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Like salt, pepper was once taken for granted on North American tables.  But these days, there is such a variety of fresh spices to be found in supermarkets, health food stores, and bulk food stores, that it’s hard not to notice how much these flavourings add to our food.  In addition, studies show that many of our long-enjoyed spices have actual health benefits.  Many seasonings act as a tonic, helping the liver to rid the body of toxins.

It’s hard to imagine how bland the European diet must have been before spices were imported from the Far East.  Pepper was a luxury item for the rich and considered to have medicinal value in the Middle Ages. 

The active ingredient piperine, responsible for the spicy effect on the palate, has been shown to increase absorption of many nutrients, including selenium, beta-carotene, and Vitamin B.  (
The black pepper plant, piper nigrum, originated in India and is grown in tropical countries today.  Top quality pepper comes from the Tellicherry region of India , and boasts the greatest size and flavour.  The disadvantage of these 5mm peppercorns, however, is that they may be difficult to grind in most peppermills.  Use of a small mortar and pestle is recommended for large peppercorns, while the smaller, less expensive peppercorns will grind easily in most good quality pepper mills.
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Decades ago pepper was usually purchased in its ground form, and typically did not have a lot of flavour or freshness.  Improved drying and storage techniques have made it possible to find peppercorns with vibrant freshness; even purchasing it in cellophane packaging can be a safe way to save money without losing quality.  Once you bring peppercorns home, store them in an airtight container (like a small mason jar) in a dark cupboard until needed.  Pre-ground spices do not keep as well.  Grind just prior to use.  Whole peppercorns can be used in pickling and in flavoring vodka.

Many different types of pepper mills are available, and usually you can try them out before deciding to purchase.  Burr grinders are most costly but will last indefinitely and come with a lifetime guarantee.  Some types are operable with one hand, while others are battery operated.  Some have an adjustable grinder that can achieve a continuum from a cracked peppercorn texture to a finely ground pepper.  

One other consideration when shopping for a pepper mill is, how easily can it be refilled?  If the entrance for the peppercorns is the same as the exit, refilling could be time consuming.  If there is a sizable slot at the top of the mill for refilling, then you can be reasonably sure that the fresher peppercorns will remain at the top while the older ones are being ground.

Don't forget to add plenty of pepper to marinades, meats, and sauces. You can hardly go wrong, and it never hurts to add some extra just before serving! Don't be stingy with the pepper, because it's best to use it at its optimal freshness and replace it when you run out.
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