Native to India, the peppercorn is the king of spices. Black peppercorns are the fermented green berries of a perennial vine plant, piper nigrum, sun-dried to turn them black and hard. Green, white and pink peppercorns are from the same plant as the black variety, picked at varying stages of ripeness. Black peppercorns should be large, even in size and a deep rich brown. They smell earthy, warm and pungent. Their flavour is released on grinding and enhanced by heat. However, once ground, the volatile oils soon evaporate so add pepper towards the end of cooking.
Good-quality black peppercorns will keep for many years in a cool dark place in an airtight container.