Black pepper has always played second banana to its tablemate, salt, the most widely used seasoning. number two black pepper, has pretty much been available in basic black, whereas salt has given us as many choices as there are cable channels from pink Murray River salt from Australia to fleurs de sel from Madagascar. In recent years, however, black pepper has been showing us many shades of gray, and other colors too.
When he was executive chef at Oceana restaurant in New York, Cornelius Gallagher used five different kinds of black pepper. For example, he’d put deep purple Australian pepper berries on roasted swordfish with salsify puree. “I liked the sweet and spicy flavor it gave to the dish,” says Gallagher, who also used Thai long black pepper in Indian mulligatawny soup because “the curry we used wasn’t spicy enough.”
Black pepper isn’t relegated to savory dishes either. Chocolatier Jeff Shepherd, owner of Lillie Belle Farms in Jacksonville, OR uses black pepper in his truffles. Shepherd says the truffles were “a huge hit with the Pinot producers here in Oregon” and also go well with more full-bodied reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
Black pepper (piper nigrum) is native to the Malabar region along the southwest coast of India and has no botanical relationship to chile peppers. It comes from the berries of a climbing vine that are picked before becoming ripe. These berries or peppercorns are then fermented and sun dried leaving their outer skins hard, wrinkled and black.
White peppercorns are picked riper and have their skins removed, making them milder than blacks. Underripe green peppercorns are usually freeze-dried or packed in brine and have an herbal or grassy note. Red or Pondicherry peppercorns are fully ripe and rare. They are not the same as the more common pink peppercorns, which are not related to piper nigrum, nor are Sichuan peppercorns.
with coffee and cacao, the pepper plant has been transplanted to other locales, which impart their particular terroir to the spice as well as helping to make black pepper less expensive. Indonesia is the second largest producer after India. Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam also produce peppercorns.
Black pepper is typically categorized by the region in which it is grown or the port from which it is shipped.
Tellicherry is a city in the Malabar region in the Indian state of Kerala. It is also the name of India’s most highly regarded black pepper. Tellicherry peppercorns are picked when more mature, so they are larger and more intensely flavorful. Only about 10 percent of Malabar peppercorns qualify for the Tellicherry label.
But just as all Cabernet from California isn’t the same, neither is all Tellicherry pepper from Malabar. In my tasting, Tellicherry peppercorns from New York spice merchant Kalustyan’s had a smoky, musky aroma when whole. When ground, they had a classic black pepper sharpness on the palate with a persistent finish. Other Tellicherry peppercorns had little aroma and a milder flavor. Kalustyan’s Malabar peppercorns were also, like the Tellicherry, but their aroma was more evocative of Indian cuisine. The taste was similar with perhaps a touch of allspice in it.
Pondicherry peppercorns are one of my four favorite peppers. In shades from earthy dark brown to red clay, the Pondicherry peppercorns had nice floral and spice aromas when whole. After grinding, there was a definite sensation of allspice along with some white pepper notes. The Indian Long Pepper (piper longum) is related to the black peppercorn and has a wonderful sweet cinnamon and allspice aroma with a long spicy finish. Because these peppers are about an inch long, they need to be crushed with a mortar and pestle. The aroma of the Cubebe peppercorns (piper cubeba) from Indonesia was like walking into a spice bazaar with scents of cardamom and coriander. And it continued when ground as the taste sensation danced on the tongue like a ballerina. Larger and darker than traditional peppercorns, the Tasmanian pepper (which is not related to piper nigrum) exploded with citrus and floral aromas when ground and gave off sweet spice flavors on the palate.
Regardless of the type of peppercorns you use, buy them from a spice purveyor that has a good turnover to insure freshness. Store them in an airtight container, away from heat and light. And always grind them as needed.
In cooking, whole peppercorns are used when a more subtle flavor is desired–such as in marinades and pickling spice blends; and in a bouquet garni (bundled in cheesecloth with herbs, celery and garlic) for court bouillon (to poach fish, for example) and for long-cooked dishes such as stocks, soups, stews and braised meats. They are generally removed before serving.Coarsely ground black pepper gives you the most pungent pepper sensation because you are biting into larger pieces than finely ground pepper, which will be more integrated into the dish. Coarse pepper is often used as a coating for meaty fish steaks, such as tuna, or beef steaks including steak au poivre, a bistro classic of skillet-seared meat with wine or brandy sauce (accompanied by a peppery Rhone, perhaps?)
If you added considerably more salt to a dish, chances are that it would taste too salty. Not necessarily so with black pepper. I was amazed at how many things I cooked, from simple sautéed potatoes to beef stew, got an added dimension from significantly more black pepper than normally called for, up to two tablespoons in some cases.
For long cooking dishes, Indian cooking authority Madhur Jaffrey suggests adding black pepper at the beginning and at the end. “The first time the pepper becomes ingrained in the sauce and melds with the other ingredients,” she says. “When you put it in at end, it gives you a more assertive taste.” Indeed, black pepper is a key ingredient in one of the most common Indian spice blends, garam masala, which is traditionally sprinkled on dishes just before serving. But which pepper? Ah, that’s where the fun begins.
Here are some mail order sources.
Kalustyan’s, New York, NY. 800-352-3451, firstname.lastname@example.org
Penzeys Spices, Wauwatosa, WI. 800-741-7787 email@example.com