The Spice of Life

In recent years, thanks in no small part to the Slow Food and Farm-to-table movements, serious cooks everywhere have begun to pay close attention to the sourcing of their ingredients. Today it is common for chefs to provide detailed information about the products they use; restaurant menus often tell us about the exact geographical origins of the fish, meat and vegetables that are listed on their pages.

This rebellion against the anonymity of industrial farming practices is a hugely welcome development, even though the trend can sometimes be taken to extremes. ‘Today,’ writes a food critic, ‘chefs can’t shut up about where every morsel that went into every dish got its start in life.’i

‘Every morsel’? Not quite! Actually there is one category of morsel that has yet to seize the attention of locavores – and, curiously, this is a set of ingredients that makes a disproportionate contribution to the taste of food.

I am referring, of course, to spices.

Few indeed are the restaurant menus that mention the origin of the saffron or cardamom or nutmeg that is used in a dish. Cookbooks written by famously discriminating chefs still continue to call for anonymous ‘pinches of curry’ (as though there were any such thing). It has been said of the great Rene Redzepi, founder of Noma, which was long considered the world’s best restaurant, that he ‘will only use food that is native to the Nordic region. That means no tomatoes, no olive oil — instead, he employs a wide array of local and wild food he often forages himself.’ii However Redzepi does often use black pepper, which is by no means native to the Nordic region, and it would seem that this is one ingredient that is not subject to his philosophy: in his recipes it is listed simply as ‘ground black pepper’.iii

Amitav Ghosh. Photo: Gage Skidmore

But Redzepi is by no means exceptional in this regard. The truth is that nobody pays attention to black pepper: it is taken so much for granted that it could be said that it is now used largely out of habit. Consider, for example, cacio e pepe the Italian pasta dish that is flavoured only with cheese, salt and pepper. This simple but elegant dish has become a touchstone by which accomplished chefs measure the skills and techniques of their colleagues. Many food writers have experimented with different varieties of pasta and cheese in the hope of finding the perfect cacio e pepe recipe. But strangely no food specialist seems ever to have considered the possibility that the other ingredient mentioned in the name of the dish – pepe or pepper – might also be worth experimenting with. In recipe after recipe this vital condiment is listed simply as ‘freshly ground black pepper’ – an ambiguous phrase since the word ‘fresh’ refers here to the act of grinding and not the age of the peppercorns.

In fact cacio e pepe lends itself very readily to experiments with pepper: the dish can be transformed merely by using truly fresh-tasting pepper – that is to say, pepper that is less than a year old. An even greater transformation can be effected by using different varieties of pepper: for instance ‘long pepper’ or Piper longum, which has complex floral notes. Not only does this variation produce amazing results it might also be more historically authentic since long pepper was in wide use in the period when the Venetian Empire had the monopoly of the Mediterranean spice trade.

The neglect into which spices have fallen is due, no doubt, largely to the history of the spice trade.

Spices played a critical role in the shaping of the modern world: it was in order to break the Venetian Empire’s monopoly of the Mediterranean spice trade that Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus set off on their voyages. Spices were then among the most valuable of commodities: for millennia they were the most important ingredients in kitchens around the world. But that ended after the 18th century when the Dutch and the British took control of the most important spice-growing regions in Asia – Bengal, the Malabar Coast, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Java and particularly the Moluccas or Spice Islands. In the centuries that followed spices declined steadily in value; pepper, in particular became so cheap that it no longer commanded either respect or attention. Today, the fact that spices are produced mainly in poor, formerly-colonized countries is, no doubt, one of the reasons why they are no longer taken seriously by the Western culinary world.

An ancient map of the Spice Islands. Photo: Princeton University

Spices were the first foods to be subjected to capitalist and imperialist processes of production and distribution. They were thus the first elements of our diet to be leached of both taste and value by industrialization. This is yet another reason why it is so surprising that the revolt against industrial food, typified by the locavore and other such movements, has yet to take notice of spices.

Interestingly enough, the ingredient with which pepper is almost always paired, salt, has seen a rebirth of its reputation and value. Today it is increasingly common to come upon varieties of salt that are labeled according to their place of origin. Pepper has not been so lucky. The only place name that I have ever seen on a commercially available jar of pepper is ‘Tellicherry’ – the name of an ancient port in what is now the Indian state of Kerala. But when used commercially the phrase ‘Tellicherry pepper’ does not actually refer to a place of origin: it is related rather to size – a peppercorn must be 4.25 mm or larger to be graded as ‘Tellicherry pepper’.iv

An Indian farmer with fresh Telicherry pepper. Photo: reluctanttrading.com

Today when ‘fresh pepper’ happens to be mentioned in a recipe or menu, what is invariably meant is freshly ground pepper (never mind that the peppercorns were probably harvested a long time ago and may well have sat on supermarket shelves for years). Many restaurants proudly display enormous and elaborate pepper grinders while apparently paying no attention at all to what goes into them. And for the most part these peppercorns are dusty and dull in flavor, which is not surprising since they have been shipped over long distances.

But even in India, which has been the world’s main source of pepper since antiquity, it is rare to find pepper that is fresh enough to retain the vibrant, citrusy taste that it has when it is newly cured. Indeed, in the India of my childhood, the pepper that was served on the table, was almost always commercially powdered pepper – a substance that very quickly loses whatever taste it may once have possessed, especially in hot climates.

It was not until I started growing black pepper (Piper nigrum), in my garden in Goa, that I become aware of the difference between truly fresh pepper and the commercially marketed varieties: it is no exaggeration to say that the gulf between them is as great as that which separates freshly baked bread from packaged breadcrumbs.

Peppercorns are the dried berries of a vine with heart-shaped leaves. The vine is vigorous and needs little attention. My pepper vines were almost absurdly easy to grow: I merely planted them at the feet of the coconut trees in my garden and left them to fend for themselves. Apart from regular watering they needed nothing else, not even compost, let alone fertilizers or insecticides. Within a couple of years they had climbed halfway up the palms’ trunks and were producing clusters of shiny green berries.

Every year, around February, the berries begin to turn pink, and then red: this is when they need to be harvested. After that they are briefly plunged in boiling water and then put out to dry in the sun. It takes only a couple of days for the berries to turn into puckered black peppercorns.

Black pepper berries before drying in Kerala, India. Photo: Sunil Elias

The berries’ intensity of flavor at this stage is impossible to describe: their fragrance covers an olfactory range that goes from peppery to citrusy, with notes of vanilla and cinnamon. The sneeze-inducing odor that most of us associate with black pepper is scarcely noticeable – indeed when people sniff a jar of freshly-ground peppercorns they are often unable to believe that they are smelling the same spice that they have always sprinkled on their eggs.

Needless to add, the taste and smell of pepper varies with age and according to where it is grown and how it is cured: pepper is no less expressive of terroir than tea, coffee or wine. I like to think that it will be possible some day for people everywhere to use hand-picked, sun-dried, single-origin pepper that is less than a year old. This would be a boon for farmers because it would add hugely to the value of their product. As for consumers, they will rediscover the real flavour of a truly miraculous ingredient. Then, instead of one stale jar of pepper maybe they will keep several varieties, each attuned to a different use – one for the table, one for spice pastes, one to complement delicate flavors, and so on.

Spices add more variety to our food than any other set of ingredients. It is time for them to regain the respect they once commanded – and the Slow Food movement could be instrumental in making this happen.

Copyright © 2017, Amitav Ghosh

There are over 190 spices and wild herbs listed on the Ark of Taste, the Slow Food catalog of endangered foods. 

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