Many Italians left Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and it was one of the largest modern emigrations any country has seen (Ireland was another). Argentina was a popular destination, but so were Brazil, the United States, Uruguay, Canada, Venezuela and Peru. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, an estimated 8.9 million Italians emigrated to the Americas, 7.6 million to other countries in Europe, 300,000 to Africa, 42,000 to Oceania and 13,000 to Asia.
After Italian unification in 1861, the Italian economy improved. However, generations of subdividing plots, poor land management and farming methods and the phylloxera epidemic (microscopic root insect similar to an aphid that wiped out the Italian wine industry in the 1870s), all led to major ecomonic losses for most Italians. As a result, increasing numbers of young Italian men began seeking work abroad, first in France and Switzerland, then in the Americas, as transatlantic shipping became more reliable and less expensive.
Argentina was the preferred destination in the 1870s and 1880s, next Brazil until the turn of the century and, then, the U.S. until World War I. As the great majority of Italian emigrants were economic migrants, it was the availability of work, above all, that dictated their preferred destinations. Argentina was popular, at first, because of geography; farm laborers could find work in Argentina to earn extra income during the Northern Hemisphere winter. As the economy there boomed due to demand for its agricultural products, the need for laborers also grew and Domingo Sarmiento, president of Argentina (1868-1874), encouraged immigration. In 1890 Argentina suffered a severe economic downturn, a financial recession, which also affected its neighbors and the U.S. At the same time, Brazil’s coffee planters were becoming more aggressive in seeking cheap labor. São Paulo began to subsidize passage and lodging for new immigrants. In the 1880s, coffee plantation owners promoted Brazil heavily as a work destination, so a large proportion of Italian emigrants were attracted to Brazil. However, a few years later, word of the ill-treatment of Italian workers in Brazil led to outrage in Italy. This outcry sharply curtailed the number of Italian immigrants to Brazil and helped the numbers increase to the United States.
In contrast to the situation in South America, the U.S. needed cheap labor for its factories, not for farming, and many Italians preferred the life of a factory worker to that of a farm laborer or ranch hand. So the United States absorbed most of the Italian immigrants until after World War I, when a series of anti-immigration laws closed the country to Southern Europeans. After World War II, Italian emigration expanded to places like Australia, but improving economic conditions in Italy would eventually reduce immigration to more stable levels.
The neighborhood of La Boca is known in Argentine history for being one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. It’s port was the entry point for immigrants in the 1900’s and, today, it is known for the rows of brightly painted houses and the tango. Located in the very southern part of Buenos Aires, this area was once a trade center and shipyard. During the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s, the La Boca neighborhood became home to Buenos Aires’ first ‘Little Italy’. This community gave birth to the tango and the dance was celebrated in tango halls, bars and brothels. La Boca was popular for quite sometime, but as the years past, the neighborhood declined. Today, La Boca is mostly frequented by visitors for its famous Caminito Street, tango shows and to catch a world class football game at La Bombonera Stadium. The club was founded in April 1905 by five Italian immigrants.
The main areas of Italian settlement in Brazil were in the southern and southeastern regions, namely the states of São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. Among all the Italians who immigrated to Brazil, 70% went to São Paulo. The rest went mostly to the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais. In 1880, due to the great numbers of Italian immigrants, the Brazilian government created another Italian colony, Caxias do Sul. After initially settling in the government-promoted colonies, many of the Italian immigrants spread into other areas of Rio Grande do Sul seeking better opportunities.
The Italians established many vineyards in the region. Today, the wine produced in these areas of Italian colonization in southern Brazil, is much appreciated within the country though little is available for export. Many Italians also worked in factories (in 1901, 81% of the São Paulo’s factory workers were Italians). The workers established themselves in the center of the city, living in multi-family row houses, and these urban centers gave birth to typical Italian neighborhoods – a Little Italy, (such as Mooca). Other Italians became traders selling their products throughout the region. A common presence on the streets of São Paulo were the Italian boys selling newspapers. Despite the poverty and poor working conditions faced by many Italians in Brazil, over time, most of this population achieved some personal success and changed their low class economic situation. The children of Italians, born in Brazil, often changed their social status as they diversified their field of work, leaving the poor conditions of their parents behind.
St. Vito Festival is one of the most important Italian festivals in São Paulo. It is a celebration in honor of Saint Vito, the patron saint of Polignano a Mare, a city in the Puglia region, in Italy. Many Italian immigrants in Brás, a São Paulo district, came from Puglia. Festa de São Vito is also a time when the Italian community in São Paulo gathers to party and eat traditional food. Other important Italian celebrations in São Paulo are Our Lady of Casaluce, also in Brás (May), Our Lady of Achiropita, in Bela Vista (August) and St. Gennaro, in Mooca (September). As São Paulo grew, so did the Italian community and the St. Vito Festiva. An estimated 140,000 people attend the festival every year.
Italian Influences In Argentine and Brazilian Cuisine
Argentine cuisine has been strongly influenced by Italian cuisine. Italian staple dishes like pizza and pasta are common. Pasta is usually served simply prepared with butter, oil, tomato or bechamel-based sauces. Pizza (locally pronounced pisa or pitsa) more closely resembles Italian calzones than it does its Italian ancestor. Typical Argentine pizzas include pizza canchera (thick crust, tomato sauce, no cheese), pizza rellena (stuffed pizza), pizza por metro (pizza by the meter) and pizza a la parrilla (grilled pizza). The most popular pizza, Argentine fugazza comes from the Italian focaccia (Genoan), but the addition of cheese to the dish (fugaza con queso or fugazzeta) is an Argentine invention. Fainá is a type of thin pizza made with chickpea flour (adopted from northern Italy). The name comes from the Ligurian word for the Italian, farinata.
Nevertheless, pasta surpasses pizza consumption in Argentina. Among them are tallarines (fettuccine), ravioles (ravioli), ñoquis (gnocchi) and canelones (cannelloni). It is common in Argentina for pasta to be eaten with white bread, which is unusual in Italy. This can be explained by the fact that Argentine pastas tend to come with a large amount of tomato sauce (Italian sugo). Sorrentinos are also a local dish with a misleading name (they do not come from Sorrento, but were invented in Mar del Plata). They look like big round ravioli, stuffed with mozzarella, cottage cheese and basil and served in tomato sauce.
Polenta comes from Northern Italy and is very common throughout Argentina. Just like polenta in Italy, this cornmeal dish is eaten as a main course with sauce and melted cheese. Milanesa Napolitana is an Argentine innovation, despite its name, and it consists of breaded meat with cheese, tomatoes and sometimes ham on top of the meat. Pasta frola, a recipe heavily influenced by Southern Italian cuisine, consists of a buttery pastry with a filling made of quince jam or milk caramel (dulce de leche). Argentine ice cream (Spanish Helado; Gelato in Italian) is particularly popular for dessert. Its creamy texture comes from heavy cream and the flavors range from classical chocolate with almonds to Dulce de Leche to kiwi, wine or tangerine. Ice cream was again a legacy of the Italians.
Pizza de Fugazza
Fugazza, a kind of pizza, though it lacks a tomato-based sauce and has a thicker, airy crust. It’s always topped with a pile of sweet onions and sometimes with mozzarella cheese and cooked in a deep pizza pan or cast-iron skillet. Fugazza makes a great appetizer or main dish. You can add other toppings of course – olives, herbs, ham, etc. The onions are typically not pre-cooked in Argentina
Yield: Makes 1 14-inch pizza.
- 2 2/3 cups bread flour
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup warm water (100-105 degrees F)
- 1 large white onion
- 2-3 teaspoons dried oregano
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Thin slices of mozzarella cheese (optional)
Place the warm water in a small bowl. Stir 1 teaspoon sugar into the water and sprinkle the yeast over the water. Set aside for 5-10 minutes, until mixture is bubbly.
Place the flour, olive oil and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix together briefly using the dough hook. Add the yeast/water mixture and begin to knead. The mixture should come together as a soft, stretchy dough, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more flour, if mixture is too wet or add a bit more water, if mixture seems dry, crumbly or overly firm. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until dough is smooth, soft and elastic.
Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise until doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, peel and slice the onion into very thin strips. Place them in a bowl of cold salted water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain onions well and dry them with paper towels.
Once the dough has risen, punch down and shape into a smooth ball. Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a 14-inch pizza pan with 1 inch sides. Place the ball of dough in the middle of the pan and flatten gently with your fingers. Let dough relax for 10 minutes.
Continue to flatten dough in the pan, pushing it toward the sides of the pan, letting it relax in between, until the dough covers the bottom of the pan.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Sprinkle the onions over the top of the dough. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over the onions and sprinkle with the dried oregano.
Place the fugazza in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or until edges start to turn golden brown. If desired, remove fugazza from the oven and top with thin slices of mozzarella cheese and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Return to the oven and bake until fugazza is golden brown and crispy around the edges. Brown onions under the broiler for the last 3 minutes of cooking, if desired. Remove from the oven and cut into slices to serve.
Pizza de Fugazzeta
Fugazzeta is a variation of the popular Argentinian, fugazza, an onion-topped pizza that is very similar to Italian-style focaccia. Fugazzeta is a double crusted version of fugazza, stuffed with cheese and topped with the same sweet onions. Fugazzeta de verdura has all of this plus a layer of sautéed spinach and vegetables.
Yield: 1 12-inch pizza.
- 2 3/4 cups bread flour
- 1/4 cup milk
- 3/4 cup water
- 2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 onion
- 6-8 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup grated aged provolone cheese
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Parmesan cheese
Warm the milk to 100-105 degrees F and place in a small bowl. Stir the sugar into the milk and sprinkle the yeast over. Set aside for 5-10 minutes, until mixture is bubbly.
Place the flour, 1 tablespoon olive oil and salt in the bowl of a standing mixer and mix together briefly using the dough hook. Add the yeast/milk mixture and begin to knead, adding the water gradually. The mixture should come together as a soft, stretchy dough, pulling away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more flour, if mixture is too wet or and add a bit more water, if mixture seems dry, crumbly, or overly firm. Knead for 5-10 minutes, until dough is smooth, soft and elastic.
Oil a bowl and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let dough rise until doubled in size.
While the dough is rising, peel and slice the onion into very thin strips. Place them in a bowl of cold salted water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain onions well and dry them with paper towels.
Once the dough has risen, punch it down and divide into two pieces. Roll each half into a smooth ball. Pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a 12-inch pizza pan or cast iron skillet. Place one ball of dough in the middle of the pan and flatten gently with your fingers. Let dough relax for 10 minutes.
Continue to flatten the dough, pushing it toward the sides of the pan, letting it relax in between, until the dough covers the bottom of the pan. Oil the counter and roll the other piece of dough into a 12-inch circle, letting it relax in between until it holds its shape.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Place the slices of mozzarella cheese over the dough in the pan. Sprinkle the provolone over the mozzarella. Place the other round of dough over the cheese and seal the edges of the two dough circles together.
Top the pizza with the sliced onions. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over the onions and sprinkle with the dried oregano and some Parmesan cheese.
Place the fugazzeta in the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown and crispy. Brown the onions under the broiler for the last 3 minutes of cooking if desired.
Remove from the oven. Let cool for 5-10 minutes before cutting into slices to serve.
Pizza de Fainá
Fainá is a nutty, peppery flatbread (related to the italian flatbread, Farinata) made with garbanzo bean (chickpea) flour. It makes a great appetizer, (especially with toppings), but it’s most often served as an accompaniment to pizza. In fact, topping a slice of pizza with a piece of fainá is a very common practice in both Argentina and Uruguay, where fainá is popular. When pizza and fainá are paired this way it’s called pizza a caballo (horseback pizza).
Fainá is very quick and easy to make and you can find garbanzo bean flour (gluten free) at many natural food stores.
Yield: 1 12-inch flatbread
- 2 1/2 cups garbanzo bean flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2-2 1/2 cups water
In a medium bowl, whisk the garbanzo bean flour together with the salt, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the Parmesan cheese and a generous amount of ground black pepper.
Whisk in 1 3/4 cups of water until the mixture is well blended. Set batter aside for about a half hour, to let the garbanzo flour absorb some of the water.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. When it is hot, place the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a 12 inch pizza pan. Heat the pan in the oven until very hot.
Gradually stir remaining water into the batter mixture until it is thin enough to pour. Remove the hot pizza pan from oven and immediately pour the batter into the pan. The batter should make a thin (about 1/4 inch) layer. Place the pan back in the oven and bake until fainá is golden and crispy (about 8-10 minutes). Cut the faina into pieces and serve.
Italians brought new recipes and new types of food to Brazil that eventually changed Brazil’s cuisine. Aside from the typical Italian cuisine like pizza, pasta, risotto and ossobuco, Italians helped to created new dishes that, today, are typically Brazilian. Galeto (from the Italian Galletto – grilled chicken), Frango com Polenta (Chicken with fried polenta), bife à parmegiana (beef prepared with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese), Catupiry cheese ( a soft, mild-tasting cheese that can be spread over toast, crackers and bread or used in cooking), new types of sausage, such as Linguiça Calabresa and Linguiça Toscana (literally Calabrian and Tuscan Sausage), Chocotone (Panettone with chocolate chips) and many other dishes were created or influenced by the Italian community.
Frango Con Quiabo
Brazilian comfort food – a simple dish of stewed chicken with okra. Okra can be used to thicken certain Brazilian stews, but in this recipe the okra is fried separately and then added to the stew at the very end, a technique that keeps the okra crisp and tender, yet not slimy. Frango con quiabo is often served over a polenta-like corn pudding called angu, as well as over rice (or even both).
Yield: Serves 4.
- 2 whole chicken breasts, cut into serving-size pieces
- Juice of 1 lime
- 3 tablespoons vinegar
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- Salt and pepper
- 2-3 cups fresh okra (or one bag of frozen okra)
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, chopped fine
- 1 bell pepper, chopped fine
- 1 tomato, diced
- 1-2 cups chicken broth
- Angu, for serving, see recipe below
Cut the stems off the okra and cut the okra into half-inch rounds. Place okra in a colander and salt generously, tossing to coat all the pieces with some salt. Season with black pepper. Let okra rest for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
For the marinade, whisk together the lime juice, vinegar, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste.
Place the chicken pieces in a dish or ziplock bag and cover with the marinade, turning chicken to coat. Refrigerate the chicken for at least 30 minutes (chicken can marinate several hours to overnight).
Place 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the okra and fry for about 5 minutes, until the edges start to brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove okra to a plate covered in paper towels, and set aside.
Add the chicken pieces to the same skillet and cook briefly until browned on all sides. Remove to a plate and set aside.
Add the chopped onion, pepper and tomato to the skillet. Cook vegetables until soft and fragrant, about 8-10 minutes.
Add the chicken back into the skillet and add some chicken broth until the chicken is about half covered. Simmer chicken, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Just before serving, add the okra to the chicken. Serve over Angu (creamy polenta) or rice.
A simple Brazilian side dish made of cooked cornmeal, similar to polenta. Angu is traditionally prepared with cornmeal, water and a little salt for flavoring. Chicken or beef broth can replace some of the water to add more flavor. Angu can be very creamy or it can be cooked longer until it’s thick enough to be placed in a mold. A popular way to serve angu is to shape it in a fluted ring mold, then serve the main dish (such as chicken with okra) in the middle of the unmolded cornmeal ring.
- 1 1/2 cups stone ground yellow cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons butter
Bring water and chicken broth to a boil. Slowly stir in the cornmeal.
Season with salt to taste. Cook at a low simmer, stirring frequently, until cornmeal reaches desired consistency, adding more liquid if necessary. Remove from heat, stir in butter and serve.
If using a mold, cook cornmeal until very thick, about 30-40 minutes. Stir in butter. Use 1-2 tablespoons additional butter to grease the inside of a ring mold generously and pour the hot cornmeal into the mold. Let cool for about 10 minutes before gently unmolding. Serves four as side dish.
Bife à Parmegiana
- 4 steaks
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons wheat flour
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 8 tablespoons bread crumbs
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 4 oz mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- Salt to taste
- Oil for frying
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Season the steaks with garlic and salt. Dredge steak in the flour, the beaten egg and breadcrumbs, in that order. Fry in hot oil until golden brown.
Spread some tomato sauce on the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Arrange the steaks side by side in the dish and cover with the remaining sauce and mozzarella slices. Sprinkle oregano on top.
Bake for 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Serve at once.
Chocolate Panettone – Chocottone
Chocottone is the clever name for the chocolate version of traditional Italian panettone. It’s a rich chocolate brioche bread, baked in a high round dome and drizzled with chocolate glaze. Chocolate chips and nuts replace the traditional dried fruits.
- 2 1/4 cups flour, divided
- 2/3 cup water
- 2 tablespoons raspberry jam
- 1 tablespoon instant yeast, divided
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 8 tablespoons softened butter, divided
- 4 tablespoons Nutella, or other chocolate/hazelnut spread
- 6 egg yolks
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons good quality vanilla
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 cup pecans, chopped fine
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup chocolate chips
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon corn syrup
Make the sponge:
Place 1 1/2 cups flour, 2/3 cup water, 2 tablespoons raspberry jam and 1 teaspoon yeast in a small bowl and whisk together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rest for 3 hours.
Make the dough:
In the bowl of a standing mixer add the sponge, 3/4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon yeast. Use the hook attachment to knead the dough until the mixture is smooth and stretchy, about 3-5 minutes.
Add 3 egg yolks, one at a time and knead until dough is smooth, shiny and stretchy.
Cover dough with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
Return dough to the mixer and add salt, vanilla, honey and 1 teaspoon yeast. Knead for 1 minute. Add 3 egg yolks, one at a time, and knead until smooth.
Add the 8 tablespoons softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add the Nutella, 1 tablespoon at a time and continue to knead until dough is shiny, stretchy, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl (about 5 minutes).
Toss the chocolate chips and pecans with 2 tablespoons of flour. Add them to the dough and knead briefly, until just mixed in.
Place the dough in a oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into a ball. Make a small “x” in the top of the dough by snipping it with scissors.
Place dough inside of a 6 inch diameter panettone mold, or use a clean, buttered coffee can lined with parchment paper. Let dough rise in a warm place until triple in size (at least 3 hours).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F for 30 minutes. Place the panettone in the oven and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.
Bake the panettone for about 1 hour, until it has risen high and springs back a little when pressed on top (like a muffin).
Let panettone cool in the pan on a rack.
Make chocolate glaze:
On low heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter with 1 cup chocolate chips. Add 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon corn syrup. While still warm, drizzle icing decoratively over top of panettone .
Store panettone wrapped in plastic for up to 1 week.
This post concludes my articles on the history of the Italian immigrants and their journey to find a better life in the Americas. My next weekly feature will look indepth at the contributions Italians have made world-wide in the arts, cusine and as world leaders. Hope you will look forward to those posts.
- Portland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- California’s Other Little Italies (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- San Francisco’s Italian Community (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- San Diego’s Italian Community (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Milwaukee’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Italians In Texas (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- https://jovinacooksitalian.com/2013/06/14/little-italy-new-orleans-style/Birmingham, Alabama’s “Little Italy” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- West Virginia’s Little Italy Communities (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Baltimore’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Western Pennsylvania’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Philadelphia’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Chicago’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Cleveland’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- New England’s “Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Italian American Neighborhoods – Boston (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Ybor City – Florida’s Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- Little Italy – Manhattan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The “Little Italies” of Michigan (jovinacooksitalian.com)
- The Hill” St. Louis’ Little Italy (jovinacooksitalian.com)
Along with salt, pepper is on nearly every table. Historically significant, pepper is the most common spice in use. Nutritionally beneficial, pepper offers a unique flavor and a variety of uses. It is the third most common ingredient used in cooking behind water and salt. There are a variety of peppercorns commonly used and the spice is versatile in all forms. Peppercorns are the seed berries of the Piper nigrum vine, originating on the Malabar coast of India. Said to be discovered more than 4,000 years ago, peppercorns were cultivated as long ago as 1000 B.C.
The pepper berries grow on bushes that are cultivated to heights of about 13 ft. If the berries were allowed to ripen fully, they would turn red; instead, they are harvested when they are green. Harvesting is done without any mechanical equipment. Workers pick the unripened berries and transport them in large wicker baskets to drying platforms. The berries are spread on these large platforms to dry in the sun over a period of about a week and a half. In their dried state, the green berries blacken to become the peppercorns we use in pepper mills.
Alternatively, the pepper berries can be picked just as they begin to turn red. They are plunged into boiling water for approximately 10 minutes, and they turn black or dark brown in an hour. The peppercorns are spread in the sun to dry for three to four days before they are taken to the factory to be ground. This process is quicker than air drying alone but requires the added step of the boiling water bath.
If white pepper is to be produced, the peppercorns are either stored after they have been boiled or they are harvested and packed in large sacks that are then lowered into running streams for seven to 15 days (depending on location). Bacterial action causes the outer husk of each peppercorn, called the pericarp, to break away from the remainder of the peppercorn. The berries are removed from the stream and placed in barrels partially immersed in water; workers trample the berries, much like stomping grapes, to agitate the peppercorns and remove any remaining husks. Some processors now use mechanical methods to grind off the outer coating to produce decorticated pepper, but many exporters prefer the old-fashioned method.
Black and white pepper are processed in the factory by cleaning, grinding, and packaging. Blowers and gravity separators are used to remove dust, dirt clods, bits of twigs and stalk and other impurities from the peppercorns after they are brought in from the field. Sometimes, treatments are used to eliminate bacteria on the cleaned, dry peppercorns.
Grinding consists of using a series of rollers in a process called cold roll milling to crush the peppercorns. Cracked peppercorns are only crushed lightly to bruise the peppercorns and release their flavor.
Further grinding steps crush peppercorns into coarse and fine grinds of pepper that are packaged separately. A sifter sorts the grains by size, and they are conveyed to packaging stations. Packaging varies widely among processors and includes bags, boxes and canisters for large-volume commercial sales and smaller jars, cans and mills for home use. Packing may also include the blending of pepper with other spices in a variety of spice mixes for preparing sauces, such as, cajun spice, Italian foods, seafood and a range of other specialized blends.
Because pepper is harvested by hand, quality control begins in the field with the careful observations of the harvesters. Bulk importation of peppercorns is monitored, as with all agricultural products, by government inspectors. In the factory, machinery and the steps in the processing or pepper are observed.
Pepper was considered so valuable that unscrupulous suppliers often mixed in mustard husks, juniper berries, and even floor sweepings and ground charcoal to stretch its value. In 1875, the British Sale of Food and Drugs Law imposed restrictions against the selling of adulterated pepper.
Although always prized as a flavor-enhancing spice, the peppercorn first gained fame for medicinal purposes as a digestive stimulant and expectorant. Its hot and pungent flavor causes the membranes inside the nose and throat to exude a lubricating secretion, helpful to those in respiratory distress by acting as an aid to induce coughing. Pepper was also used in an external ointment to relieve skin afflictions and hives.
Black pepper is also an effective deterrent to insects. A solution of one-half teaspoon freshly ground pepper to one quart of warm water sprayed on plants can be toxic to ants, potato bugs, silverfish and even roaches and moths. A sprinkling of ground pepper will also deter insect paths in non-garden areas.
Types of Pepper
Peppercorns (piper nigrum) ground for use on the table and in cooking originally came from India, but is now cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and South America. India is still the major producer of this spice with over half of the product coming from there.
A perennial bush, which often grows wild, is grown on trellises similar to grape vines. The bush has round, smooth jointed stems, dark green leaves and small white flowers. The flowers become the berries. The flowers grow in clusters of up to 150 berries. Grown from cuttings, the bush bears fruit after three or four years until about fifteen years old. Typically, pepper bushes grow best near the equator and some believe the closer to the equator the hotter the peppercorn. From this bush, three types of peppercorn are harvested: black, green and white.
Black peppercorns are the dried berry and the most pungent and strongest in flavor of the three. The berries are picked just before they are ripe and are typically sun dried. As they dry, an enzyme is released which darkens the hull of the berry to anywhere from dark brown to jet black. Within the hull is a lighter seed which causes a variance in the color of the ground pepper. Black pepper comes in many forms; whole, cracked and ground. The ground pepper has varying degrees in size from fine to coarse. Some of the uses are as follows: in whole form for pickling and stocks, cracked for meats and salads and ground for everything else.
Currently the Tellicherry pepper is the most popular. It is named after the port and region, it is gathered from. It is the oldest source of black pepper, though Alleppey and Pandjung are also long time areas for the export of this spice. The Tellicherry peppercorn is larger and darker than others. It has a more complex flavor which is why it is more popular. Tellicherry and Malabar come from the same region in Southwest India. The Tellicherry is picked slightly closer to being ripe and is considered to be slightly better than the Malabar. Malabar has a green hue with a strong flavor.
Green peppercorns are the green berry picked long before they are ripe, which can be freeze-dried to preserve the smooth texture and bright color. While the green peppercorn gives a strong tart punch of flavor to begin with, it does not linger long in the mouth. These can also be pickled for shipment. The berries for the green and black peppercorns are actually picked at about the same time but the green are not allowed to dry. Drying prevents enzymes from activating. Green peppercorns only come packed in brine, water or freeze-dried. Some of the uses are as follows: for meat sauces or for seasoning poultry, vegetables, and seafood.
The United States is one of the largest consumers of black pepper and has a much higher demand for black pepper than white pepper. However, Europeans prefer the white pepper over the black. This peppercorn consists of mature berries that are given a short water bath in order to remove the husks before the remaining seed is sun-dried. The removal of the husk prevents the dark color forming during the drying process. As the berry ripens, it becomes a bright red color. During the drying process, it becomes white. A second way for the white pepper to be harvested is to harvest the green berry, soak it for several days before rubbing off the outer layer. The remaining seed is then either dried for used whole or ground. This pepper has a long drawn out flavor which lingers. White pepper has two forms: whole and ground. Generally white is preferred over black for any dish where the pepper might show, such as in the following uses: white sauces, cream soups and fish or poultry dishes.
These are rare and difficult to find, particularly in the United States. They are the red berries ripened on the vine. Instead of just picking the berries, they are harvested with part of the vine. These are best used within a very short period of time. The red peppercorn has a sweet and mellow flavor in contrast to the pungent strong flavor of the black. Since these are rare in the United States, most recipes calling for red pepper are referring to ground cayenne or red chilies.
Blends and Combinations:
Blending the three types of pepper doesn’t really enhance the flavors; however, there are two blends which can work nicely. Black and green combined add a bit more bite to a dish. Black and white combined makes the flavor linger longer.
Peppercorns can also be blended with other products like garlic, coriander, lemon, shallot and chipotle pepper. A favorite is lemon pepper chicken or fish and the main spice in those dishes come from a combination of lemon and pepper.
There are several varieties of peppercorns which are do not belong to the piper nigrum family. These come from several different types of plants that have a different flavor and should not be used as a substitute. Some are as follows:
Long pepper (piper longum) originates in central Africa but is now also grown in India and Eastern China. The bud fruit is about an inch long and consists of lots of tiny black and gray seeds. The taste is a mild pepper flavor. This was commonly used during the Middle Ages and is best used in sweet, hot recipes that include ginger. Suggestions for use are in uncooked recipes where he flavor won’t be cooked away, such as, fresh fruit salad or coleslaw.
Pink peppercorns (shinus molle) are grown in Madagascar, Mexico and Australia. The pale pink berries are harvested in the summer. Initially this has a pepper flavor but ends tasting sweet. It is good for vegetable and seafood dishes and is not a good replacement for regular pepper. It can cause an allergic reaction in children. The schinus terebinthifolius species, also used as a pink pepper, looks similar to a holly tree and is grows in parts of the United States. There is an additional pink peppercorn which comes from the Baies rose plant (euonymus phellomanus) which is also from Madagascar.
Sichuan or Szechuan pepper is commonlyfound in China and used in many Chinese and Japanese dishes, but it is also a good addition to chicken noodle soup. The pepper comes from the berries of the prickly Ash tree native to China. They are more spicy than regular pepper.
Pepperleaf (piper sanctum) is cultivated in Peru and Argentina. The leaves are harvested year round. The green leaf is picked from a bush which is in the pepper family. It is very similar to cilantro and best used fresh. It has a little bite but mellows to a sweeter flavor.
Pepper Cooking Tips
In standard recipes, avoid adding ground pepper until the end of the cooking process, so its flavor does not get dulled. When cooking a recipe using a large amount of pepper over high heat, be aware, that any smoke from the peppered food can cause irritation, so be sure you have proper ventilation.
Italian Recipes That Use Peppercorns
Cracked Pepper Cheese Ball
Serve with breadsticks, crackers or focaccia bread as an appetizer.
Makes 12 servings
- 1-8 ounce package reduced fat cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper or more
In electric mixer bowl on medium speed, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add parsley and the next 5 ingredients and blend thoroughly.
Line an 8 ounce round bowl or crock with plastic wrap, leaving overhang long enough to cover the top of the bowl. Pack cheese mixture into bowl and smooth the top with the back of a spoon.
Cover top with plastic wrap overhang and refrigerate at least two hours or up to two days.
Place cracked black pepper on a piece of wax paper. Pull up on plastic to remove cheese from the bowl. Turn cheese ball onto the paper with the cracked black pepper and remove plastic wrap, Roll ball around on the cracked pepper to coat the outside evenly. You may need more pepper, depending on how much pepper covering you want on the cheese ball. Place on a serving dish.
Cacio e Pepe
- Kosher salt
- 6 oz. pasta (such as egg tagliolini, bucatini or spaghetti)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 3/4 cup finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
- 1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Drain, reserving 3/4 cups pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan for 1 minute.
Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano cheese, stirring and tossing with tongs until incorporated. Remove pan from heat; add Pecorino Romano cheese, stirring and tossing until sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is cooked al dente. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
Fennel And Peppercorn Crusted Tuna Steaks
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tuna steaks
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Crush fennel seeds, peppercorns, pepper flakes and dried rosemary in a mortar and pestle (or pulse once or twice in a spice grinder – you want them slightly ground, but not pulverized).
If using a mortar and pestle, add garlic and salt and smash until garlic is evenly distributed (mixture will look like wet sand, not paste-like). If you used the spice grinder, coarsely chop garlic and leave on cutting board. Sprinkle with spice mixture and salt and press into with the side of a knife or bottom of pan until blended.
Pat tuna steaks dry with paper towels and press garlic-spice mixture into both sides of steaks.
Place dry skillet over medium-high heat – let pan get hot. Gently place tuna steaks in pan.
Cook about 2-3 minutes on each side for rare, 4-5 for medium or 6 minutes for well done, carefully flipping with spatula. Just like a steak, it’s ready to flip – when it’s seared properly, the tuna will no longer stick to the pan. Remove from heat and cover for about 5 minutes.
Beef Filet With Green Peppercorn Sauce
4 servings. For 8 (4-ounce) servings, cut steaks diagonally into thin slices; divide over 8 plates. Drizzle evenly with sauce.
- 4 (8-ounce) beef tenderloin filets
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon butter or margarine
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 2 cups Marsala
- 1 cup fat-free, low-sodium beef broth
- 20 green peppercorns, drained
- 5-ounces fat-free evaporated milk
- 1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Garnish: Italian parsley sprigs
Sprinkle beef steaks evenly with salt and pepper.
Melt butter with olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook 6 minutes on each side or until cooked to medium rare (145°F) to medium (160°F). Remove beef from skillet and keep warm.
Add wine, broth and peppercorns to skillet and bring to a boil; cook until liquid is reduced by half. Reduce heat to low and stir in evaporated milk and mustard; cook 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Return beef to skillet and turn to coat in the sauce. Garnish with parsley, if desired.
Note: Green peppercorns are immature, tender peppercorns jarred in brine. They can be found near capers in the pickled food section of the supermarket.
Seared Peppered Scallops with Orange Sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 1/2 pounds sea scallops, patted dry with paper towels
- 2 teaspoons ground peppercorn blend, or ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup orange juice
- 1/2 teaspoon (packed) grated orange peel and the rest of the orange peeled and cut into segments
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Heat oil in large skillet over high heat. Sprinkle scallops with pepper blend and salt. Working in batches, add scallops to skillet in single layer; saute until lightly brown, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer scallops to a serving plate with sides, leaving drippings in pan.
Add garlic to drippings in skillet; stir 30 seconds. Add orange juice and orange peel. Boil until sauce thickens to syrup, stirring frequently, about 2 minutes.
Add the butter and oregano. Continue cooking over high heat, stirring to bring up any brown bits on the bottom of the skillet, about one minute more. Add the orange segments and mix well. Pour sauce over scallops and serve.
Pears with Vanilla Sugar Syrup and Black Peppercorns
From The Grand Hotel Timeo Restaurant in Taormina, Sicily.
- 4 ripe Anjou pears, stemmed, cut in half, cored and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
- Juice of two lemons
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 medium vanilla bean
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
Cover the pear slices with lemon juice and allow to stand covered for 10 minutes.
Combine the water and sugar in a medium-size saucepan. Bring to boil, lower the heat to simmer.
Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise with a small knife. Scrape out the seeds with the knife tip and add to the water and sugar mixture.
Scoop the pear slices from the lemon juice and add them to the water and sugar mixture along with the peppercorns. Simmer for 10 minutes. Cool in the pan then transfer to a bowl. Serve at room temperature.
- Your Questions: The 10 Essential Spices for Stocking Your Pantry (thebittenword.com)
- Make Your Own Pepper Blends for More Flavorful Cooking (lifehacker.com)
- I’m a pepper …. (madcrowherbals.com)
- White Pepper (lukehoney.typepad.com)
- The Spiciest Dish in the World (and How to Make it) (theflyingfugu.com)