There's hardly a food that pepper can't complement

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The disparity between a restaurant's price and food quality," claims food critic Bryan Miller, "rises in direct proportion to the size of the pepper mill." That may be so, but the fact remains that pepper, as Plato once observed, "is small in quantity and great in virtue."

Though in the United States we tend to use pepper sparingly compared to other countries, the truth is there's hardly a food which its pungent bite does not complement. As the spice chart at the Epicurious Web site indicates, pepper goes with all salads, almost all soups (including fruit soups), all poultry, all fish, all meat, all vegetable, and almost all pasta dishes, not to mention cheese spreads, eggs and butter sauces. In my own experience I've found that it can do more for a glass of tomato juice than just about anything except a shot of vodka. As New York Times food writer Molly O'Neill rightly avers, "Pepper can turn the ordinary into the distinct." British newspaper columnist Josceline Dimbleby agrees, suggesting that pepper may be even more effective than salt or sugar in amplifying the taste of food.

Moreover, pepper's magic should not be limited to savory foods. For example, it is the secret ingredient in many a gingerbread recipe where it serves as a catalyst for other spices. In Italy they put it in biscotti and on fresh strawberries, in France they poach pears with it, and in India they sprinkle it on sliced oranges. At the American Restaurant in Kansas City it's an ingredient in the caramelized topping of crème brûlée and at the renowned La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles they routinely put a pinch of white pepper in the holiday pumpkin pies.

The pepper myth

With all that pepper can do for food, it's amazing that it should ever have been thought of as a way to camouflage the smell and taste of tainted meat, as it allegedly was during the Middle Ages. As it turns out, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, that commonly accepted notion is simply untrue. From ancient times, people have appreciated what pepper can do not to disguise flavor but to develop it. They've also employed it as a digestive, a medicine and an aphrodisiac.

As Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, relying on Sanskrit manuscripts, points out, "The use of pepper by the peoples of India goes farther back than that of any other spice." (The word pepper itself comes from Sanskrit.) Before long it became the "queen of spices," sought after for more than its gastronomic credentials, a symbol of power, virility and great wealth.

Though today pepper is cheap, throughout history it has been one of the most expensive spices. For the Romans, Pliny recorded, it was "bought by weight like gold or silver." Later, when the Visigoths besieged Rome, they demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper as ransom (in addition to gold and silver). During the Middle Ages it was often a part of a dowry. The Ottomans used it as currency. No wonder the French have a proverb, "cher comme poivre," as expensive as pepper.

Not surprisingly, pepper became the most important commodity in the spice trade. Indeed, as the Oxford Companion notes, during the 16th century the price of pepper served as a barometer for European business in general. Because of the volume sold, it is still the most valuable single commodity in the international spice trade. The largest producers are Indonesia and India (where the premium variety comes from the Malabar Coast). There's even a cartel-like community of pepper growing countries, harkening back to the Guild of Pepperers, one of the oldest guilds in the City of London. In 1328 they were registered as "Grossarii," the term from which the word "grocer" evolved.

Spurred Columbus' voyage

Pepper's popularity ultimately changed the course of history. It was passion for pepper as much as anything else that spurred Europeans to look for trade routes to the East. Columbus was looking for pepper and, indeed, thought he had found it when he ventured into the New World. But, alas, he had unwittingly discovered chili peppers, now sometimes called "false" peppers, and the name he gave them stuck. But so-called "true" peppers belong to the genus Piper and are the fruit of the vine, Piper nigrum. They come in white, black and green. Pink peppercorns are not truly a pepper and neither are Sichuan pepper, melegueta pepper, Jamaican pepper or allspice or cayenne.

Green peppercorns are picked while they are still immature and are sold either fresh or pickled in brine. Black peppercorns are picked right before they are fully ripe and are turning red. They are allowed to dry in the sun, which turns them black. White peppercorns have had their skins loosened by soaking and rubbed off. They are less powerful than black pepper and used chiefly in dishes where black specs might be unappetizing.

The most important thing to keep in mind about pepper is that it loses its punch quickly after being ground. Thus, buying ground pepper is a waste of money. To get the full impact it's essential to grind pepper right before serving. (Those pretentious waiters are onto something after all.) All kinds of devices exist for this purpose, ranging from the expensive pepper mill with a grinding mechanism made by Peugeot (the same people who went on to build French cars) and shaped like an hourglass to inexpensive plastic models that look like a tennis ball with rabbit ears. My favorite is the brass crank-top model that looks like a Middle Eastern coffee grinder. In fact, I've been so pleased with my nearly foot-high model that I've gotten a smaller one to grind salt. Whichever model you use, you'll find that what freshly ground pepper does for food is nothing to sneeze at.

Tuna Steak Au Poivre

Fresh tuna, along with swordfish, benefits from the classic treatment usually reserved for beef in this recipe adapted from the "Joy of Cooking." Because you want the peppercorns coarsely cracked, the best approach is to abandon the pepper mill and crush them with a heavy rolling pin or the side of a wide chef's knife.

Ingredients:

4 tuna steaks

3 tablespoons coarsely cracked black peppercorns

1 cup red wine

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons minced parsley

Directions:

Press peppercorns onto each side of tuna steaks. Sear steaks over high heat on both sides until done (approximately 2 minutes per side). Remove steaks from pan and keep warm. Reduce heat to medium and add wine and shallots, stirring until wine is reduced by one third. Stir in butter and salt and when incorporated add parsley. Spoon sauce over fish. Serves 4.

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