Tom Alcott, Co-founder of Peppermongers, Gives a Full Briefing on Pepper
Guest contributor for November is Tom Alcott. On a trip to Kerala Tom discovered Tellicherry pepper and his life was changed forever. The pepper on tables throughout the UK… and elsewhere paled in comparison – bland, poor quality stuff. He’s been passionate about the spice ever since. Recently Peppermongers teamed up, very appropriately, with Salthouse to form Salthouse & Peppermongers.
I am always surprised that cooks and chefs don’t know the basics of pepper. It is almost unforgivable given that it’s used in almost every recipe. Even if you don’t cook with it, it’s also available on the table to be added later at whim.
So where does this little black corn we eat every day come from? Are all corns the same? Where does the kick, where does the aroma come from? Which variety is best? What’s going on with red peppercorns? Why do they taste soapy?
And who is Peter Piper anyway?
All good questions. And I will try my best in the next few lines to enlighten you on the ways of The Piperacae.
Lesson One: The Fruit of Piper
Green, red, black and white pepper are ALL THE SAME. Shocking isn’t it.
You’ve been eating it for years and you never even knew. Who knew?
Yes you can probably work out that they are different colours from what we can un-technically call the ‘looking test’ using the eyes in the front of your head. But colour apart -they are the same.
They all come from the same genus Piper. Like tomatoes they change colour as they ripen. (ah hah! – I can hear the sound of pennies dropping….).
Pepper grows on a vine like ivy that wraps itself around a larger tree, growing up to 40ft high with clusters of peppercorns dangling down on spikes.
The peppercorn itself is a fruit, a single seed drupe fruit (like a plum). And like a plum it has a soft fleshy outer bit – that’s the tasty and aromatic bit and an inner seed which is the not so tasty but killer-kick bit.
A green pepper is an unripe corn, a red pepper is ripe, a black one is sundried and a white peppercorn is…. the inner seed of the black sundried pepper. As you can imagine each stage of ripening gives the peppercorn a unique flavour profile.
Lesson Two: Black is the New White
As Kermit would say – It’s not easy being green. Green pepper is unripe, fresh and not fully developed. We say it’s ‘born to be mild’. Preserving it so it doesn’t go off is tricky. Brine works well but is a bit of a pain at the cooking end of things so dehydrating and freeze-drying is the way to go.
You can’t buy red pepper. I know you think you see it. But you don’t. What you are actually seeing is pink pepper from the species called Schinus Terebinthifolius (or Molle). People think it looks pretty – but in my humble opinion – it is an abomination and should be culled from the culinary register. Because it’s not genus Piper – it has no seed, and no heat and to add insult to injury – it tastes of soap. And in large quantities it’s toxic. What’s to like? The only thing to recommend it is its pinkness. If you really like pink, go watch the pink panther or go visit Toys R Us – girls under 10 aisle (for some reason this aisle takes up about half the warehouse – the feminists seem to have lost the toy battle).
People think it looks pretty – but in my humble opinion – it is an abomination and should be culled from the culinary register.
Occasionally well-meaning horticultural types come up to me and proudly announce they have a red peppercorn tree in their garden in Spain…usually a Schinus Molle pink pepper tree. I gently suggest they don’t eat them. It’s the sort of poisonous berry you only eat once. And it only looks like a pepper tree if you’ve never actually seen a pepper tree. For the foraging record – as a general rule of thumb – if even the birds don’t eat it – it’s probably laced with venom or something and in the style of kiss, marry or avoid – best avoided.
Here’s why you can’t find red pepper outside of India… when it’s red and ripe and tasty the birds eat it all. That and the fact that it falls off the spikes means that farmers try to get the harvest just as the pepper starts to turn red. However, some are picked later and retain some of their redness when dried to black. A notably good one is Kampot Rouge, which has an amazing fruity rounded flavour. Get some if you can. It is a rare thing.
And so most is picked green and sun dried until it becomes the black gold we all know and love. Black pepper has an amazing aroma – a citrus, fruity boldness that excites the olfactory senses.
And then there is white. Which put politely – stinks. White pepper can smell musty, like old socks and mildew. It’s a wonder we put it in our food. Why so? Well it turns out that if you wash black pepper in water for two weeks the aromatic black skin comes off. And what you are left with is the white inner seed. On our white pepper packs we say ‘seek inner strength’ and that’s because all the piperine kick is in the starchy seed. So pound for pound white pepper IS stronger that black pepper but what it gains in strength – it alas – loses in aroma. Worse still the aroma can be worse, simply because dunking pepper in water reintroduces moisture which never really dries again and so it can smell mouldy. In fact the way to tell if white pepper is good is from the clean aroma – and in our view Muntok White is one of the best.
And then there is white pepper. Which put politely – stinks. White pepper can smell musty, like old socks and mildew. It’s a wonder we put it in our food.
So why does anyone bother with white pepper? Well no one knows for sure but rumour has it that it became popular when mad Louis XIV of France – the Sun King – insisted on eating pure white foods: swan, cauliflower, and béchamel with white pepper… truly nuts. French chefs took up the cause of whiteness and are only slowly returning to real black pepper. Plus ça change …
Lesson Three: what’s black and white and red all over?
One of the oldest jokes I can remember is the one about the bloody penguin or the newspaper… being black and white and red (read) all over. When I see blended pepper I am always reminded of that joke. Partly because I think blends are a bit of a joke; a triumph of cosmetic prettiness over flavour.
Each pepper has its own flavour, its own heat, its own uniqueness. So why blend? In theory you blend to have complementing flavours but with pepper blends it seems to me that the sum is much less than the parts.
Blending together peppers is a little like putting your roast dinner in a nutribullet and then drinking it with a straw. Why would you do that? If blends are your bag then at the next dinner party you go to when the host asks whether you want Champagne or white, rosé or red wine – I dare you to mix the lot into a pint glass and down it in one.
Lesson Four: Peter Piper et al…
Pepper, as you may know, is the King of Spices… (You can clean up in the pub quiz if you also know that Cardamom is the Queen of Spice). But the word pepper encompasses a broad church. Mainly due to misinformed explorers in the Age of Discovery.
Make no mistake – it is responsible for A LOT of Western civilisation as we know it. Since before Roman times we have been nuts for the stuff. What was the driver behind map making and cartography in the 15th century? Pepper. What was responsible for the (re) discovery of America by Columbus? Pepper. What was responsible for international trade? Pepper. What was responsible for Joint Stock companies and the stock exchange? Pepper. What was responsible for globalisation and the British Empire (and the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese empires)? Pepper. You get the idea.
Columbus was looking for pepper in South America (having failed to find a short cut to India) and asked the indigenous Indians for ‘the hot stuff’. Peppercorns at the time only grew on the Malabar coast of India. The South Americans duly took Christopher to the hottest stuff they had. It wasn’t pepper, so instead chilli was discovered. In those days, and you can sort of see why, confused explorers thought that all ‘hot stuff’ came from the same plant – pepper corns being its seed, the chilli being the fruit, and ginger being the root.
All this running around the world leads us to the myth of Peter Piper. Who was he? Why was he picking pecks of pickled peppers? What’s a peck anyway? It turns out no one knows. The truth behind the tongue twister is lost in time. BUT in 1770 there was a naughty Frenchman who stole spice plants from the Dutch in Indonesia and planted them in La Reunion and Mauritius (breaking the Dutch monopoly of nutmeg). The thief’s name? Pierre Poivre.
Going further back in time – to say the Romans liked pepper is something of an understatement. In the world’s first cook book (yes even before Delia & Jamie) The De Re Coquinaria by Apicius, there are some truly classic [sic] uses: grilled Flamingo anyone? Garum -fish gut stew? In any case, of the 480 recipes, 450 of them include pepper. And not just black pepper but Cubeb pepper and Long Pepper too… Romans loved it. Not only was it used in food but it was a symbol of potency and masculinity.
And so to the modern day. Elizabeth David was a big fan but it was Delia, in her special-soothing-the-middle classes-suburban way, who made whole black peppercorns fashionable again. The post-war era of ground, flavourless dust and dust of pepper dust (DPD) was over. And yes – whisper it quietly – Delia said it was ok to use black pepper in a Béchamel. French chefs have been exiled to St Helena for less.
The thing with ground pepper is that it very quickly loses aroma. The volatile oils in the fleshy outer plum bit of the pepper drupe simply evaporate away, like perfume fading or wine losing its bouquet. And so Delia quite rightly advised to grind whole peppers fresh – just before serving.
If you need convincing about the aromatic properties – jut think about the strange phallic ceremony that happens in pizzerias around the world. At home you are trusted with putting your own pepper on food but for some reason in restaurants, Neapolitans have turned the peppermill and serving of pepper into a little Italian macho aromatic-phallic play. Pepper on your pizza sir?
Peppermongers’ pepper includes:
Tellicherry garbled special extra bold (TGSEB)
This is the highest quality black pepper in the world. Only the largest 10% of peppercorns, measuring at least 4.75mm in diameter, make the grade. This black pepper is hand-harvested and sun-dried in the hills of the Western Ghats, Kerala, India. Excellent with sauces, steaks (and chips). Also try with cupcakes, meringues and in a Bloody Mary.
Indonesian long pepper
Once favoured by the Romans, Visigoths and Alexandre Dumas of Three Musketeers fame, this long-lost pepper has largely been forgotten in modern cuisine. Which is strange because it is simply amazing. (Please note this long pepper is the tasty Piper retrofractum type – not to be confused with the Indian variety of long pepper, Piper longum or Pippali used in Ayuverdic medicine. Now you know.) It may be forgotten by many but not Saucy Dressings – it is included in the vast majority of Saucy Dressings’ recipes. Its warm, chocolatey, musky aroma belies a floral, spicy, peppery punch that builds slowly and heats the mouth. It’s perfect for soups, slow cooking or terrines and pâtés. Try mixing with cream and eating with nectarines or summer fruit.
Javanese cubeb pepper
A popular substitute for black pepper in the 16th century and a key ingredient in Ras el Hanout. Cubeb pepper has a fresh, woody taste and ‘Christmas tree’ aroma that mellows into a unique warmth with a lingering spiciness when cooked. It’s very good with tagines, soups, pot roasts and North African dishes. Adds some spice to biscuits and shortbreads.
Keralan green pepper
Herbal, bright and fresh pepper with a mildly spicy heat. Good in marinades. Follow this link for a post on green pepper.
“Pepper was worth more than gold and Arab traders sold it by the peppercorn. Over time this value diminished and in legal parlance the fee of a peppercorn is used as a metaphor for a very small payment or nominal consideration.”
-Lana Citron, Edible Pleasures