Black pepper

A friend of mine came back from Cambodia with a gift of peppercorns – some of the world’s best, the product of a traditional industry in Kambot that has re-emerged in the last 30 years as peace has been restored to the nation. Since 2008 Kambot peppercorns have had protected geographical status, like champagne.

Kambot pepper beef dish
Cambodian beef with Kambot pepper and lime

I hadn’t thought about the quality of peppercorns before. Pepper is always there, the P to salt’s S, the lucky spice that escaped the tucked-away spice rack to become an ever-present centrepiece on the dinner table.

Before Europeans stumbled upon chilli (which is not a pepper) in the 1500s along with other delights of the New World, heat in food in Europe and Asia came from black pepper (pipris negrus), which originates from trees found on the Malabar coast in southern India, and with plantings long-established in other hot parts of the world.

Black pepper with its warm pungency, rather than sharp heat, has been traversing the globe for thousands of years. Highly valued, it was sometimes used instead of currency in the Middle Ages, and was even found stuffed up the nostrils of mummies much further back in ancient Egypt. (This is a decent history of S&P, separately and together: http://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/salt-pepper).

For around 1500 years from the time of the Roman Empire a common trade route went from India through Egypt and onto Italy. The growth of city-states like Venice came from their wealth and power as gateways supplying highly-priced spices, like pepper, into Europe.

In Cambodia black pepper has been grown for around 700 years. Intensive production occurred from the 1870s when the French had colonised the country and demand for pepper in Europe made it Cambodia’s primary export. It was Kambot pepper that was the preferred choice of chefs for classic French dishes like steak au poivre (pepper steak).

Having sampled Kambot pepper, it has floral notes that smooth out the punchiness and leave a warm aftertaste. Even in the dish pictured here with a marinade of chilli, garlic, ginger, soy, fish sauce, lime and other powerful flavours, the cracked pepper stood out (black pepper needs to be chunky).

Kambot lettuce leaf
Lettuce leaf with beef and lime and pepper dipping sauce

Kambot pepper trees are grown in valleys bordering Vietnam and the peppercorns are harvested by hand only when ripe, and sun-dried. During the communist Khmer Rouge era from the 1970s the industry fell away, but over the last 20 years families have been replanting and creating successful businesses again. See this Channel 4 (UK) piece where the hosts visit a plantation and cook with Kambot pepper. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jlgb2owcqt0

The French and pepper have an interesting relationship. When the classic French cuisine was developing and being codified in the royal courts on the 17th century, chefs like La Varenne were generally chucking out the heavy foreign spices that had dominated French cooking since the Middle Ages, the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the cardamom etc – all except for pepper. Despite being exotic, black pepper was given a special place in French cuisine alongside parsley and other local herbs. This was how the tradition of the table pairing of salt and pepper started – seen as two fundamental flavour enhancers.

Not everyone agrees on pepper’s permanent position on the table though – see this Slate article where the author proposes alternate partners for salt: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2012/01/salt_and_pepper_why_are_they_always_together_.html.

In my mind there are probably some foods that black pepper is ground over by habit but adds little to, but there are so many that aren’t quite right without freshly ground pepper – especially simpler, almost nostalgic, dishes of fresh produce or meat and fish that can almost speak for themselves, just not quite… corn on the cob, cheese and tomato on crackers or toast, avocado, pumpkin soup, pan-fried fish, roast beef, salmon and cream cheese bagels…

And today I’ve cooked something that celebrates pepper as part of a more complex flavour blend; it’s a Rick Stein Kambot pepper dish that he enjoyed when he was in Cambodia.

What to cook with black peppercorns

Rick Stein visited Kambot for his Far Eastern Odyssey programme, and his Cambodian marinated beef with lime and black pepper dipping sauce can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/cambodianmarinatedbe_91768. This is pictured above.

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