Pepper and Salt, a Symbiotic Relationship?

January 19, 2024 posted in Behind the Scenes

In India, Pepper is the King of Spices and Cardamom the Queen!

Recipes say “Season to taste” and people ask “With what?” Answer: to season always means with salt.

We were visited by a lovely customer, David. David wanted to know what are the best peppercorns, and all the food shops he visited told him that they had all kinds of salt, but “Yeah, peppercorns are just peppercorns!” So he came to our Spicery in Charmhaven to find out about peppercorns.

That started us wondering. Why so much fuss about the plethora of salts, when the basics of so many dishes are pepper and salt? Some cooks make a big thing of using pink salt, volcanic salt, sea salt, Kosher salt, and flaky salt. Something that is just a mineral (NaCl – Sodium Chloride) gets all the press, while hardly ever do you hear a reference to a particular type of peppercorn. Peppercorns are nurtured by farmers, and go through a natural drying process. One that activates enzymes in the skin of the berry to make it black, and create its unique flavour.

Is salt such a big deal? Yes, it makes food salty and any, often rarely discernible taste difference, is due to the impurities that make it different from a plain white salt. Wow!

Let’s ponder why an ingredient that is overused in many spice blends to reduce the cost, is consumed in quantities that make most health professionals blanch, and is the cause of many long-term ailments, is so popular. Of course, it enhances taste!

Salt is as essential as water to the human diet, however we only need around 500mg of salt a day. That’s half a gram, less than a pinch, and this amount is often contained in the fresh foods we consume anyway. Salt delivers taste enhancement, but no aroma.

Pepper is beautiful, but taken for granted. Black peppercorns with their dark-brown to jet-black wrinkled skins are the dried green fruits of a tropical climbing vine (Piper nigrum) native to the south of India. These dried berries have a warm, oily penetrating aroma and full-bodied pungent flavour and lingering heat that comes from piperine inside the peppercorn. So, with pepper we get aroma and taste, the two most important sensory attributes to food. Be sure to smell your peppercorns when you crush them, inhale the aroma and come to understand its nuances, and how these compliment your food.

These are some of the interesting peppercorns that can tickle your taste buds:

ASTA Grade: Believe it or not, this stands for the American Spice Trade Association. Why? Back in 1986, when Herbie was at the first International Spice Group meeting in New Delhi, food producers in developed countries were having trouble with bacteria in peppercorns that has been dried on the ground. The Indian delegates were perplexed, as they has been using pepper for centuries with no ill effects. The reason, Indian cooks added pepper to food during cooking, the heat killing any micro-oganisms that could be bad for health. However, Herbie pointed out to the group that in the West, we were using pepper in non-traditional ways. Foods rolled in cracked pepper and allowed to be stored at ambient temperature created a bug haven, as did the many ‘new’ uses for pepper that people came up with. The solution, dry peppercorns on woven mats, not on the ground. These days, when necessary, some pepper is cleaned with super-heated steam, referred to as sterilizing without the use of chemicals. This then led to an international standard being developed to guarantee standards such as cleanliness, volatile oil content, and moisture. ASTA grade pepper can come from any pepper producing countries that meet this standard. Subtle differences will be noticed depending on the country of origin and the soil and climatic conditions there. Some of the countries growing and marketing pepper worldwide are, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Brazil and Vietnam. While Indian ASTA pepper has a deep full-bodied aroma and taste, the South-East Asian varieties have a lighter somewhat lemony note and strong pepper bite.

TGSEB Grade: This stands for Tellicherry Garbled Special Extra Bold. Tellicherry is the region in south India this grade comes from, also often called Malabar pepper. Garbled simply means cleaned. When harvested and dried, peppercorns will usually have remains of stems and light berries (empty ones) that need to be sieved away, Special just means that this is a special grade, and Extra Bold means a large peppercorn. This is a top-grade cleaned peppercorn that was also known as ‘Alleppey pepper’ (Alleppey being the picturesque region, latticed with man-made canals, to the south of Cochin) but is now most often just named after the Malabar coast from which it comes. Indian pepper is held by many to the best pepper in the world, after all it is a spice native to India. Indian TGSEB pepper is esteemed for its high oleoresin and volatile oil content, which explains why the aroma is distinctly oily, and its pungency is so pleasing.

Super Grade: Herbie’s Super grade black peppercorns are harvested in Kerala, South India, and instead of drying on mats in the sun for up to a week, they are plunged into hot water to accelerate the natural enzymes in the outer skin (pericarp). The heated peppercorns are then laid out on long stainless steel benches, where they turn black in about 3 to 5 hours. Next they are then kiln dried and hand sorted to remove any ‘dodgy’ looking ones. This process yields a black peppercorn with a highly aromatic volatile oil content. Excellent to use in pepper mills rather than as a cooking ingredient, when the freshly ground aroma and taste of a beautifully fragrant black pepper can be fully appreciated.

Kampot Red: Unique partly due to the geographic conditions of Cambodia, Kampot Red peppercorns are processed differently to traditional black pepper. Most black peppercorns are produced by drying freshly picked green peppercorns. However, with Kampot Pepper the fully ripe berries are dried carefully in the shade to start with, to prevent the enzyme reaction from turning them completely black. Because ripened fruits have a higher sugar content than unripe berries, Kampot Red peppercorns have a sweet, almost fruity note, combined with an underlying characteristic pepper heat. Great in the pepper mill, and with poultry and seafood.

Australian Grown: These peppercorns have been grown by a farming family in North Queensland for around 30 years. Although not an Australian native pepper, these berries from the Piperaceae family, have a distinct flavour and aroma, due to the soil and climatic conditions where they are grown. While deliciously aromatic, the heat level is a little milder so the pleasure of aroma and taste can be experienced with less heat than in most other pepper varieties.

While the jury may be out on which is most important, salt or pepper, keep in mind that like all good partnerships, they work best together. Salt is tasty, pepper is tasty, aromatic and flavoursome!

For more information about the world of pepper, and the history of salt, go to The Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition by Ian Hemphill with recipes by Kate Hemphill.

Spice & Herb Bible 3rd Edition
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