We've all endured the ceremony of the pepper grinder. The waiter arrives the second after the plates and asks if we'd like to have black pepper ground over our food. This annoying ritual got under way in the 1980s when giant pepper grinders first became commonplace. They were, and still are, expensive gadgets and most restaurants could only afford to buy one or two. The best way to give everyone the chance to experience the aroma and flavour of freshly ground pepper was for the waiter to be in charge of the grinder. This also reduced the risk of grinders disappearing into customers' pockets - another good reason to buy the biggest grinder you could find. The arrival of the giant grinder also coincided with the idea that waiters should entertain customers as well as take orders.
Our Favourite Spice
The pepper-grinding ceremony has all but disappeared from upmarket establishments, which now take the risk of leaving pepper grinders on the tables for customers to use themselves, though many casual cafés still keep the waiter in charge of the grinder. However, the popularity of the pepper ceremony does remind us that pepper is far and away our favourite spice and always has been. It also points to the fact that pepper does taste best when freshly ground. In his book Providore, Australian food specialist Simon Johnson says that if you could take only one spice with you to a desert island it would have to be pepper, because nothing compares to the aromatic hit of freshly ground pepper.
Indigenous to India
Pepper (Piper nigrum) is a perennial vine indigenous to the Malabar coast of India, but now grown in many places close to the equator. It grows on frames in Malaysia, but in other places it scrambles among living trees. The plant starts fruiting after three to five years and continues to do so every third year for 40 years. The berries that follow the small white flowers grow tightly packed along slender stems. They are picked when some of the berries are orange and red, but most are still green. The peppercorns are then sorted according to ripeness and the stems discarded.
The unripe green berries, which are used to make black pepper, are dried in the sun and raked for a week until they are wrinkled and black. The ripe red and orange berries, which will end up as white pepper, go through a more complicated process. The berries are packed in sacks and soaked for a week under slowly running water. This process rots the outer husks of the berries, so that they can be removed by rubbing them between the hands over sieves. The husked berries are white peppercorns. Black peppercorns have a more complex flavour than white, which are mostly used when the cook doesn't want black specks in a sauce, or when there is a desire for heat without spiciness. Fresh green peppercorns are occasionally used close to where they are grown, and are also packed in brine or vinegar. This powerful spicy seasoning became popular in the heyday of nouvelle cuisine, but is now used sparingly, mostly with fish.
Not to be confused with true peppercorns are pink peppercorns and Szechuan pepper. Pink peppercorns, which are sometimes seen in bottled mixtures of black, white and pink, are from a completely different plant (Schinus terebinthifolius). They have a pungent flavour, though without the hotness of pepper. Szechuan pepper (Zanthwlum pipeiltum) is the dried husks of red berries with their bitter black seeds removed. They have a peppery flavour with a hint of citrus and are used in Chinese and Japanese spice mixtures.
Although capsicums and chillies taste hot and are also called peppers, they are not related botanically to pepper. Mustard, another popular source of hotness in food, is from yet another family of plants that produces hot seeds.
A Potted History
The history of the spice trade is, above all, the history of pepper, the King of Spices.
80 BC - Alexandria, Egypt becomes the most important spice trading port of the Eastern Mediterranean, with one of its entrances known as 'Pepper Gate'.
410 AD - Alaric the Visigoth demands 3000 pounds of peppers as ransom from Rome.
1494 - Columbus' physician, Chanca, describes Mexican capsicums.
1498 - Portugese explorer, Vasco de Gama reaches Calicut, India, causing pepper prices to fall in the established European spice centre, Venice.
1672 - Elihu Yale reaches India and starts spice business which eventually provides the basis of his fortune, much of which he used to found the US university, Yale.
1797 - Captain Jonathan Carnes of Salem, Massachusetts, returns from Sumatra with his first large pepper cargo and makes the US an important player on the world spice scene.
1873 - Piracy and native hostility end America's direct pepper trade with Sumatra.
1976 - World trade in black pepper reaches an all time high of 220 million pounds.
The German Connection
The Germanic word Pfeffersack ('Pepper sack/bag)1 denoted successful German merchants in the 15th and 16th Centuries, when pepper was worth its weight in gold. The Fugger, Tucher, and Welser families were the most prominent examples. They earned enormous wealth from trading pepper (among other goods). During this time the Fugger dynasty earned a reputation as being 'the creditors of kings, and the kings of creditors' because they held influence in the elections for popes and governments often borrowed money from them. The Fuggers and Welsers, both being based in Augsburg, were fierce competitors. The Tucher family lived in Nuremberg.
Pepper is used in medicine as a carminative. Often found as an ingredient in drugs used to combat stomach disorders, it also stimulates appetite and helps avoid flatulence. On a lower note, pepper is also a sternutatory substance, an agent that causes sneezing, coughing and crying.
Buying a Pepper Grinder
The range of pepper grinders available is staggering. Apparently, male buyers and people looking for a gift go for giant grinders, but what should you look for when you want a functional grinder for everyday use? Auckland's (New Zealand) Epicurean Workshop suggests that you look for one that has a ceramic, rather than metal, grinding surface. Although these tend to be a little more expensive, they have a longer life and can also be used for grinding salt. However, the life of any grinder can be prolonged by always turning it clockwise, rather than backwards and forwards. Ceramic mechanisms are found in all styles, from the traditional turned wood to transparent acrylic to the currently popular stainless steel.
Pepper and salt are the cornerstone of European savoury seasoning, and the two words seem made for each other. Salt is essential to life itself, but pepper is there purely for gustatory2 pleasure. Few of us would relish the thought of having a poached egg without a grinding of pepper. Fresh corn, too, cries out for the aromatic hotness of pepper. Some cooks manage to make the leap into using pepper as a spice for sweet things. Pepper on strawberries is popular and this Researcher once made chocolate shortbread flavoured with pepper (and wished he hadn't). Most people prefer pepper to stay with its salty companion in such traditional delights as a pepper steak made with peppercorns crushed just before they are pressed on the meat. Grinders usually make the pepper too fine, so use a pestle and mortar, or the edge of a heavy pot on a bench, to crush the peppercorns just until each one pops.
Traditional Pepper Steak for Two
- 2tsp black peppercorns
- 2 Slices porterhouse or Scotch fillet
- 2tsp clarified butter
- 2 Splashes brandy, red wine or Vincon red wine condiment
- 1/4 Cup stock or water
- 1/2tsp Tomato paste (optional)
- 2tbsp Cream
- 1tsp Butter
Crack the peppercorns as described above.
If using porterhouse steak, make cuts along the fatty edge, to stop the steak curling as it cooks. Press the cracked peppercorns onto both sides of the steak.
Cook immediately or cover with plastic wrap and set aside in the fridge.
Heat the clarified butter in a heavy pan just big enough to hold the steaks. When the butter smokes, lay the steaks in the pan and sprinkle with salt.
Sear until the steaks are dark brown, then turn, sprinkle with salt and continue to cook to the desired doneness.
Take the pan off the heat and lift the steaks onto a warm plate and put in a warm place while you finish the sauce. Add the brandy, wine or condiment to the pan, then add the stock or water and optional tomato paste. Put back on the heat, scrape up the drippings and reduce the sauce by half.
Swirl in the cream and butter and pour over the steaks. Serve immediately.