by The Sultan of Spices, Ian "Herbie" Hemphill
"Pepper" is the most confusing name that has ever been given to a spice. The problem is that there are too many spices referred to by that word. The original peppercorns (Piper nigrum) were so sought after and treasured that when the Spanish discovered chiles in the New World, they called them "pepper" ("pimenta" in Spanish), because of their peppery heat. Similarly, when they found allspice berries (Pimenta dioica) in Cuba they called them "pimento," the Spanish masculine form for green and red peppers, which are really chile peppers. Confused? It gets worse. The Chinese call the fruits of the prickly ash tree (Zanthoxylum piperitum) "Sichuan pepper," and in Australia we call the black berries of Tasmannia lanceolata "mountain pepperberry." The bright pink berries of the Brazilian mastic tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) are called "pink peppercorns" and are the common dried pink peppercorns of commerce. Cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) and long pepper (Piper longum) are relatives of the true peppercorn that also have distinct peppery notes. This column is devoted only to true pepper, Piper nigrum. In my next column I will cover the other types of peppercorns.
Black peppercorns as we know them are the dried unripe berries of the Piper nigrum vine, a tropical perennial climber that can reach over 30 feet in height. The wonderful magic of black pepper is that when the green, unripe peppercorns are put out in the sun to dry, an enzyme contained within the pericarp (outer skin) of the peppercorns turns them black and creates the volatile oil piperine. It is this volatile oil that gives black pepper its characteristic aroma and flavor.
Harvesting Pepper, Kerala, India
Pepper vines are a particularly attractive sight in their native southern India, where in the western ghats (steps) of Kerala, they are trellised on palm trees, and sometimes eucalyptus, in what the locals charmingly refer to as "spice gardens" rather than plantations. The pepper vine is not a parasite, so the living tree simply provides an accessible trellis and its canopy of foliage gives shade for the vine, and to the pickers during harvesting. In some countries such as Malaysia, pepper vines are grown on poles or accessible trellises. A pepper vine has dark-green oval leaves, that are shiny on top and pale on the underside, the leaf size varies by type but tends to average somewhere between 18 cm long and 12 cm wide. The minute flowers are borne on 3 to 15 cm long catkins that hang amongst the foliage. Pollination of the hermaphrodite flowers, a genetic characteristic of the most commonly cultivated varieties, is assisted by rain, which increases the efficiency of pollen distribution as water flows down the flower cluster. The fruits (peppercorns) form in densely packed spikes 5 to 15 cm long and over 1 cm wide at the thickest part near the top, then tapering down to 5 mm or less at the bottom tip. Each spike may produce 50 or more single-seeded fruits which, when fully formed, are deep green. The peppercorns then ripen from their green state to turn yellow and finally become a bright reddish-pink color when completely ripe.
Many folks are unaware that black, white, green and true pink pepper all come from this amazing vine. While black peppercorns are simply the dried green berries, the processing of white peppercorns is a little more involved. To make white pepper, ripe and semi-ripe berries are harvested and tightly packed into gunny sacks and immersed in water (preferably a clean, flowing stream) for between one and two weeks depending upon the ripeness of the fruit. During this period, and aided by bacterial activity, the outer husk softens in a process described as "retting" and loosens from the hard core. After being removed from the water, the macerated peppercorns are trampled and washed until no pericarp remains. When dried in the sun, or in ovens, these peppercorns remain creamy-white, because there is no enzyme there to turn them black. Thorough drying is crucial at the final stage, because if they are not properly dry, mould will easily form and give the white peppercorns a musty ‘old socks’ smell. White pepper tends to be hotter than black pepper and the ‘heat hit’ attacks the taste buds faster than for black. I make a chilli lover’s spice that contains white pepper as well as a number of different chiles to give a balanced heat and taste sensation.
Piper nigrum, Black Pepper
From Illustrations of Medical Botany, Joseph Carson (Philadelphia: 1847)
Mary W. Runnells Rare Book Room, The Field Museum, Chicago (left), and from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (right)
Green peppercorns are processed in three different ways. The most traditional method was to preserve them in brine, thus preventing the enzyme from becoming activated and turning the berries black. The only disadvantage with this process is that the strong taste of the brine can linger, even after a thorough rinsing. These days the most popular way to produce dried green peppercorns is to immerse the fresh green fruits in boiling water for about 20 minutes. The boiling kills the enzyme and when the berries are dried they remain green and do not turn black. Modern technology being what it is, an enterprising firm in the south of India produces freeze-dried green peppercorns that are a beautiful color and have a smooth, round, bold shape with an alluring fresh green peppercorn aroma and taste. True, pink peppercorns are produced by simply putting the ripe, red fruits into brine in the same manner as the traditional method for green pepper. Unfortunately boiling to kill the enzyme and then drying, or even freeze-drying does not work for pink peppercorns, as the pericarp is so soft and friable at this stage of ripeness, it will only break up if subjected to any process other than putting into brine.
True pepper possesses the ability to stimulate the appetite with its provocative aroma, it causes salivation in anticipation of its expected taste, and activates our gastric juices as its pungency warms the tongue. No wonder pepper has been the world’s most popular and most frequently traded spice for thousands of years. Pepper can be classed as one of the few spices which is not only an embellishment for the cook to employ, but it is also something, in the hands of the diner, that has the ability to turn an uninspiring repast into a subject of culinary ecstasy. Faced with a pallid, uninspiring platter placed before one, the judicious shake, pinch, or grind of black pepper, may be all that is required to achieve a fiery satisfaction.
Right: Green Peppercorns
Left: Black, Green,
White, and Pink
Recipe: Sirloin Steak aux Trois Poivres
This intriguing dish violates at least two laws most people have concerning steak: never season it heavily and never fry it in a pan. But since the taste of this steak is so remarkable, we'll forget the rules. Three varieties of pepper are recommended, but it works just fine with just coarsely crushed black peppercorns. Varying the hot sauce used can produce peppered steaks with intriguingly different flavors. Also, experiment by using brown, red, or rose peppercorns. Wrap the black peppercorns in a cloth and crush them in a mortar with a pestle. Grinding them in a peppermill makes the pepper too fine.
2 tablespoons black peppercorns, crushed
1 tablespoon white pepper powder
1 tablespoon green peppercorns, crushed in a bowl with a spoon
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 teaspoon salt
4 aged and marbled sirloin steaks, at least 1 inch thick
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup brandy
Coat both sides of the steaks with the crushed peppercorns and the white pepper. Press the pepper into the steak with a blunt instrument and leave the steaks out, uncovered, at room temperature, for at least one hour.
Sprinkle the salt in a large skillet and heat until the salt begins to turn brown. Sear the steaks on each side quickly. Add the butter and cook the steaks for one minute on each side. Add the Worcestershire sauce and the hot sauce and cook another 1 to 3 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the steaks and the doneness desired. Pour the brandy over the steaks, wait 10 seconds, and then set aflame. When the flame goes out, remove the steaks to a serving platter. Reduce the remaining liquid in the skillet and serve it over the steaks. Ideally, the steaks should be served medium rare.
Serving Suggestions: Excellent with a fresh spinach salad and twice-baked potatoes.
Variation: For a heavier sauce, add 1/4 cup cream after removing the steaks.
Australian spice expert Ian "Herbie" Hemphill is the author of Spice Notes, one of the most authoritative books ever written on spices. It is available from www.herbies.com.au
(For a review, see Media Meltdown Winter 2001)
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