Remember learning about the spice trade in school? For me it conjured images of luscious silks, slow camels, and ships firing at each other broadside. Smells of cloves, hot wool, and gunpowder. It was responsible for the creation of relationships between the far east, south pacific, and European countries and the catalyst for Columbus' discovery of North America. And peppercorns were the main currency.
Last week the Culinary School of the Rockies and Savory Spice Shop of Boulder continued their joint in-depth lesson on spices with an exploration of peppercorns. Chef Michael Montgomery prepared dishes with four varieties of the spice (including pink peppercorn and balsamic ice cream), and Dan Hayward of Savory Spice presented many more. There was enough variety in shape, color and flavor to inspire any cook, or for that matter, any conqueror.
Most peppercorns are the dried berries of the piper nigrum plant, a tall-growing vine native to south India. White peppercorns are simply black pepper with the outer coating removed (generally for aesthetic purposes.) Green peppercorns are the immature berries of the same plant. Pink peppercorns are the similar tasting berries of another plant entirely (a bush from South America) and Sichuan peppercorns from yet another botanical family. The berries, when dried and ground, all produce a visually similar effect, and thus they are all categorized as peppercorns.
The taste and uses of the many spices labeled 'pepper' were showcased at the class, where students were encouraged to try crunching one and all. Following are descriptions of some of the all stars, all available at Savory Spice Shop in Boulder.
Tellicherry Black Peppercorns: These are what you think of as 'plain old black peppercorns,' but it is easy to see why sailors were paid with bags of them. Savory's high quality variety is strongly spiced, pungent, and robust, giving depth when used whole in stocks, and the best of peppery kicks when ground.
Tasmanian Pepper Berries: Larger than tellicherry peppercorns and reportedly ten times as hot, these dark purple berries sneak up on you with a strong spice and a lingering numbness. Their rich, complicated flavor is a great addition to a spice blend for infusions.
Long Pepper: Closely related to the piper nigrum plant, but with a distinctly different shape and piney sweetness. The interior holds seeds, which are the vessels of strong spice. Crush with a mortar and pestle, or crack and infuse this unique pepper into soup.
Reunion Pink Peppercorns: With beautiful shades of light pink to magenta, this berry is native to South America and related to the cashew. The first crunch brings a mild sugar-cinnamon flavor, and the interior burns lightly with the combined fruit and spice of a good chutney. These would make a beautiful addition, crushed coarsely, in cooked fruit sauces. (Try Spring Morning Tea with pink peppercorns!)
Szechwan Peppercorns: A journey through a Szechwan peppercorn is a unique sensory experience. The split hull first releases a meaty, almost salt flavor, then develops to a more acid, citrus taste. It finishes with a sharp pine note and then lingers like fresh mint on the tongue.
Grains of Paradise: These aptly named tiny, dark reddish seeds hold a kaleidescope of taste inside them. The first notes are delicate and floral, turning fruity and sweet with another breath. Then comes a peppery spice with a hint of licorice, and finally a fiery finish.