If you think about it, wild food is everywhere around us. Our backyards have dandelions growing so rampant, we constantly try to eradicate them. Public fruit trees beg to be gleaned, miner’s lettuce is a weed with a gourmet reputation, easy hikes will bring you upon scores of stinging nettles and fiddleheads. The East Coast has ramps springing up every year in shady woodlands. NorCal has chanterelles and blackberries in abundance. And here in SoCal, we have Peruvian pepper.
Also known as California pepper (although it’s particularly invasive in Florida and Hawaii), Peruvian pepper (Schinus molle) is an ornamental evergreen tree with a weeping canopy of branches, native to Northern Peru in the high desert of the Andes. It’s become naturalized around the world, where it’s cultivated for spice production, and in some parts it’s even considered a serious weed — taking over savanna and grasslands in South Africa, and forests and coastal areas in Australia.
Peruvian pepper is not related to the black pepper we all grind for spice, nor is it a true pepper at all; it’s actually a member of the cashew family. But its pink berries are harvested, dried, and sold as the pink peppercorns you often find in commercial peppercorn blends. Its cousin, the Brazilian pepper, has rounder and stubbier leaves (resembling holly) but bears the same reddish pink berries also used for pink peppercorns. Just think — this gourmet spice could be growing right in your own neighborhood!
To turn the ripe pink berries into peppercorns, harvest fresh berries off the branches and lay them on a plate or cookie sheet to dry out at room temperature. Within a few days, the berries will harden and be ready for use.
A Peruvian pepper berry consists of a shell surrounding a single seed. During the drying process, the shell may crack and separate to reveal a brownish pink seed inside. (This separation is similar to how white peppercorns are made — the outer shells are removed from the berries of black pepper plants and the seeds themselves become white peppercorns.)
If your berries are dried in a sunny spot, the shell may become bleached as it shrinks around the seed to create the hard, wrinkled outer layer so familiar as peppercorns.
Sometimes the shell stays intact and you’ll have smooth pink peppercorns.
The peppercorns can be ground in any form, but since Peruvian pink peppercorns are milder than black peppercorns, they can be used whole in recipes without being too overpowering. They’re still spicy and peppery, but have a very fragrant, sweet-tart and rosy tone. The flavor would work well in light sauces, fruity vinaigrettes, or desserts. I think I’ll even try them in place of black peppercorns in my pickling spices, especially when I want a bit more sweetness.
But, some words of caution — if you’re allergic to cashews, mangos, poison ivy or any member of the Anacardiaceae family, it might be wise to find out if you can tolerate pink peppercorns. (Though used in such small quantities as a spice, this may not be an issue.)
Peruvian pepper likes hot climates and can be found in the Southwest (Arizona and California), Central California, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. In Southern California, Peruvian pepper trees grow wild all over the Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as the Greater Los Angeles inland valleys and foothills (my berries were gleaned from Piru Creek in Northern Los Angeles County). You can even find rows of trees lining the streets around Disneyland in Anaheim.
With Peruvian pepper trees ripening in fall and winter, now is the perfect time to start foraging!