Every now and then even the late-'80s cook is reminded how near we all are to the apes, and how closely fought is the battle between us and nature. Just try cracking a peppercorn with your hands, for example. Or extracting the flavor from a nutmeg by crushing it under a rock. These wonderful spices were delivered to us in a sort of reverse Rubik's cube form; if you can figure out how to take it apart, you can savor the flavor.
Of course, pepper and nutmeg also come in little cans and bottles, already ground up for us by their packagers. Grind your own for a while, however, and you'll begin thinking of already-ground and ground-on-the-spot as two separate entities, so different are their impacts on the tongue.
One of the wondrous aspects of these tropical spices, one a fruit (pepper) and one a seed (nutmeg), is that their flavors remain intact as long as they do. Once ground, however, all kinds of deterioration and adulteration (dust, grease from the kitchen) begin to set in. Therefore, if you want maximum pungency and purest flavor, you have to grind your own on the spot.
Fortunately, and this is where we diverge from the apes, some clever people have figured this out for us.
There is a difference in pepper mills, and it's not all in their height, either. The ones waiters come around with ("a little freshly ground black pepper on your salad?") are as long as they are just for fun; there's nothing intrinsically better about a tall pepper mill except that it holds more peppercorns and looks more striking.
Good pepper mills (Peugeot and Perfex are two names to look for in particular) are easy to operate, allow you to adjust the grind from very fine to very coarse, and are easy to fill. When looking at pepper mills, pay attention to how they will behave in the situations in which you want to use them -- at the table, every day in the kitchen, with greasy hands, wet hands, one hand and so forth.
The standard in professional kitchens has been the Perfex. This is a little, unprepossessing cast aluminum mill with a nearly indestructible grinding mechanism and an ability to adjust easily from coarse to fine. It holds relatively few peppercorns, but it is uniquely easy to refill; a little door on the side opens and you just pour in the peppercorns. Most grinders require that you unscrew a knob on the top, remove the top and then replace it.
To grind the pepper you turn a crank at the top. With most other mills what you turn is the entire top. Whether this is easier is a matter of personal preference; try it out a few times before you decide, imagining yourself in peppering-type situations.
The Perfex is easier to clean than wooden mills because it's all metal. I find it a little harder to operate with wet or greasy hands because the metal gets slippery, but that's offset by the extra ease in refilling it.
Many of the wooden mills you see around will have mechanisms made by Peugeot, and you can trust them. They adjust well from coarse to fine and stay operable for as many lifetimes as you've got. There are salt shakers to match the Peugeot mills; there is none to match the Perfex.
There is a new variety of pepper grinder on the market made by Imperial Knife, and it's actually a wonderful idea. The grinding mechanism is operated with one hand, in a motion similar to the one you use with a flour sifter. If you think of the times you wanted freshly ground pepper but had only one hand available (preparing a roast for the oven, turning vegetables in the pan, stirring the sauce) you'll see the value of this little instrument.
The Imperial Knife pepper grinder also holds salt, so you've got salt shaker and pepper grinder in one hand. Grind is not infinitely adjustable but there are eight increments from coarse to fine at your disposal.
Made of clear, hard plastic with white "decorator accents," it's probably too cute to be thought of as serious by professionals but it works very well. Priced around $20, it is a little cheaper than the Perfex, a little more expensive than most Peugeots.
Some recipes call for freshly ground white pepper. White pepper is black pepper without the black outer layer, and is slightly milder. It's used often in white sauces where artistes would find the sight of little flecks of black offensive. It being bothersome to switch peppercorns in midstream therefore, two pepper mills might be in order -- one for black and one for white.
And a word about salt mills: kosher or sea salt is purer than most regular table salt and can be used interchangeably. In most cases you don't need to grind it finer than it already is, but in case you do (for instance at the table) salt mills are available, often with matching pepper mills.
To get the good out of nutmegs, you're going to have to grate them too. Although there are nutmeg graters on the market that look and act just like pepper grinders, given the way you're likely to use nutmeg (in smaller quantities and less often), the easiest and cheapest way is with a hand-held metal grater designed just for nutmeg.
This grater should have a compartment to hold the little nutmegs for storage and it should be large enough so that it stands comfortably on the counter, for the times when you need to grate a whole one (see the recipe for nutmeg muffins in "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham, for example). Small spice grinders such as the wondrous Varco will also grate a whole nutmeg, and it will do large quantities of peppercorns as well. The Varco is also perfect for times when you need to grind spices (including peppercorns) together to make a mixture such as garam masala for Indian cooking, or hot mixtures for other Asian or Latin cooking.