Ingredient Spotlight: What To Know About Peppercorns
It may be the most quotidian of spices today, but peppercorns were once a precious commodity in the Middle Ages, when they were worth more than their weight in silver. European merchants in the 15th century cultivated their wealth through the sale of peppercorns, with the Venetians marking prices up to an average of 40 per cent. Arab traders, meanwhile, guarded their own stash by spinning a tale of how pepper trees in India were guarded by poisonous serpents. To harvest the peppers, they claimed, the trees had to be burnt to drive the snakes away, in the process turning the white fruit of the pepper trees black.
That, as the British might say, is hogwash. Black peppercorns are simply the cooked and dried unripe fruit of the pepper plant (Piper nigrum). In fact, black, green and white peppercorns are the same fruit. Their colour is merely the reflection of the varying stages of development and processing methods.
Peppercorns start out as small clusters of white flowers that take three to four years to develop into berries. The unripe berries, or peppercorns, are green and turn red as they ripen in the sun. Black peppercorns are made by picking the pepper berries when they are half-ripe and leaving them to dry and darken, while white peppercorns are processed by picking peppercorns at their ripest and subsequently soaking them in brine to remove their dark outer shells.
Pink peppercorns come from a completely different plant species (Schinus molle) and harbour a different taste profile. Sichuan peppercorns are derived from the husks surrounding the seeds of the prickly ash bush.
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Though native to India, the most highly regarded peppercorns today come from all over the world. Some of them, like Kampot peppers (from the region of the same name in Cambodia) and Tellicherry peppercorns from India, are certified regional products, much like champagne or San Marzano tomatoes.
As with wine, terroir and processing play a large part in a peppercorn’s resulting flavour. Tellicherry peppers, for instance, are typically allowed to ripen for a longer time before they are picked, so they get the luxury of developing more intriguing and complex notes that are grassy and fresh.
Kampot peppers, which grow in quartz-rich soil and rainy weather at the foot of Kampot’s mountains, have a notably sweet, oral flavour that lingers on the tongue. Sichuan peppercorns—the nest of which grow in their native province—boast an aromatic lemony flavour, leaving a distinct numbing sensation on the tongue.
The best way to experience the ambrosial complexities of peppercorns is to grind them fresh, just before using. A light dusting of ground peppercorns can be as transportive as a dab of perfume—a little goes a long way in delivering aromatic pleasure and the sensation of delicious possibilities.
(Related: Ingredient Of The Week: Basil)
BRING THE HEAT
We asked three chefs how they like to spice things up with pepper
Damian D’silva, Executive Chef, Folklore
“Sarawak peppercorns are the most fragrant. Their spiciness is pronounced, but in a subtle way that doesn’t overpower. More than anything, they enhance the flavour of dishes like ngoh hiang and hati babi bungkus [pig hearts, sometimes liver, wrapped in pig caul].”
Emanuele Faggi, Head Chef, Zafferano Italian Restaurant & Lounge
“I like pink peppercorns from Peru, as they are milder and sweeter. I use them in a roasted pork tenderloin dish and with salmon.”
Julien Royer, Chef And Co-Owner, Odette
“I use these amazing peppercorns that I source from Kampot, Cambodia. I find them to be the best because they have a beautiful rounded flavour and a natural savouriness, both of which linger on the palate for a long time. We use both black and red Kampot peppercorns to crust pigeon breast, and fresh green peppercorns for the jus.”