Wednesday, 29 May 2024

Foodie Freak: Pepper and the history of the world



The history of the world is written almost solely because of pepper. Arabic traders monopolized the distribution of pepper from India where they kept a tight control over its production. They concocted elaborate stories on how difficult pepper was to obtain in order to increase its value and monopolize the market.

Christopher Columbus went in search of a shorter route to ship pepper which landed him on the shores of the New World. When pepper was unavailable or not affordable, substitutions were made with great haste: grains of paradise, papaya seeds, long pepper, Szechwan peppercorns, mountain pepper, pepper grass and, of course, Christopher Columbus’s self-serving grand marketing plan, “Uh, sure, the voyage was a success, I found ‘pepper’!” – chili peppers.

It is said that peppercorns were brought from the east by Alexander the Great in 327 BCE. I don’t put much weight to that story since history tends to give credit to the famous entities rather than the real truth. Marco Polo introducing pasta to Italy is a good example. They had already had it for hundreds of years but it sounds better to credit the romantic heroes rather than Bob the shopkeeper.

Black peppercorns are the unripened berries of a tropical vine. They are picked and allowed to dry in the sun. White peppercorns are the very same berry but soaked in water until the skin disintegrates. Some producers just let the peppercorns sit in the same water until done while others use fresh water every day for a cleaner fresher flavor.

Green peppercorns are black peppercorns that are harvested early and instead of drying are either pickled or freeze dried. They are available dried or still in the brine at specialty markets. Making a Steak au Poivre (peppercorn steak) with brined green peppercorns is a dish fit for the gods!

While 99.99 percent of market peppercorns are under ripe peppercorns processed in various ways, truly ripe peppercorns are available in very limited quantities at preposterously high prices since they are so rare. The cultivation of peppercorns has been dated back more than 3,000 years so there has been plenty of time to experiment with their processing.

Pepper is one of the oldest known spices and had been used as money for centuries. Countries and kingdoms each had different forms of currency which made for difficulty in trade, but pepper was desired everywhere and simplified the exchange rates.

At many times through history peppercorns were more valuable than gold. Pepper was so valuable that in order to increase their profit unscrupulous British vendors fluffed their pepper with numerous fillers, such as charcoal, pencil shavings, papaya seeds, mustard husks and even floor sweepings. An 1875 law forbade the use of these fillers. Currently pepper is the third most used item in recipes, topped only by salt and water.

On occasion trade routes would get closed off and pepper became unavailable in Europe, so the African spice grains of paradise or pepper’s cousin, long pepper, became the replacement at the king’s table. Do YOU want to be the person to tell the king that the most valuable spice in the world isn’t available to HIM?!

If you have a tin of ground pepper on the back of your stovetop then you are cheating yourself. After years of experimenting with peppercorns I have blended my own six peppercorn combination with all of the characteristics that I love. You want to grind your pepper as close to the time of use in order to get the maximum flavor, and purchase your pepper in small quantities to get the utmost freshness. I purchase two ounces of each of my peppercorn favorites, then mix them and put them in my pepper grinder. This supplies me for over a year of heavy use.

My prediction is that someday everyone will have a pepper grinder and will grind their own pepper at home. Just as refrigerators and ovens were once only found in the houses of the very rich but now are commonplace, people who want truly good pepper will find a variety they like or even create their own signature blend and grind their own. Spice merchants even carry peppers that are blended with herbs and spices that can zest up your cooking. Varieties such as black peppercorns with slices of dried garlic, and black and white peppercorns with dried onion flakes are a couple of my favorites.

The flavor of freshly ground pepper is much more fiery and has subtle flavors that are missing in packaged ground pepper. With that said, I do have commercially ground pepper in my kitchen. My wife considers it “comfort food” because she is familiar with it and uses it instead of freshly ground in her cooking. She also prefers the uniform consistency more than the uneven grind that freshly ground gives. But even she will admit that freshly ground has more flavor.

Types of peppercorns

Black peppercorns: There are many locations that produce black pepper and each has its own aromas and flavors, but I’ve found that most of them are very hot with notes of licorice and asphalt. Some descriptions speak of “nuttiness,” “musty” and “earthy” tastes. From there you can find many popular varieties like Lampong, Malabar and Tellicherry (I use Tellicherry in my peppercorn blend).

Green peppercorns: Floral and licorice scented and the floral overtones continue in the flavor and are joined by an immediate, sustained, moderate burn with metallic undertones (as my wife said, “Like eating roses off a steel fork”).

Pink peppercorns: While not actually a member of the pepper family, these have a spicy and floral aroma with a sweet flavor that has a peppery essence with almost no heat, and the final taste has a hint of turpentine. My wife says that they smell like the yucca plant that grew in the yard of her childhood home, but I don’t know what that means. Maybe it will mean something to some of you.

White peppercorns: While not necessarily bad, the odor and flavor has a healthy manure scent and flavor. To be delicate, let’s say it has a fresh barnyard scent to it. The heat is sharp at first, then slowly tapers down but can still be felt minutes later. The manure essence may come from the process where the black peppercorns are actually soaked in water and allowed to rot to remove the skin to become white peppercorns.

Grains of Paradise: Smaller than a peppercorn with a medium brown exterior and a pure white interior, they look like tiny little coconuts when you crack them. In tasting them, the aroma of these grains even has a mild coconut essence. Their flavor is a straight hot fire with very little else. If you really concentrate you can notice a slight group of flavors in the back of your mouth but the burning of you tongue is what captures your attention.

Javanese Comet’s Tail peppercorns: They look just like a regular peppercorn but have a little bit of the stem still attached, giving them their name. They are all flavor with very little fire. Their aroma fills your nose with allspice, nutmeg and cloves, and tasting them brings all those flavors forward. There’s almost no heat, but after a minute a mild camphor-like flavor starts up.

Szechuan peppercorns: The seed of an Asian ash tree, Szechuan peppercorns were illegal in the US for a long time due to fear of spreading a canker virus. Now legal again, they are available at some merchants even here in Lake County. The outer husk of the peppercorn almost reeks of grapefruit, and the flavor of the husk is very citrus-like with a slight hint of mint but no heat. The inner bead of the peppercorn has no flavor and a sandy texture. Most people consider the husk the only usable part of the seed. The spelling of the Chinese province from which the peppercorns originate varies between Szchuan, Szechwan and Sichuan (maybe others, too). The spelling I use in this description is right off of the package I have, though I usually spell it Szechwan.

Tasmanian “mountain” pepper: Not actually related to true pepper, the berries come from a shrub native to Tasmania and the whole Micronesian area. The leaves from this group of plants are also used to add peppery flavors to local dishes where it is native. The leaves and peppercorns are both known to have antimicrobial properties. Due to their unique and heavily peppery flavor, essence of spice, sweetness, and mild tongue numbing sensation, they are increasing in popularity in the culinary community.

Long pepper: Not a peppercorn like the others, is a dried catkin (flower cluster) of a plant closely related to pepper. Hotter than regular peppercorns, it also contains a sweet aspect. Because the catkin is larger in size than average peppercorns, it can’t be used in a pepper blend in a grinder very well as it will separate out of the mixture. It can be ground up in the palm of your hands. It is a very inexpensive variety to begin branching out and experimenting with.

Even though I could go on for pages and pages about pepper, its history, future and all the different varieties, I’m going to end now so you can go out and try your own peppercorn tasting.

In the recipe below, you may have concerns about the amount of pepper on the steaks making them too hot to eat, but the act of cooking the peppercorns on the steaks actually makes the spiciness milder in the final product.

Steak au Poivre


2 steaks of your favorite cut, preferably lower fat and thick cut

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoon pickled green peppercorns (other peppercorns can be used but will taste different)

1/2 cup apple jack, brandy, or cognac, (your favorite dark hard liquor)

1 cup cream

3 tablespoon vegetable oil

Remove the steaks from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour prior to cooking. Sprinkle all sides with salt. While some people think this will dry out the meat it actually can be called dry brining. The salt pulls the moisture out of the meat where it mixes with the salt, becomes a saltwater brine and then is reabsorbed into the meat. It also allows the meat to get a better sear to it.

While the meat is doing this necromancy, remove the peppercorns from the jar and drain them on some paper towels. In a mortar and pestle (or whatever your favorite way is) crush the peppercorns without completely pulverizing them. Spread the peppercorns on both sides of the steaks and press them in firmly.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan or cast iron skillet on high. Put the steaks in the pan and press them in for good contact and reduce the heat to medium. Cook to whatever degree of doneness you prefer, but try not to exceed five minutes per side or the meat will start to dry out. Gently remove the steaks from the pan and set aside to rest.

Add the alcohol to the pan and let heat for a moment and then shake the pan to agitate. The juices in the pan may ignite, so don’t attempt to stir with a spoon or whisk. Flaming the alcohol isn’t necessary to the process; it will dissipate on its own through the rest of the cooking. After the liquid has reduced slightly, add the cream and whisk until combined. Again reduce the mixture until slightly thickened. Season the sauce with salt to taste and serve over the steaks.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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