Story by Manos Angelakis
We’re all aware of pepper’s utility in a well run kitchen. No other spice adds greater flavor to a greater number of dishes. Together with sea salt, it is the most flavor enhancing component in the entire culinary arsenal.
Piper nigrum, the peppercorn plant, grows in tropical climates around the world. Black, white, and green peppercorns, all come from the berries of the same vine that is native to India and Indonesia; but most mass-produced pepper comes nowadays from Vietnam and Cambodia and does not travel the Silk Road. Pink peppercorns are the fruit of a completely different plant -- the Baies rose -- a tree native to South America and are mostly used whole, almost as a decorative spice. Szechuan peppercorns also come from a different plant, a prickly ash shrub native to northern China.
In a commercial kitchen you will find multiple versions of white, black, green and red peppercorns; many of the Michelin-starred kitchens that I have visited carry different varieties such as Tellicherry and/or Lampong (or Lampung), two of the most prized, in addition to standard black, Malabar Black, green and white.
Black pepper is ripe pepper selectively taken from the bush brunches and allowed to dry in the shade and shrivel. The berries are picked from the vine just before they fully ripen and turn red. As they dry, the berry skin turns black.
White pepper comes from the same bush as black, but the skin is removed prior to drying the peppercorns. It is a little milder than black and is used mostly in white sauces, so that no black flecks will appear in the sauce when the food is served.
Green pepper is unripe pepper removed from the brunch and, most times, preserved in brine or a blend of brine and vinegar. Best variety is one that is preserved in brine and sherry or champagne vinegar. I always keep a supply of green pepper in my refrigerator to use in one of my very favorite dishes, breast of duck in sour cherry (vishna) and green peppercorn sauce.
Our Editor’s Pick: Tellicherry is the largest of the black peppercorn varieties (4.25 mm or larger) and is considered as the most prized variety of black pepper due to its complex flavor which includes woodsy and citrus notes. Those peppercorns are more aromatic than regular black pepper but offer a little less heat. Tellicherry can be used in any dish that calls for black pepper -- but it will be more expensive than your run-of-the-mill pepper.
Lampong peppercorns are cultivated in the extreme south tip of Sumatra, Indonesia, and picked immediately after they start to ripen. The color is brownish-black. They have an earthy, mildly smokey aroma and moderate heat. Because they are not allowed to fully mature on the vine, these peppercorns are slightly smaller, but have more sharpness and heat than regular black.
In my opinion, the best black pepper still comes from India, and specifically, the coastal state of Kerala; the South Western coast known as the Malabar Coast. Malabar peppercorns are considered as having the finest flavor of the mass-produced varieties.
In my kitchen, I use a number of different versions of peppercorns. From McCormik I have non-specific black pepper, it’s not the best tasting but it is readily available and does the job; I used to purchase Malabar Black from Olde Thompson to use instead of the McCormik, but I can no longer find the Olde Thompson brand in my area. I also used to have Green Peppercorns in vinegar from Gourmet Club.
I recently got Tellicherry in a refillable grinder from Spice Lab and Green Malabar No. 5051 from the same source. The last, I received dry and I made my own bath of 40% brine and 60% champagne vinegar to use in my breast of duck sauce and my steak frites with red wine and green peppercorn sauce.
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