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Salt and pepper are everywhere in cooking and at restaurants, together and individually. The dynamic duo has to be the planet’s most popular seasoning — to the point that we don’t really give them much thought.
But let’s focus on pepper for just a moment.
One of the earliest spices to arrive in the west from the east, black pepper has a few variations and permutations and remains a popular kitchen staple and has been popular for nearly 4,000 years. It was once the case that pepper was worth more than gold — hence the term “pepper rent.”
The word pepper evolved from the Sanskrit pippali, meaning “berry,” in fact. And that describes it botanically, as noted in our first factoid-thing below.
Thing #1: Pepper is from the genus Piper and has a thousand cousins; black pepper is the dried, unripened fruit of this climbing vine; white pepper has the fruit flesh removed before being dried to leave just the seed.
Malabar black peppercorns come from the Malabar region of India, running north to south along the Arabian Sea. Compared to their neighbour Tellicherry peppercorns, they are smaller and less pungent and usually best used freshly cracked at the table.
Green peppercorns take unripe berries which are then processed by treating them with sulphur dioxide and dehydration, by canning, or bottling in brine. They can be pungent and piquant with a grassy note and add an interesting flavour when freshly ground on food.
Thing #2: Unripe green peppercorns may be freeze-dried to create their green colour.
Having originated on one of the two Malaysia states on the island of Borneo, Sarawak peppercorns yield a relatively mild black pepper that works quite well when ground over fresh strawberries (try that sometime!). Some Sarawak pepper is aged between four and ten years — and can be as expensive as $10 for 90 grams.
Thing #3: Centuries ago, the German name Pfeiffer (as in the spicy American actress Michelle Pfeiffer) meant “Pepper” and was a surname describing someone who sold the spice as their “living,” like a Miller, Tanner, Tailor or Fisher.
Pink peppercorns (poivre rose) are a bit of an outlier: they are not from the same plant as black, white or green peppercorns. They are from a Brazilian tree in the mango and cashew family that was brought to the southern United States as an ornamental plant (and which ended up becoming an invasive pest).
The cute little balls have both a decorative function in peppercorn mixes, but they also offer aromatic and what might be referred to as “resinous” qualities with pine and citrus aromas. Made in a vinegar brine, they became popular in restaurant kitchens in the 1980s and were often served with fish and seafood and in cream sauces.
Thing #4: Pepper is best stored in the cold and in the dark — light causes pepper to lose its pungency and become essentially tasteless.
Tellicherry peppercorns also come from India’s Malabar coast. The larger berries can do heavy duty when coarsely cracked for use on steaks on a flaming grill.
Finally, white peppercorns are the seed of the peppercorn only, the outer fruit layer having been removed. This is the peppercorn of pepper steak and ground with black pepper becomes a “mignonette” mix, which originally was a cheesecloth bag filled with peppercorns and cloves to flavor soups.
Thing #5: In Old English, corn meant “seed,” which describes exactly that which is left when the flesh of a peppercorn is removed.
When tasting peppercorns, look for qualities like sweetness; acidity; pine, grassy, mustard, or “resinous” flavours; and crumbly or solid texture.