A colleague recently observed that the quality of food in a restaurant is in inverse proportion to the size of its pepper grinder. Amusing? Yes. True? Mostly!
But there is a more interesting point to note. How was it that pepper, and salt for that matter, become ubiquitous in our diet? On every table, in every recipe, wherever you turn.
Pepper is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, a climbing vine that yields fruiting spikes of a dozen berries. These ripen from green to red over the course of several months, but are never black.
Green peppercorns are unripe berries preserved through freeze-drying or pickling to retain their colour. If they are dried, it is only then that they shrivel and become black.
White peppercorns are the internal seeds of the ripe berry, after the bright-coloured papery fruit has been soaked off. Pink peppercorns are ripe berries, fruit and all, whose colour has been preserved, usually with sulphur.
Pepper in its various forms plays differing roles in the kitchen. Green peppercorns are spicy and tart (in part courtesy of their preservation), and their flavour is best infused into a liquid medium. That’s why pepper sauces are usually made with green peppercorns.
Black pepper has the highest concentration of piperine, the key chemical that gives pepper its distinctive burn. Hence we use less black pepper in a dish than we would of other styles.
White pepper is effective for seasoning dishes like mashed potatoes where you don’t want to see the flecks of black pepper. Yet white pepper lacks pungency and heat, as most of the piperine is contained in the removed shell.
As for pink pepper, well it’s just pretty!
But none of this explains why pepper became such a fundamental commodity in our cooking. So important that it is the most valuable spice crop in the world, with it’s own central trading exchange in India. Pepper’s primacy comes down to a simple observation that ‘seasoning is anything we add to food that affects the food’s mouthfeel, as opposed to its fragrance’. A dash of mellow, peppery spice lifts and elongates the flavour of our dishes, making simple tastes complex, and helping to mask a myriad of culinary errors. But best of all, pepper achieves this without destroying the flavours you started with. Its prestige is well-deserved.
Lemon pepper kingfish with Tuscan kale and roasted tomato salsa