Hear ye, hear ye…. That’s all I’ve got. I was going to launch into a dark ages style royal decree about my writing prowess and the knowledge I am about to bestow upon ye…. But who has time for that when there is BLACK PEPPER POSTING to be had? All hail!
Black Pepper. The. King. of. Spice.
The selection of this week’s topic sprang from a desire to write about something not inherently sweet or fatty. I love me some spreads but I needed a break to a savory topic. I have decided to use the royal highness as an introduction to the spice trade and the role it played in shaping the modern world. Really, it did quite a lot more that you may expect.
Piper. Nigrum. Knowledge.
So. The basics. Black pepper is actually a dried, unripe fruit. I know. Shwhat? Tis true. This tiny treasure was cultivated in moist jungles of coastal India along the Arabian Sea. There, in the Kerala region, this woody vine flourished alongside allspice, cinnamon, and more. Tellicherry and Malabar peppercorns, the two highest-rated varieties, both hail from this region. Native and plentiful to Southern Asia, these flavorful buds were unknown to those banded to blandness in Europe. In as early as 1000 BC Arabian traders had successfully set up trade routes to cities farther west. The 4,000 mile road used to transit these goods from Asia to Babylon, Alexandria, Rome, and other cities took on the name “The Silk Road.” Much of the subsequent “age of exploration” involved lust for spice. Here is where I hand the history lesson over to my friends from the Warner Brother’s children’s education program “Histeria!”
More. Lore. Fo. Sho.
A few other choice fables of pepper caught my eye. In ancient Egypt the embalming process incorporated black pepper in a most peculiar way. The mummy of Ramesses II was discovered with black peppercorns shoved up his nose. What a cruel way to spend a sneezy afterlife! Roman soldiers often rubbed ground pepper over their muscles before battle. This was thought to provide strength and stamina on the war front…. which gives me some ideas for the bedroom. Hmmmm (soldier boy off in this hoooooe). I am not the first to receive risque inspiration. The potent spice was an ancient Arabian aphrodisiac and still persists to titillate today. The medicinal prowess of pepper is also well documented. Physicians of the old world used it to treat an assortment of ailments, including insomnia, sunburn, and eye problems (DON’T try that last one at home). With all this legend behind it, ascending to the monarchial moniker “The King of Spice” did not take much creativity. Black pepper is the most widely used spice in the world, making up 20% of all spice export internationally for 2002. At one time this statistic was as high as 70%. Now for an interactive game break, I present you with “Parle Vous Pepper?” Its a match game I made. Please play it. It took me a while to figure out the website…. (#pityparty #isitworking? #guiltytriptake2)
Taste. The. Not-Rainbow.
Inquiries have rushed into my inbox as to why I have excluded other peppercorn colors from this post. I promise it is NOT due to any intolerance to my pink, red, green, and white friends. These are wonderful spices and deserve a post of their own. While green and white pepper is derived from the same fruit as black pepper, the flavor profiles and uses are too varied to include here. It would be akin to discussing cashew and almond butter in detail during a PB post. Madness. Perhaps I can dedicate a future post to the colorful cousins, but for now we stick to black.
Speaking of “tasting the non-rainbow,” I did a little research this weekend in da burgh. My top research analyst C and I took to the Strip District in search of peppered delicacies. We mostly ran around smelling jars at Penzeys Spices, but the effort was intense. Our favorite find is a dark chocolate bar featuring sea salt and Tellicherry peppercorns. Until this I had only seen pink/red peppercorns incorporated into my chocolate friends. This gem came from Mon Aimee Chocolat. The excited tasting notes are as follows:
- “S-S-S-Salt and peppa’s here!”
- “Oh my gosh”
- “That is SO good!”
- “Its like my salt and pepper shakers fell into my chocolate, in a good way”
- “In theory you think that would suck, you know?”
- “Its SPICY… that is strong stuff”
Great job to the folks of La Belge for this daring confection. Get your own taste here, or just ogle the picture below for several minutes (I know you. I know what you do here).
So. Hot. Right. Now.
You may have noticed in the insightful tasting comments that pepper is a PRETTY spicy spice. While this shouldn’t surprise, it often does. The first time I bit into a sizable cracked piece my tongue lit up. What gives black pepper its pungent kick? The principle chemical responsible for pepper’s chemesthetic response is piperine. This molecule looks similar to our chile friend capsaicin (see photo below). A professor of mine at Penn State, Dr. John Hayes, is a field leader in capsaicin research. I have had the honor of working in his sensory lab and also participating in “burn” tests. Check out one of his papers here where he assesses bitterness and burn intensities of three compounds: capsaicin from chiles, piperine from black pepper, and zingerone from ginger. The take home for me is that piperine ranked equally bitter and equally intense in burn as capsaicin. The surprise for me was that black pepper’s heat compound produced a more intense burn over time than the other two compounds. So yes, this stuff is spicy (#spicyspice #stopthepress #mindblown).
Life. Changing. Recipes.
Before I unveil the reason most of you are here how about a helpful chef tip for prepping pepper? When I cook in friends’ kitchens they are mostly stocked with little tins of sad gray powder. THIS is not black pepper to me. This is sad sneezing dust. If you can spend the extra $2 on a pepper jar with a mill attached DO THIS. IT will make all the difference with your cooking. If you are like my poppa and love fancy wooden or glass pepper mills then DO THAT. My preference is to be a cheap ass and buy bulk Tellicherry peppercorns, then store them in an airtight container out of the light (this prevents oxidation). I take out as many as I need when cooking and grind them on a cutting board with the side of my knife. Really. I do. It terrifies my friends (read: my mom) but the last-minute cracking keeps essential oils from diffusing. “But Erica from United Tastes of Erica, how do I do this jedi knife cracking skill?” Oh hai informative video!
Great. Good luck young padawans. Now then, last week (in #2: The Power of Peanut Butter) I may have gotten a LITTLE labor intensive and gourmet with my ingredient showcases. In an effort to reel things in a bit I have gone more simple with our friend Senora Pimenta. Let us start off with a spicy, hearty, cheese filled sandwich sure to please AND to pack a peppery punch. My twist on “steak au poivre” dishes, I give you:
And for a 5 ingredient wonder-treat, how does some pepper-spiked juice sound? This is a way to prove pepper is not just for meat and cheese, but can be sassy and sweet as well:
Holla. At. Ya.
Acknowledgements as always to my sister S for her photo editing skills and use of her camera (I snapped the shots this week, but having more than an iphone goes a long way). Check out her official professional fancy shmancy photography skills here. So proud of that kid 🙂 Thank you to the fb following staying strong, as well as to my new friends in the blog-i-sphere. Hi guys! Can’t wait to read more of your stuff as we change the world, post by post.
Props to India, other pepper producing countries, the boys and gals who brought spice into our lives, and to the creators of another of my favorite peppers… Sargent Pepper that is. Yay Beatles! (If I didn’t mention them at least once my dad would never let it go) No props to the slave lords, trade barons, and asshole colonists who bloodied the history of my pal Mr. Pepper. BAD. NO. Buy fair trade. Recycle. Ride bikes. Okay then.
That finishes our discussion of The King of Spice, Black Pepper. Join us again next week when I take a crack at the daunting band wagon goliath that is…. Sriracha!
(Thanks Chelsea for the topic idea. Don’t be shy guys. Submit a topic and chances are I will take a crack at it. Pepper pun intended)
Talk to you soon! And as always, Bon App Y’all.
Sources de la Info:
History channel’s brief shpeel on pepper (aka pretty credible)