Another subtle (for the most part) but essential ingredient we use as flavoring is black pepper. When used more sparingly it adds an unmissable depth as well as a hint of sweetness to our biltong that cannot be attained by using salt alone.
Black pepper is a flowering vine in the Piperaceae family, of which its fruit is harvested known as a peppercorn. The fruit is then dried and used as a spice. Peppercorns come in different colors – black pepper is the full fruit including husk and seed, we get white pepper when the black husk is stripped away, green peppercorns are picked before ripening while red (or pink) peppercorns are the fully ripened fruit.
Black pepper is rooted very deep in world culinary history and can be traced back to as early as 2000BC. Its most important source is India, specifically Kerala whose lost ancient port city called Muziris was famous for exporting many spices including black pepper. And as trade routes opened over the centuries, black pepper found its way into many cuisines.
Black pepper has always been so valuable that it was actually used as a commodity, often as collateral or even currency and referred to as ‘black gold’. Even today the legal term ‘peppercorn’ refers to a token gift or small donation. In the Middle Ages the spice was so expensive it was only available to the very wealthy. This prompted explorers to open more effective trade routes to India, and during the 17th century the Dutch traded increasingly in the spice. Thus, with the Dutch colonization of Southern Africa, it found its way into biltong.
What gives black pepper its bite is a substance called ‘piperine’ derived from both the outer portion as well as the seed. Black pepper can lose its distinct taste very quickly when exposed to air, which is why we use freshly cracked black pepper and it gets preserved with the meat, and then sealed in our airtight bags.