bell pepper/chili pepper. Completely as in completely, completely, all the way up the family tree, not even with a common ancestor.

You know what they are related to?

Sumac. Yea, that other spice that grows near me and probably grows near you as well. They're both in the Anacardiaceae family- they're close cousins. Not first cousins, but second cousins.

But let me backtrack for a second.

That four seasons pepper blend in the grocery store? I'd looked at it, but never really bought it. I saw no need for paying extra for some specialty pepper. Though I must admit, I was intrigued when I saw it- I'd known about white peppercorns and black peppercorns, but it was the first time I had seen green or pink peppercorns.

Then one day, I was walking down the street, back from a foraging walk that I had taught, when I saw something that looked like a peppercorn, hanging from a tree.
But it was pink.
But it looked like a peppercorn!
Eh...
I pushed it out of my head.

But every day when I'd come back from my foraging walks, I'd pass that strange looking pink peppercorn type thing.
Was that pink peppercorns? Like in that pepper blend?
Maybe. Who knows?
No way to tell, right?

Well, I wanted to do an experiment. Pepper has a spicy smell. Surely pink peppercorns would smell spicy too, right?

I picked a pink berry from the tree, and tried crushing it. But some thin, pink stuff flaked off, and I was left with a white crumbled seed. Which was soft enough to crush. So I did.
Guess what?
It smelled peppery!
First clue- it looks peppery.
Second clue- it smells peppery.

Guess it was time to do further research on this plant and discover if yes, it truly was pink peppercorns.

I picked a cluster or two, and took them home.

Where I discovered that- guess what- it IS pink peppercorns! My first hunch was correct! Awesome!


So, how did I know it was pink peppercorns? How would you identify pink peppercorns if they grow near you? How do you forage pink peppercorns?

Well, to start off with, I guess I should say where pink peppercorns grow.
They originally are from South America, the Peruvian Andes, specifically. Which is why another name for pink peppercorns is Peruvian peppertree in addition to American pepper, escobilla, false pepper, molle del Peru, pepper tree, peppercorn tree, Californian pepper tree, pirul and Peruvian mastic.
I need to interject and say that there is another tree, closely related to this, also called pink peppercorns, Schinus terebinthifolius in Latin, also known as Brazillian pepper, which some eat, but others recommend avoiding, as they claim its toxic. You can read more about it here, then make your own decision... but that's another plant than the one I'm talking about here, whose edibility, as far as I know, is not disputed.
Anyhow, back to where they grow. Originally from South America, they're now grown around the world, usually cultivated and planted ornamentally. But in many parts of the world, they've escaped cultivation and are now an invasive species. 
There's a good chance these grow near you, no matter where you live.

What do pink peppercorns look like?
Well, they are berries officailly. But not the juicy kind. They're drupes- berries that grow with one large seed on the inside. This seed is wrinkled and either white or light brown, and there is a thin, almost papery like outer pink bit of "fruit", which has a fruity taste.

The seed, though, has a somewhat bitter, somewhat spicy taste. Bitter like black pepper, but less spicy though. And when you eat the whole berry together, you get sweet, bitter, and spicy all in one go.

These berries grow in clusters on stems, much like grapes do.



So, remember how I mentioned that these pink peppercorns are related to sumac? Well, its relevant because one of the ways you know this is a pink peppercorn tree is that it has similar leaves to sumac.
Or rather, leaflet.
Because when you look at pink peppercorn's leaves, it looks like you have a bunch of narrow, oval, smooth edged leaves with a central vein on each leaf, growing off a central stem, each leaf not exactly opposite each other.


Except that officially, those leaves are really leaflets, and the whole thing is just one compound leaf.

Look at the leaves/leaflets on this sumac plant below- see how its a similar idea- leaflets with a central vein growing nearly opposite each other, but not 100%, down one main stem. 


Cousins, I tell ya. Can't you see the familial resemblance? They both have Grandpa's eyes.

Anyhow, so the narrow, alternate leaflets.
You know how they grow? 
They remind me of a weeping willow almost, because when you see the tree, you'll notice that the leaves droop down towards the ground, as do the clusters of peppercorns.


The Peruvian peppercorn tree is an evergreen tree, so no matter when you find it, you'll see these distinctive leaves.
The tree grows up to 50 feet tall, but you'll often find them shorter. The shorter they are, the better, because then you don't have to reach above your head, swinging your arms like a maniac, trying to grab hold of those elusive clusters of pink peppercorns, in front of a large audience. Not that I would know anything about that anyhow...
The trunk of the pink peppercorn tree is bumpy and dark brown, and possibly gnarled.

As far as I know, there are no poisonous lookalikes to this pink peppercorn tree. The closest you have to that is the schinus terebinthifolius, which looks different in the sense that its leaflets are much wider than on the schinus molle- they're nearly round.

I harvested my pink peppercorns in the summer, but I noticed they were there on the branches for a long time before I actually picked them, so I don't know when exactly is the ideal time to pick them. What I do know is that I just discovered a pink peppercorn tree in my community, and there aren't peppercorns on the tree at the moment, only flowers. (This is what the flowers looked like.) I was able to tell that it was schinus molle also by the drooping leaves, and by the fact that even the flowers smelled peppery.

I make my own 3 seasons pepper blend now, with 1 part black pepper, 1 part white pepper, and 2-3 parts pink peppercorns, and use this in place of black pepper in nearly all recipes now. I don't use green peppercorns in mine because that's a specialty item that I can't get easily or cheaply; my point is to make a mix to save money; I don't need to mimic the 4 seasonings blend exactly.

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Pink peppercorns are often used in desserts and other specialty gourmet dishes. I love being able to pick my own things easily and make gourmet dishes with free stuff!

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I think it's easy to say that pink peppercorns are my favorite foraged food. Or at least the one I use most often.

I'm so happy I figured out that those berries I was passing all the time not only were edible, but could help save me money, by replacing an item I was spending money on already.

Did you know that pink peppercorns, black pepper, and cayenne pepper weren't at all related to each other?
Ever eat or cook anything with pink peppercorns? Ever see the "Four seasons pepper blend" in the grocery store? Have you used it?
Do you recognize this tree? Have you seen it growing near you?
From this description, would you feel confident enough to forage it on your own?
Any wild edibles you saw on a regular basis, and figured out it was edible in the same way I figured out that these pink peppercorns were edible?

15 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. They're already dry from the tree, in my experience.

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this and all your good research! I also noticed these beautiful "berries" on trees near my home. So glad to know what they are! can't wait to use them

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  3. Thanks so much for all this great info and research! so glad to know the beautiful pink "berries" in the trees near my home are edible and useful, can't wait to try them

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  4. Wow so awesome I saw these last summer and wondered if I could use them. Thanks for the info

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  5. Hi. I have a giant one of these trees growing in my garden in Mexico, but this is the first post I've seen that says they are totally good to eat. I really want to, but the overwhelming theory is that they might be toxic. Hmm...what to do? It's definitely the same tree you describe. Thoughts please.

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  6. It's good to know that pink peppercorn is related to cashews, so it isn't safe for people allergic to cashews (or tree nuts in general).

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  7. People likely think they are toxic because they are closely related to cashew.

    Any person with a severe nut allergy, particularly cashews and pistachios, could die if they unknowingly ingest pink peppercorns sprinkled on a dish.

    That is likely why some consider pink peppercorns to be toxic. They were likely allergic and didn't realize they were eating poison.

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  8. Just found one of these trees on my block. Heaven! The essential oil is most heavenly. If like to infuse an oil or just harvest and store. Will they mold? Hire best to store?

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  9. We have one of these trees in our backyard and love it. However we just got a new puppy and he eats the fallen berries, gets a stomachache then throws up....bummer guess he will learn!

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  10. Thank you for posting this. It's been very informative. My grandmother has had a pepper tree in her back yard all my life (20+ yrs) and everyone's always told me "it's the wrong kind of pepper"you've cleared up a lot.

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  11. We planted one of these in our front yard 20 years ago. Its massive and beautiful and covered in peppercorns which we've never harvested - that's about to change, Thanks!!

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  12. Thank you for the information. I just picked some, both the 'berries' and the leaves. It smells incredible on my fingertips :)

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  13. The leaves and fruit are both toxic, but the dried seeds are not.

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  14. So when should I pick them? Mine are green, pink, and purple at the moment but a lot of the green ones are turning yellow and falling to the ground. Also, it is very strange that the squirrels and birds don't mess with them at all.

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