Today, pepper is on tables everywhere, and even comes in little paper pouches from fast food restaurants. Who would believe that it used to be a sought-after spice, so rare that some cultures accepted it as currency? Pepper accounts for about 25 percent of the world's spice trade, and has been known as a seasoning for at least 3,000 years.
Pepper as we know it is the ground-up buds, or "berries," of the common pepper plant. Most people usually see ground black pepper in the familiar can, but whole peppercorns are also regaining popularity. When ground fresh, peppercorns have a much livelier flavor than pre-ground black pepper, and some chefs insist on a particular species of pepper for their food! However, to grind up pepper at the table, one needs a pepper mill.
A pepper mill may have a crank on top, or the mill itself may twist, bringing together two metal burrs that grind the peppercorns into a usable spice, suitable for cooking or for sprinkling on top of cooked food. The idea for the pepper mill came from the coffee mill. It was a quick step for the enterprising cook to use his coffee mill to grind peppercorns, rather than using a mortar and pestle. The pepper mill was then created in a smaller size, more suitable for the smaller peppercorns.
Someone looking for a pepper mill can find one almost anywhere. Kitchen supply stores, department stores, discount stores and even grocery stores sell some kind of pepper mill! One company sells its whole peppercorns complete with a plastic pepper mill included in the top of the bottle. Some companies sell handmade pepper mills made from exotic woods such as ebony or teak. Others are metal, glass, or heavy plastic.
One popular pepper mill has a salt shaker in the top, which twists to grind the pepper. Most pepper mills can be adjusted for a coarser or finer grind, depending on the cook's taste and the requirements of the dish. A pepper mill may cost anywhere from US$5 to over $100 for handmade mills. They are also widely available online, along with whole peppercorns.