I've always been intrigued by spices, so much so that I wrote a blog about them years ago, and liked it so much that years later I posted it again while under deadline. <G>
So naturally I read an article on black pepper when browsing an issue of Cook's Illustrated, a publication of America's Test Kitchen. Even though I learned a lot about cooking by working my way through recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking when I lived in England, I don't do a lot of cooking these days, but I do like reading about food and food related items.
Cook's Illustrated does articles on things like how to make the New England cod and potato cakes, or Indian Butter Chicken, or chewy peanut butter cookies, all of which are in the May/June 2019 magazine, but the magazine isn't just recipes. It's also exploring what works in different dishes, and why.
Along with that, there are short bits about subjects such as choosing capers yogurt with water is a better buttermilk substitute than milk clabbered with lemon juice or vinegar. And much, much more. Fun!
Naturally I read the article called "Grinding Away on Black Peppercorns." There was a whole sidebar comparing pre-ground pepper with grinding peppercorns fresh. Reading it explained why I've never had any use for the ground pepper common on diner tables: It has minimal flavor because volatile oils start to evaporate as soon as the peppercorn is ground, plus there's a gritty texture from the hard bits of pepper;
I don't think I ever saw a pepper mill when I was growing up, but I discovered them in college and have never been without a pepper mill since. In restaurants, I get a kick out of those long dramatic mills waiters use when they ask if you want pepper on your pasta or salad or whatever. (My answer is always yes.) Fresh ground pepper adds not just heat, but a brightness of flavor to all kinds of food, and the texture is softer than the pre-ground variety.
Black pepper originated on the Malabar coast of southwest India and it grows on a vine, which I didn't know until I started research this blog, cultivation spread to other areas of Asia. Other colors of peppercorn–white, green, red–are essentially the same but processed differently.
These days, Vietnam is the largest producer. Black pepper is the most popular spice in the US and comprises about 10% of all spice sold in America according to the McCormick spice company, the world's largest and local to me, the headquarters less than five miles away. I read another article said that black pepper is 20% of the world spice trade. Still popular after all these years!
Peppercorns were used not just for flavoring but also medicines. They were literally worth their weight in gold, so it's not surprising that the search for new spices spurred European exploration of the Far East–Vasco de Gama's voyage around Africa to Indian was in pursuit of pepper. A good cargo of spices could make a man's fortune, and I read that dockworkers in London had their pockets sewed up so they couldn't steal peppercorns.
Several years back I read that when the remains of drowned Elizabethan sailors were discovered, they all carried little pouches containing peppercorns. At the time I wondered if the peppercorns were kept for their value because peppercorns have been used as currency in the past, but in poking around for this blog, I found that pepper was used to improve the edibility of the salted meat that was a staple food on sailing ships. Though salt was the best means of preservation, it took spices like pepper to make it tasty. This may be the origin of the pairing of "salt and pepper" that persists to this day.
Is pepper popular in your household? Do you have some recipes that really need that bite of pepper to be at their best? Please share!
Mary Jo, who just about always grinds a bit of fresh pepper into one of her soups before eating