Pink peppercorns are often thought of as a gourmet spice, packaged in small, expensive jars and called for in fancy cookbooks. But in California, bucketfuls of the vibrant berries litter the ground all fall and winter, sometimes considered a nuisance by the gardener who has to rake them all up.
It almost seems a food crime to let heaps of peppercorns lay forgotten when just a few miles away, they command upwards of $10 an ounce at specialty spice shops — and here in a suburban backyard, they’re free for the taking.
Pink peppercorns come from the Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle), also called the California pepper tree as it grows wild throughout the central and southern regions. You’ll also find Schinus molle in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii, not to be confused with the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), which has similar berries but rounder and wider leaves.
This particular pink pepper tree belongs to a friend and reaches over 30 feet in height — towering above his two-story home in Long Beach, California. Its drooping growth habit reminds me a lot of weeping willow, with evergreen branches that dangle with clusters of pink berries.
The berries are known as drupes, or fruits that bear a single seed. The hard, woody seed (wrapped inside a papery pink husk) is the “peppercorn,” though Peruvian pepper is not an actual pepper at all. The tree belongs to Anacardiaceae, otherwise known as the cashew or sumac family. Despite having no relation to true pepper (Piper nigrum), Peruvian pepper has a mild aromatic spice that you’ll also smell in the leaves and flowers.
In spring and summer, tiny, delicate flowers dot the branches and give off a peppery scent. In fall and winter, the flowers give way to pink berries that are ripe for harvest. Harvesting is as simple as collecting a few clusters and laying them out to dry. (Here’s a post on my last big peppercorn harvest — three years later, I still have a little left and they taste just as wonderful as the day they were picked.)
I usually grind my pink peppercorns or crush them with a mortar and pestle to release their spice. I don’t blend them with black and green pepper (the way you typically see pink peppercorns sold in the store), as I feel true pepper overpowers them. They’re similar in flavor to chile pepper, with a sweet, fruity attitude. Try them on seafood, salads, curries, cheese, chocolate, or popcorn in place of regular black pepper.