Black pepper was once so rare it was considered as precious as gold and used as currency. Known as "King of the Spices," black pepper is the top-selling spice in America.

Pepper was one of the reasons Christopher Columbus sailed west in search of a new route to the Indies. When he arrived in the Americas instead, he found a new fruit called "aji" by the natives. It was very spicy, so he called it a pepper. What he had found was the chili, now called the chili "pepper."

These days, pepper is plentiful, inexpensive and popular for its hot, pungent flavor, which adds zest to even the simplest dish.

Peppercorns are native to Indonesia and the tropical forests and equatorial regions of India. What we refer to as "pepper" is actually the fruit of a climbing vine that can grow more than 30 feet long and is terraced much like grape vines, producing berries that grow in grape-like clusters.

Black, white and green peppercorns are all products of the same plant, but the flavor is determined by where and how the pepper is grown, at which stage it is harvested, how it is cleaned and processed and how it is stored.

For black pepper, the berries are picked when not fully ripe, then sun-dried until they shrivel and turn brownish-black. The most pungent varieties are Tellicherry and Malabar, from India, and Lampong from Indonesia.

Black peppercorns are traditionally used for savory dishes, but slightly crushed or whole black peppercorns are beginning to appear in desserts. It also marries well with dark chocolate; dried fruits such as prunes, figs and dates; and fresh fruits such as melons, berries, plums and pears.

For white pepper, the ripe berry is picked and soaked so the outer layer can be removed, leaving the dried grayish white kernel. Compared with the black peppercorn, the white variety is smaller, softer and more fiery, but less flavorful.

Green peppercorns are harvested when the berries are immature, then packed in brine or dried. They offer a fresher flavor and less pungency than black or white pepper.

> Clams in Pepper Broth

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 pounds clams, scrubbed

1 cup unsalted bottled clam juice, divided

1 cup sauvignon blanc, divided

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf Italian parsley

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 pound cooked pasta

In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for about 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the clams and stir until the clams begin to open, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup each of the clam juice and wine and continue to stir, removing any opened clams from the pan and placing them in a bowl. Continue to stir just until all clams are opened, 4 to 6 minutes' total cooking time. Transfer clams to the bowl, discarding any that did not open.

With the pan over medium heat, add the remaining clam juice and wine, the butter and the pepper. Stir until butter is melted. Return clams to the pan, including any juices in the bowl, and stir the clams in the broth for 2 minutes. Add parsley and lemon zest, mix well and immediately remove from the heat.

Spoon the clams over the pasta into four warmed bowls, dividing evenly. Spoon any remaining broth over the clams. Makes 4 servings.