Peppermongers has a simple mission: to champion the best-quality pepper from around the world and bring it into Britain’s kitchens – and all inspired by a trip to Kerala.
What grows 6,000 miles away, accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s total spice sales, and can be found on just about every dining table? Pepper, of course. It’s a spice with a rich history, and there’s a lot more to it than white pepper for white sauce and black pepper for everything else. Tom Alcott, co-founder of specialist pepper company Peppermongers, aims to turn us all into pepperheads, with a proper appreciation for the spice. He shares his zeal for this overlooked but essential condiment with Flavour First.
How did you get hooked on pepper?
When I was 19, I sailed across the Atlantic to Grenada, which is famous for its spices. I became interested in spices then, and I discovered pepper a few years later. My wife launched a social enterprise called FRANK water, selling bottled water to raise money for clean-water projects in India. We were going to India as part of that and, while we were there, I came across all the spice gardens and, for the first time, good-quality pepper. I’ve been through lots of food phases: I’ve had a bread phase, a meat phase, a baking phase and even a chilli phase, but the pepper phase never passed. It stuck with me.
Why did you start Peppermongers?
At the time we started you could get quality salt and quality olive oil. We knew quality pepper existed, but we couldn’t find it here because no one was thinking about it. It’s like what happened with chocolate: we were happy with Cadbury’s, and then Green & Black’s came along, and we realised chocolate could be so much more. Most adults have eaten pepper in, or on, most meals for most of their lives but don’t know what the plant looks like, who grows it or what the quality is. Even people interested in food, including exotic spices, didn’t give any thought to such an everyday condiment. We reasoned that if you want to eat great food, then you’ll definitely want great pepper. We made it our mission to bring good-quality pepper to everyone’s pepper mill.
Can you tell us a little about the different types of pepper?
There’s not just small, round and black, but also long and flowery, strong, weak… There’s a fantastic book called Pepper: The Spice that Changed the World by Christine McFadden. She outlines 30 types of pepper! Most people know piper nigrum – the black peppercorns – but there’s also piper longum, a long pepper that the Romans used, and piper cubeba, which was the most popular pepper in Britain during the 17th century, though largely forgotten now. They’re all different. Saying that all pepper tastes the same would be like saying you can’t taste the difference between a white wine, a red wine and port. Once you’ve tasted different peppers you’ll be amazed.
How do you take pepper from the plant and turn it into the ingredient we use in our kitchens?
Pepper grows on a vine, and is a fruit like a plum with seeds inside. When the pepper is green it’s fresh and, when it’s red, it’s ripe. When you dry the green peppercorns they become black. If you soak them in water for two weeks the skin comes off and the seed bit you’re left with inside is white. The seed in the middle is where the heat is, and the flesh is where the flavour is.
What makes good-quality pepper?
Small is beautiful but, with pepper, bigger is actually better because it means the fruit has more water, which means more flavour and more heat. Pepper is graded according to size, so if you want peppercorns 4.5mm in width you put the harvest through a sieve with 4.4mm holes and what you’ve got left are the best. If a peppercorn breaks during processing, the oil comes out. When you buy cracked black pepper you can’t smell it because all the oil with the flavour has been dried off. That’s why there’s always such a drama around the grinding of the pepper mill in Italian restaurants – they want you to get the pepper at its best, when it’s freshly ground.
Is pepper good for us?
Too much salt will kill you, sugar’s not good for you, but pepper is an aphrodisiac. At the very least, it’s good for your circulation, because hot foods like chilli and pepper stimulate the system and get the blood flowing. It’s also used in ayurvedic medicine. Pepper has generally been accepted as good for us for the past 4,000 years. Except if you spray it in your eyes, of course! I think that there are three important things we all need in life: a good night’s sleep, sunshine and good pepper. If you can have these three things, you’ll have a good life.
FIVE WAYS TO GET THE BEST FROM YOUR PEPPER
- When you’re cooking, put white pepper in at the start to infuse the food with heat. Put black pepper in at the end, just before you serve the food, to get its bold, fruity aroma.
- Don’t use your pepper mill over the pan. The steam ruins the mill and makes the pepper damp, which affects the flavour.
- Most pepper mills are made to look good rather than to do a good job. If possible, grind your pepper in a pestle and mortar.
- Always grind pepper just before using, so that the oils in the peppers don’t evaporate away, taking the flavour with them.
- Don’t use a pepper blend. The red peppers in pepper blends are actually pink, and are a completely different species. They look very pretty but they’ve got no heat and barely any flavour. Instead, look for nice big black peppercorns.
Read this article as it originally appeared on Flavour