Mountain Pepper Leaf and Pepperberry

Provenance and the Plant

Mountain Pepper

The native pepper trees or shrubs that we use for culinary purposes are from the Tasmannia  genus of the Winteraceae family. This family of plants is one of a group associated with the ancient Gondwana Supercontinent that Australia was once part of, and is now represented in various species that we call native peppers. The one that we use is Mountain Pepper or Tasmannia lanceolata. We are always blown away understanding how truly ancient our native foods are and how they have survived through the ages in pristine wilderness areas and are now grown commercially - it is amazing to think about Gondwana then and Australia now.
Mountain Pepper is not related to the true pepper , which is actually an Indonesian vine. It certainly has the spiciness and heat of pepper, and also a significant aromatic flavour. A Mountain Pepper tree is easily identified by its distinctive crimson-coloured young stems and branches, and shiny dark green leaves that smell spicy and peppery when crushed in the hand. The tree bears a small, yellowish-creamy flower that is also deliciously hot and spicy when in bud. This is followed by glossy black and fleshy pepper fruits known as Pepperberries, which are about the size of a small pea and contain a cluster of minute black seeds in the centre of the purple fruit flesh.
European use of the Mountain Pepper tree can be traced back to the nineteenth century when the bark was used as a herbal remedy , known then as Winter's Bark. Mountain Pepper was mentioned by a former Director of the Sydney Botanical Gardens (1882) Mr J H Maiden, as a tree with potential as a pepper or allspice substitute, and for its resemblance to Winter's Bark (originally found in South America- a relative of Mountain Pepper). 
Despite being a common south-eastern Australian species, the Mountain Pepper, particularly in pre-settlement days, doesn't feature in known recorded knowledge of Aboriginal foods or medicines. Given the rapid decline of Aboriginal populations in Tasmania and forced assimilation in Victoria, and the resultant loss of some traditional knowledge, this is not surprising. The true extent of Aboriginal use of this plant remains unfortunately, unknown. However Trish Hodge the managing director of Nita Education, an Aboriginal cultural education program,explained recently to SBS that Indigenous people use whole peppercorns or crush the spice into a paste, and apply the pepper to toothaches or sore gums and there is traditional knowledge that the leaves and berries were used as flavourings for generations of Aboriginal people.
 Mountain Pepper is indigenous to Tasmanian and Victorian sub-alpine rainforests and mountain gullies, growing in areas up to 1200 metres. The Mountain Pepper tree in the wild grows in moist, cool , high altitude forests and prefers humus-rich, well-drained soil and part shade. It's moderately fast growing and in ideal growing conditions can grow up to 5 metres high.  It's very frost hardy. The leaves are harvested and dried as a herb and the Pepperberries that are the fruit, are usually available to harvest from March to May. These are also dried for culinary use. 
Our Mountain Pepper and Pepperberries come from Tasmania.
Culinary Use

  Tuna with Black Olive and  Mountain Pepper Tapenande and Pepperberry Aioli     
The flavour of the Mountain Pepper leaf is pungent and aromatic. The delightful savoury tang lures the palate into the familiar territory of a herb, only to assail it seconds later with an intense. hot-peppery flavour burst. This is even more heightened when the leaf is dried. The Pepperberry is even hotter than the leaf and has an intensity of flavour that must be respected.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a tree growing nearby, your best bet is to use our Mountain Pepper dried and ground herb and/or our dried Pepperberries (available on-line when in season).
The Mountain Pepper leaf contains volatile flavour and fragrance compounds also found in other species commonly used in the spice and essential oil industries. However Mountain Pepper leaves also have unique compounds such as a high concentration of the pungent polygodial. Polygodial delivers the sharp, hot taste so loved by the human palate and this produces an unusually attractive flavoured spice. As essential oils can dissipate with heat, we prefer to add Mountain Pepper towards the end of cooking to best retain the flavour and heat. On the other hand the Pepperberry is very much stronger and may be added early in the cooking process. Both are simply great additions to your pantry, adding a zing to mayonnaise, dressings, dips and salsas. Mountain Pepper is fantastic to season meat.
Mountain Pepper can be used in cooking as you would common white pepper or black pepper. But white or dark peppers are not comparable to Mountain Pepper - it has more complex and aromatic flavours as well as the heat of pepper and always contributes more to the dish being prepared. As Mountain Pepper is more intense in flavour than the usual peppers, you won't need as much. The dried Pepperberries, when available, can be popped into a standard pepper grinder ! The complex aromatic flavours of  Mountain Pepper makes it a perfect compliment to curries and chilli dishes. If you are into making pickles of any kind a few Pepperberries in the brine will make a huge flavour difference.
We like to use Mountain Pepper leaf to flavour our gnocchi to season tomatoes before slow roasting them, to brighten up a classic devilled pepperberry curried egg or to make a fabulous pepper sauce for fillet steak - we could go on! You can find more recipes for Mountain Pepper here and Pepperberry here
Health Benefits
Mountain Pepper Leaf and Pepperberries
Mountain Pepper ( and other species from the Winteraceae family) has long been recognised as a 'tonic' to improve health and well being. In the nineteenth century the bark from the Mountain Pepper was used to make this tonic that was sold in England and Australia. The tonic, made from ground berries, leaves and bark is also recorded as being used by early European settlers to treat scurvy. 
We now know so much  more about the qualities of Mountain Pepper. 
The Leaf is extraordinarily rich in polygodial compound and as mentioned this elicits a warm and pungent flavour.

The biological activity of polygodial has been reported in the scientific literature to include antifungal and antimicrobial activities and antihyperalgesia which helps reduce pain. As mentioned above there is a history of Aboriginal people using the crushed Mountain pepper leaves or Pepperberries as a pain reliever for toothache and other ailments.

We can certainly attest to its active antifungal activity. A Cheesemaker we know wanted to flavour his Brie with Mountain Pepper. We explained that it had antifungal properties but he was not deterred and proceeded to make a small trial batch and none of the Bries developed the essential mould due to the activity of the Mountain Pepper- well we did tell him!

This means that adding Mountain Pepper to a dish may mean that it will keep longer due to the antifungal and antimicrobial elements. We like to rub our steaks with these delicious herbs and let them marinade for a day and not only is the flavour amazing but the Mountain Pepper keeps the meat fresh and seems to tenderise it also.

Mountain pepper has not only served Indigenous people as a flavouring agent for food over generations, but by and large, as a traditional medicine. Due to its high level of antioxidants, mountain pepper has been documented as a treatment for a variety of illnesses fromstomach aches and colic,to skin disorders and venereal diseases.  

With potent antioxidants, four times more powerful than the beloved blueberry, mountain pepper’s health benefits are just as useful today as they have been over centuries. Antioxidants are linked to helping with diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, and more recent research highlights mountain pepper’s unique antiviral properties.

Dr Ian Cock, senior lecturer in Biomolecular and Physical Sciences at Griffith University told SBS recently, “The berry inhibits the growth of many pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and also has some limited antiviral activity. It also has good anti-cancer activity against multiple cancer cell lines.”

Also striking: the plant’s antibacterial properties. With antimicrobial components, mountain pepper has been found to inhibit the growth of food poisoning bacteria and prevent food spoilage, which Dr Cock's research demonstrates.

So you can use these herbs safely knowing they will help keep your food fresh, as well as imparting a fantastic flavour and adding very important antioxidants to your diet - a true Superfood Indeed! 

 

 

 

 

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