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The World of Spices

The World of Spices with Ann Wilder


Vann's Spices In this column, Ann gets right to the flavor of the topic, so . . . . . take notes!vWith no further adieu, we turn the mike to Ann. You're on Ann . . . . .

Thanks Charlie,

Pepper is nothing to sneeze at . . .

Ann Wilder I like spicy food, I like the people that cook it and the countries where it is grown. For over 4,000 years, pepper has been the most popular spice worldwide. In fact, it has been so popular that at one time a pound of pepper was thought to be a most elegant gift for a king. Pepper is the most important ingredient in spicy food, and particularly to those of us who love barbecue.

All true peppers, black, white and green peppercorns, come from one plant, Piper nigrum, which grows around the world within 20 degrees of the equator. There are at least 13 designated types of black pepper, usually named for the port from which they are shipped or the area where they are grown. Since no pepper is grown in the U.S. we are dependent on imports exclusively.

Peppercorns come from berries which grow in clusters on 20 foot vines. One vine will produce 20 pounds of pepper in one year. Generally peppers are grown on a cooperative with a family owning from 1 to 20 vines, depending on the number of members old enough to pick. One person can pick 1 to 2 vines per day. Because of the intense heat, pepper is picked starting before sun-up and ending before noon.

Black pepper is the unripe berry which has been picked and allowed to ferment and then dried. Usually they are placed on the ground and sun-dried. Occasionally, charcoal fires are used to speed up the drying. After peppers are dried, they are graded and shipped to the local pepper board which is responsible for selling them to the world market.

Because pepper begins to lose its flavor and aroma as soon as it is ground, freshly ground pepper should be used as soon as possible. Both white and black pepper is available in grinds defined by the mesh size on a sifting screen. The range is from finest shaker grind 30/60 mesh to largest 6/10 which is about the size of halved peppercorns.

Tellicherry pepper from India is considered the most complex, balanced and elegant of the black peppers. It is actually a special type of Malabar Pepper which has been allowed to ripen completely so that it develops more flavor, sugar and size. Its aroma is sweet and spicy. Its flavor is rich and bold.

Malabar is a more widely produced Indian pepper. It has a spicy resinous aroma and a complex flavor -- more hot and biting than Tellicherry.

Lampong is the most mass-produced pepper in Indonesia. Its flavor and aroma are similar to Malabar, but less perfumed and less complex. It has balanced heat and, therefore, it is useful where extra punch is needed.

Sarawak is the primary peppercorn of Malaysia It is smaller, lighter in color, with much less heat. It has been the pepper of choice for the British for most of this century. For the last 10 years, it has been rarely available in this country. In some years the british have bought the entire crop. In other years it has not met ASTA standards for cleanliness. VANN's has occasionally been able to purchase relatively small amounts. Our products are cleaned for us in Singapore using super-heated flash steam heat and freezing to sterilize; therefore, we have circumvented the problem of ASTA standards.

Brazilian black and Thai peppers are the most commonly sold in the U.S. They vary in quality and tend more to heat and sharpness that developed aroma.

White pepper is produced from the same peppercorn as the black, but have been ripened more completely and are processed by soaking them in water until the dark outer skin is softened and the shell is then removed. The resulting pale peppercorn is sun-died like the black. White is the pepper of choice of much of Europe and parts of the Orient. Its aroma is more earthy and has less heat and pungency.

Muntok, off the southwest coast of Sumatra, is considered the finest and is usually the only white pepper to bear a name of origin.

Sarawak also has, in the past, produced a fine white pepper. It is whiter than MUntok, producing a berry which is white clear through. It is much whiter that Muntok and, therefore, is a good choice for simple seasoning. However, because white pepper takes more processing and has been bringing lower prices than black pepper in the last few years, farmers in Malaysia have stopped producing it.

Green peppercorns are picked green and processed. If the processing is done by the village, they are packed in brine and sent out for further processing. They may be kept in brine and canned and sold. However, freeze drying and air-drying green peppers are more popular as they can be used in more applications.

Freeze-dried green peppers are very lightweight and paper thin. The color is clear, light green with a smooth skin. The aroma is fresh, peppery and the flavor is sharp, not, bitter, fruity, and has a green herbal taste. It is never as hot as black or white pepper.

Dehydrated green peppers are wrinkled, heavier that freeze-dried, and in color, a gray-green. The aroma is lith and peppery and the flavor slightly bitter and sharp. They are slightly salty and are often used as a salt substitute.

Sweet hot is the flavor we all love. We are all familiar with the use of pepper to create sweet hot in savory dishes. Less well known is the use of sweet hot in desserts. Pepper cookies appear often in Scandinavian cuisine. This year, the rage in New York has been pepper ice cream. One of the gold medal winning desserts at the Culinary Olympics was Brandied Pepper Strawberries.


  • 2 Cups fresh strawberries (halved)
  • 1/2 Cup champagne
  • 1/4 Cup brown sugar
  • 1 Teaspoon corn starch
  • 2 Tablespoons Brandied Pepper
  • 1/4 Cup Grand Marnier
In a small sauce pan, combine champagne and strawberries. Bring to a boil and add brown sugar while stirring. Add Brandied Pepper and corn starch. Remove when it begins to thicken. Add Grand Marnier and ignite. Serve over ice cream.

Marinades prepared by barbecue cooks are unique to each; however, common to all is the sweet, salty, peppery concoction of spices blended for that special taste. Pepper is a critical agent in that blend.

Copyright (c) 1998, by:
Ann D. Wilder, President
VANN Spices, Ltd.

More of Ann's Flavorful Topics!

'World of Spices' is © by VANN Spices, Ltd.
who is solely responsible for its content.

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