Pepper is one of the other most important spice seasonings in the kitchen because of its enormous popularity in Western cooking. I love pepper and just about every recipe in my recipe collections has some pepper in it. If you’ve never tried a high quality black peppercorn, you’re in for a treat. You want a top quality, Grade A peppercorns: nicely shaped, none are broken, and there’s no dust or plant debris. Good peppercorns vary in intensity and flavor, from fruity to hot and spicy (my favorite). This past winter I visited a Penzey’s Spice store and bought three varieties of black peppercorns from India: Sarawak, Tellicherry, and Special Extra Bold.
Peppercorns are not the same as green chile peppers, but peppercorns are tiny seeds from an evergreen plant called Piper nigrum native to the Indian equatorial and tropical forests.
The best peppercorns come from the Malabar Coast of India, in the southern state of Kerala, the center of the area’s spice trade for thousands of years. Pepper has been used since prehistoric times and is included in recipes from 5,000 years ago in the era when the Mahabharata was written. Peppercorns were considered black gold and traded, even used as tribute or ransom. The ancient mariners rode the monsoon trade winds from the Saudi Peninsula, Egypt, and the Middle East across the Arabian Sea to the Malabar Coast for “pepper port” spices. Rome used the pepper and the mariners rode up the Red Sea and the spices carried overland to Alexandria, then shipped to Italy, where the rich peppered their food to high heaven. The rough geographical outlines of this same Italian and Arab trade routes would dominate the pepper trade into Europe for a millennium and a half to come, and the wealth it brought building not only personal fortunes, but city-states as well. With Italy came the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade and this was the impetus for the Portuguese to seek another route to the Far East, resulting in the discovery and colonization of America. Spice wars dominated economic trading for hundreds of years with the Spanish, English, and finally the Dutch dominating. Pepper, which in Rome and the early Middle Ages had been an item exclusively for the rich, started to become more of an everyday seasoning among those of more average means. Today, pepper accounts for one-fifth of the world’s spice trade. Do you know any homes that do not have pepper on the kitchen shelf?
Peppercorns are now imported from Malayasia (Sarawak), Indonesia (Lampong from Sumatra), Vietnam (the highest yield), and Brazil (in the Amazon) as well, but the Indian pepper is king. Some vanilla plantations in India, Costa Rica, and Indonesia also grow peppercorns.
The active alkaloid ingredient is called piperine and oils and resins that give the taste of aromatic complexity. The peppercorns are of various sizes depending where they are grown. I notice varying degrees of hotness between different size and brands of peppercorns, just to keep things spicy.
The cultivated plant is a climber that is trained to grown horizontally or on poles with air roots that help anchor it to the ground. There are oval and heart-shaped leaves and little clusters of mini-grapelike fruits consisting of a small embryo enclosed in a horny outer casing called the peppercorn.
- Black pepper is the whole fruit picked stil-green, just before being fully ripe and dried on mats in the sun (the layer of pepper shrinks from the heat and darkens into the thin wrinkly layer). Here are some of the most available gourmet peppercorns. Available from www.pepper-passion.com, www.penzys.com, or www.spicehouse. com.
- India Malabar – Medium size, light tan, wide range of colors. Soft texture. Cinnamon and nutmeg notes. Heat is warm and cozy. These are the best mass-market peppercorns grown in southern India, in a region that the British East India Company named Malabar.
- The Tellicherry peppercorn is bigger and blacker because of being left on the vine to ripen weeks after others, developing the sugars that make the delicious heat very flavorful. They are the largest, ripest 10% of Malabar peppercorns grown on Mount Tellicherry. Tellicherry is the most famous of gourmet peppercorns and grown in India.
- Malaysian Sarawak – These peppercorns are produced in the Malaysian part of Borneo. This is a “mild and fruity” pepper that has smaller fruit than the Tellicherry peppercorns. Large size. Array of colors, dark-brown to tan. Light, crispy texture. Bright flavor, slightly citrus. Light heat.
- Indonesian Lampong – From Sumatra. Small. Black to dark-brown. Slightly soft texture. Bold, peppery flavor. Medium heat.
- Madagascar – Small size. Color varies from black to tan. Firm, crunchy texture. Middle notes of pine, followed by other spice notes such as cumin and coriander. Heat develops slowly, provides a lingering warmth.
- Ecuador Talamanca - Medium to large in size. Gray to black color. Notes of juniper, slightly tangy taste. Intense heat develops after about 10 seconds. The end flavor is slightly bitter. These don’t have the strong vegetal taste as in some other Ecuadorian peppercorns.
- Vietnam – Vietnam has the largest exporting of medium-grade peppercorns. Uniform brown. Texture is dense and hard. Average flavor, but the sensation of heat is more in the nose than in the mouth, which makes it a bit unique.
- Kampot – French colonists brought peppercorn production to the Kampot region of Cambodia. Production was halted during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Once all the rage among European chefs, Kampot peppercorns have only recently reappeared on the market. They are large size and very black and shiny. They have a fruity flavor and low heat. Large size. Black and shiny. Dense. Fruity flavor with a slightly bitter finish. Low heat.
- Pohnpei – The Micronesian island of Pohnpei has a very limited area to produce these highly-regarded peppercorns. Production is only recently recovering from a total collapse of the market several years ago. Large and well-formed kernels. Color is deep black-purple. The flavor is floral, almost sweet, with notes of cedar. There is a fair amount heat, which seems to catch in the back of the throat.
- Pippali or long pepper (piper longum) is a small stalk with poppyseed-sized seeds and one of the most widely used Ayurvedic herbs for longevity.
- White pepper is from the ripe fruit that is still a greenish yellow just before they turn red, then soaked. The colored outer covering is washed off and the naked seed is dried. It is less spicy than black peppercorns.
- Undried green peppercorns are picked while unripe and often canned in brine or vinegar, or freeze-dried to retain the green color; they are not hot like black pepper, but have a good bite to them.
- Pink peppercorns are a totally different species from the pepper and now grown exclusively in Madagascar; the rose-colored berry is used in sausages and patés for their unique, almost sweet, peppery flavor and lovely color.
Pre-ground pepper quickly looses its essential oil and hence its aroma, so it is best to store peppercorns whole and grind as needed. There are many beautiful and functional pepper grinders, and they are worth the investment for the serious cook. Often peppercorn mixtures are marketed with a variety of colors for use in a pepper grinder. Peppercorns store in a closed container in a cupboard for at least a year.
One Vine, Three Peppercorns: Black, white, and green peppercorns are the fruit of the piper nigrum vine, which flourishes in the tropical heat and drenching monsoons of the world’s equatorial regions. In India alone, there are over 75 piper nigrum cultivars. Which is why different brands of commercial pepper can taste slightly different and have different degrees of hotness.
Top Peppercorns Named for Point of Origin: As with wine, local terroir—the soil, its mineral composition, the amount of sunshine and rainfall—contributes dramatically to the flavor and aroma of the peppercorn. Top-ranked peppercorns are named after the regions in which they are grown or the ports from which they are shipped. Indonesian Lampong peppercorns are small, and dark brown-to-black in color. The aroma is sharper, hotter, and less fruity than a typical Indian Tellicherry peppercorn. Lampong peppercorns are picked while very immature, which gives them extra heat. They’ve replaced Tellicherry in many kitchens. This is a must-try peppercorn. Ecuador organic peppercorns is an interesting peppercorn with an unusual flavor profile. The medium-large peppercorns fall somewhere between Tellicherry and Lampong in size. They are a unique greyish-brown color. Each peppercorn has a nib where it was attached to a spike, something I’ve never seen on other types. The aroma is sharp, spicy, and somewhat vegetal. They have a ton of fantastic peppery heat, with a tangy, slightly bitter flavor; the organic growing methods and location of the plantation close to the equator may account for the interesting flavor characteristics. There are single-estate peppercorns, like one grown organically by Parameswaran on his small estate on the Wynad plateau in India. These peppercorns can get pricey, but if you are a pepper gourmande, you will love experimenting.
Ripeness, Processing Determine Color: Whether a peppercorn is black, white, or green depends upon its ripeness when harvested and the way in which it was processed; these methods of drying affect taste and fragrance. I know many cooks who prefer white peppercorns over black.
Some “Peppercorns” Are Imposters: There are a few peppery-tasting spices that are not true peppercorns, but their berries dry and look like real peppercorns. It’s easy to mix them up. Among
them are false “pink peppercorns” (from South America and related to the mango plant), Sichuan or Szechwan peppercorns (from Asia/Himalayan cuisine, berries from the Prickly Ash, with a citrusy/lemony flavor that is not pungent, but numbing on the tongue), and grains of paradise (from West Africa and known as alligator pepper, a member of the ginger family).
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2005, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015
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