Pepper sorcery and magic

Updated: May 8, 2018

The invitation from the Guild of Food Writers featured a pepper and spice workshop…… The spice angle appealed, but regrettably I have never liked pepper. It makes me cough at best, and sneeze violently at worst, effects which tend to detract from my enjoyment of whatever it may be seasoning. Sous-Chef on the other hand loves pepper and when he is ruling the kitchen, every dish comes with countless generous twists of the pepper mill – and I simply grin and bear it – and cough – and sneeze – and am grateful for the fact that I am the eager recipient of a delicious supper.

Nevertheless, having been out of circulation for three years due to the dictatorial nature of my studies and having therefore missed out on countless intriguing, food-related events, I decided to accept the Guild’s invitation to the workshop – and thereby embarked on a new and enthralling adventure. Suffice it to say that it was a real eye opener and changed my attitude to pepper forever.

The workshop was held at Santini’s, an elegant Italian restaurant a short walk from Victoria Station. Crammed into a private first floor dining room, we were treated first to an introduction to pepper by Axel Steenberg, the founder of Steenberg’s of York, providers of an impressive and very exotic selection of organic herbs and spices; and then to a succession of Italian dishes seasoned with a mesmerising variety of Steenberg’s peppers.

Who would ever have thought that pepper could come in so many different shapes and guises, from so many different countries let alone single estates, and with such a huge diversity of aromas and flavours? Despite my countless years of professional cooking, my experience of pepper has been limited to black, white, green, pink and perhaps Sichuan – and only now have I finally realised what I have been missing! Pepper is grown in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Australia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, Brazil, Madagascar, Réunion and Ethiopia – the list goes on and on. There are Premier Cru peppers like India’s Black Alleppey Pepper, and Grand Cru peppers, like Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Pepper; Ghana’s Grains of Paradise “tingle like pins and needles”, Madagascar’s Voatsiperifery Pepper is hot and fruity, Ethiopian Korarima Pepper is mysterious, sweet and sultry, Australian Mountain Pepper has a kick like a mule. Fermented peppers from Sri lanka, smoked peppers from India, red peppercorns, round peppercorns, long thin peppercorns, long chubby peppercorns, peppercorns with a tail, peppercorns in a delicate papery husk, peppercorns with an overwhelming scent of cinnamon, peppercorns in tiny bunches reminiscent of miniature raisins – the variety is infinite and needless to say, everyday black pepper was utterly outclassed and quietly faded into the background. Armed with Steenberg’s comprehensive pepper list which covered origin, aroma, flavour and suggestions for food pairings, I worked my way through an awe-inspiring collection of peppers, sniffing them, nibbling them, chewing on rock hard ones, cracking open softer ones, rubbing them in the palms of my hands to release their magical scent – what a culinary education, what a fascinating new world!

We were only half way through our pepper journey when the food started to arrive. Laura Santini, the owner of the restaurant, introduced each dish to us in turn and explained why she had chosen to pair the specific peppers with her traditional Italian flavours – and while she did so, she circled the table, pepper mill in hand, grinding more mysterious grains for those who wanted. I soon discovered that the best way to discern the individual nuances was to grind the pepper straight into the palm of my hand so that I could lick it up, savour it and get properly acquainted with it before taking a mouthful of the food it was enhancing. We ate salted cod with Andaliman Pepper, pasta and beans with Red Long Pepper, mango prawn cocktail with Passion Berry Pepper, spaghetti with Wynad Black Pepper, guinea fowl with Cubeb Pepper, zabaglione with Mountain Pepper and shortbread flavoured with Timur Pepper – a glorious Italian feast with unexpectedly exotic undertones.

I came away with my head buzzing with recipe ideas, and with two firm favourites: the Andaliman Pepper from Indonesia, with its wonderful tang of citrus, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass; and the Passion Berry Pepper from Ethiopia, which is so aptly named and positively sparkled in the prawn and mango salad – I am longing to try it in a sorbet or icecream.

My voyage of exploration into this captivating new world of pepper has only just begun and as I experiment with the contents of Steenberg’s little glass jars, a steady succession of recipes will emerge over the next few weeks and months. It had never occurred to me that a good grinding of pepper could be so life-enhancing and that so many pepper gastronomy quests and discoveries lay ahead of me.

Check out my pepper recipes: Black Venus Rice with Pomegranate, Mango and Passion Berry Pepper recipe; Tunisian Carrot Purée with Red Long Pepper; Tenderstem Broccoli with Ginger, Chilli and Timur Pepper; and Indonesian Stir-fried Prawns with Andaliman Pepper

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