It's just pepper before you, there on the table as always in its shaker or grinder. The same that costs about 65 cents an ounce at the supermarket. The stuff that embellishes your eggs and potatoes, vodka and squid.
But you may want to consider calling the all-purpose and ever-present spice Black Pepper Sir, for it is a substance steeped in history and historical significance. And besides, it is a great spice used worldwide.
It is clear that many people fail to give pepper a fair shake. Are you guilty? Consider that pepper was one of the first commodities and the first spice traded in the history of mankind; that it has been the cause of war, the impetus to adventure, and was once more valuable than gold.
Exotic, pepper has almost always been valuable. By the time pepper had become the mainstay of trade for ancient Rome, it had been traded for centuries between the East and Europe. Black pepper was so desired in the 5th century that the Romans paid 3,000 pounds of it as ransom to help free their city from Visigothic invaders. Later, Genoese soldiers in Palestine were given pepper as part of their spoils, and in the Middle Ages pepper was sought by the upper classes for use as currency.
Marco Polo found the allure of pepper profits irresistable. In 1275, after he and his brothers were received in the court of the Great Kubla Khan, a man who also reaped great profits from the pungent spice, Polo visited the city of Zai-tun and was astounded: "The quantity of pepper imported there is so considerable that what is carried to the merchant center Alexandria to supply the demand of the western parts of the world is trifling in comparison, perhaps not more than the hundreth part." And Polo's sparkling words of islands in an eastern sea, where pepper and all the valuable spices grew in abundance, left an enduring legacy.
Venice, that great watery city on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, arose as a world center on the profits of pepper. Trading between Asia and Europe was as a matter of course difficult, but in the 1400s Europe's nobility and ecclisiastics began to crave pepper for its health and culinary characteristics, as well as for its status -- an abundance of heavily seasoned foods, as the Romans knew so well, was a delightfully conspicuous display of one's wealth or position. Sensing the demand for the rare spice, Venetian merchants came to the fore and became wealthy through commerce of pepper and other spices of the East. You may remember that during the Renaissance, wealthy Venetians supported the endeavors of da Vinci and Michelangelo. Remember, black pepper.
It was also in the 15th century that the race to the eastern spice islands commenced with vigor, the legacy of Polo's words, leading to the discovery of America. Unlike the Portuguese, Christopher Columbus believed the shortest route to the fabled Spice Islands was to be found by heading west. Aware that the Portuguese were picking up the scent to the pepper islands, he began his fateful journey westward in 1492. Not only did he get a little lost, he misnamed the spicy vegetables he found, "pepper." Green peppers and red peppers aren't really pepper afterall.
As in the days of lore the pepper vine, of the family piperaceae, is still grown in the monsoon regions of Asia. Pepper's perennial vine, native to western and southern India, is now also cultivated in Sumatra, Java, Jamaica, Brazil and other warm, wet areas. It is the pepper vines, each of which can grow as high as 30 feet, that yield tens of thousands of the small, unripened berries that when dried in the sun or by fire become peppercorns.
While there are more than 2,000 species of pepper, piper nigrum is the kind most easily found and the most commercially important. It is the pepper people prefer. Indeed, even white pepper comes from the piper nigrum peppercorn. The reason white pepper is white, and more expensive, is because of the way it is processed -- white pepper is made by grinding the peppercorn after the tough black outer hull has been removed.
Jean-Louis, chef at his restaurant in the Watergate hotel, says many of his peers in France use white pepper because of its appearance in their white sauces, which are often used in French dishes. But he prefers the black pepper because "its flavor is stronger, and the aroma much fuller." Jean-Louis says the smell of black pepper can be "voluptuous" at times. "I don't care about a speckled white sauce," he said, "and you can always strain the sauce; the flavor of the pepper will stay."
The variety of piper nigrum peppercorns is considerable. Like coffee, peppercorns are usually named after the region in which they are grown. In Washington it's possible to find 10 to 12 types of peppercorns, depending on the spice or specialty shop where you look. Of course the price of pepper varies, and sometimes can be quite expensive, depending on your taste. But popular types like Tellicherry, Lampong and Malabar are easily found and are relatively inexpensive.
Not only does pepper deserve respect for its noble history, it commands respect: It is the most-used spice in the world. Pepper can be used whole, crushed and ground to almost any degree of fineness. Put a whole, raw egg in a container of peppercorns for a few days, and the pepper doesn't need to be used at all. The eggs will taste quite peppery when cooked -- and the pepper in the container can still be used. Best of all, fewer people are taking pepper for granted lately, says Peter Tierney of Coffee, Tea and Spice in Georgetown. "We're selling more pepper grinders than we have in years," he said soberly, in view of the importance of the spice. "It used to be that everyone used ground pepper out of a tin can. Now there's a trend of people cooking more, using fresher ingredients. You can also use pepper instead of salt," he said, adding that many people are using less salt in their diets.
Although size, shape and price of pepper grinders vary considerably, one can be assured of finding no dearth of the devices in this area. Prices range from $6 to $30-and-up for the multiadjustable, gyro-balance models. And don't think you will be conspicuous at the office cafeteria or the neighborhood cafe' if you bring your grinder along. A variety of tiny grinders is made just for that purpose. Some people take their fresh pepper very seriously.
Washington chef Yannick Cam, owner and chef of Le Pavillon, is so enthusiastic about pepper that he uses it in nearly 600 dishes, the recipes for which Cam says he stores in his head. It is very important to care for pepper to preserve its aroma and flavor, he says. "It's like coffee. If you grind it before using, much of the aroma leaves and all you get is the hot taste." He said it is best to store peppercorns in an airtight container.
Of course, one of the main reasons to use pepper is for its flavor, and for the flavor it brings out in foods. Cam says that "good pepper gets flavor that is sweet and warm." Adding: "But one of the main purposes for pepper is for its aroma -- the rich flavors of the sun. Exotic. Heavy." MARILYN O'HARROW'S IRISH POTATOES (2 to 3 servings)
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
1 pound small white potatoes, sliced
Salt to taste
2 to 4 tablespoons freshly ground pepper
Chopped parsley for garnish
Melt butter in a large saute' pan; add garlic. Saute' for 3 to 4 minutes over medium heat. Add potatoes to butter. Stir potatoes so they are thoroughly coated with butter. Salt to taste. Add pepper, so potatoes are thinly coated. Transfer to a baking dish and cover. Bake in a 425-degree oven for 15 minutes or until golden. Arrange on plate with main dish and sprinkle with chopped parsley. PEPPER STEAK WITH ROQUEFORT CHEESE (2 servings)
In "The Chez Franc,ois Cookbook," Jacques Haeringer notes:
"All the French waiters say it; all the French chefs say it: 'ordering a peeper steak!' Traditionally a cook does not correct monsieur le chef. However, I felt it my duty to inform him that, in America, a peeper is a voyeur. I said, 'Zee peeper is zee guy hoo looks throux zee weendow at zee peeple hoo ar making zee amour.' My lesson did little to change his hard-core accent, but I did detect mirth in his voice whenever he ordered the dish.
"Who says the French don't care what they say, as long as they pronounce it correctly?"
2 12-ounce New York strip steaks
1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coarsely ground coriander seeds
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons roquefort cheese
FOR THE SAUCE:
1 teaspoon minced shallots
1/8 teaspoon cracked peppercorns
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup beef bouillon
Pinch minced garlic
2 drops lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Lightly salt steaks.
Combine the peppercorns and coriander. Using the heel of your hand, firmly press the mixture into both sides of each steak.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter and all of the oil in a heavy skillet. When the butter begins to brown, add the steaks and cook over moderately high heat until they are browned on both sides. Allow 3 minutes per side for medium rare.
Remove steaks and place on a platter, keeping them warm while you prepare the sauce.
Wipe out the saucepan in which the steaks were prepared. Then put in the shallots, peppercorns and wine, and place over high heat. Let the mixture reduce until there remains but a small layer on bottom of pan (about 2 tablespoons). Add beef bouillon and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in remaining butter with a whisk. Add garlic and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings.
When ready to serve, place a tablespoon of cheese, broken into 4 or 5 pieces, on top of each steak.
Place the steaks under a broiler until the cheese begins to melt. Remove the steaks from the broiler and pour the sauce around them. Serve at once. From "The Chez Franc,ois Cookbook," by Jacques E. Haeringer (Reston Publishing Co. Inc., Reston, Va. 1985) ROAST LAMB WITH PEPPERCORN CRUST (6 to 8 portions)
2 tablespoons crushed dried black peppercorns
3 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 cup Oriental soy sauce
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 boned but untied leg of lamb, about 5 pounds (weighed after boning)
2 tablespoons prepared dijon-style mustard
Combine 1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns, 1 teaspoon white pepper, rosemary, mint, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce and red wine in a shallow bowl. Marinate the lamb in the mixture for 8 hours, turning occasionally.
Remove roast from marinade and drain; reserve marinade. Roll the roast, tying it with kitchen twine.
Spread mustard over meat and pat remaining black peppercorns into the mustard. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons white pepper. Set the roast in a shallow roasting pan just large enough to hold it comfortably and pour reserved marinade carefully around but not over roast.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, or 18 minutes per pound, basting occasionally. Roast will be medium rare. Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes for well-done meat. Let roast stand for 20 minutes before carving. Serve pan juices in gravy boat along with lamb.
Adapted from "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins with Michael McLaughlin (Workman Publishing, New York, $10.95)