If you have never used freshly ground pepper you do not really know what pepper tastes like. The outer shell serves to seal in freshness and once this protection is lost, flavor diminishes rapidly. Some claim to notice a difference within 30 minutes, and most agree that much of the aroma and flavor is lost within 30 days of being ground.
While the full flavor of pepper will not be released until the outer shell has been cracked, whole peppercorns reveal much of their character by the aroma. While different colored peppercorns have distinctively different flavors, it also true that different varieties of one color such as the Lampong and Malabar black peppercorns also have a subtle difference in aroma and taste.
It does not take a highly refined sense of smell to distinguish the differences in the aroma. Try having a "pepper tasting" some time by first smelling different varieties directly from an open bag. (If you try smelling some roasted coffee beans between peppers you will have less carryover from the previous sample). You may finish by tasting in your mouth the variety that your nose prefers, but it is difficult to taste more than one pepper without having the flavors intermingle. Pepper tasting can be fun, which is one reason why many new Pepper-Passion customers begin by ordering our various samplers packs.
All Pepper varieties are derived from the same vine (Piper nigrum). Different varieties result from picking the berries at various stages of ripening and processing them differently. Common varieties include the following:
Green peppercorns: These are berries that are picked long before maturity in the green stage and either air-dried, freeze-dried or pickled in brine to prevent fermentation. They are aromatic with a fresh flavor but are not pungent. In the dried form they are considered essential for French, Creole and some Thai cooking. This is the also the pepper called for in a traditional "peppercorn" sauce.
Because of the extra processing required and the smaller yield, these are some of the more expensive peppercorns. In recent years Brazil has become the chief source for this variety if you are able to find them at all.
We offer freeze-dried green peppercorns from Brazil, which are more expensive, but widely recognized to have a superior appearance and a flavor that some prefer. We also offer air-dried peppercorns from India. These are much more economical and some prefer the flavor of the air-dried variety.
Pink or Rose Pepper: This is not a true pepper but is a dried berry from a small mastic tree related to the rose bush and found on the French Island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. (These are also commonly referred to as "Red Peppercorns" in trade and in many cookbooks.) They are related to, but different from the berries of the "pepper tree" that grows wild in Brazil and some parts of the southern USA.
These are used whole in nouveau cuisine dishes or mixed with other varieties for general use. The flavor is most similar to that of Black Pepper but milder and more acidic with a hint of sweetness. This variety is expensive and difficult to find at the average grocery store. We have found a quality source with reasonable prices.
White Peppercorns: These are fully mature berries that have been picked partially ripe and had their outer skin removed. This is generally done by soaking the berries in water for a number of days and then rubbing the outer skins off. It is also sometimes done mechanically while dry. The aroma is earthy and the taste is hot and creamy but not pungent or aromatic. It is quite distinctive in aroma and flavor from that of the black pepper and almost never used as final seasoning.
White pepper is commonly used for sauces, soups, potatoes, and beverages. (This is most popular pepper in northern Europe, outselling black pepper by 10:1, reverse the ratio of the USA.) Due to the extra processing involved white pepper is slightly more expensive than black peppercorns from the same origin. We offer several varieties as follows:
a. Muntok: The most common and well-known variety of White Pepper originates from the small Indonesian Island of Bangka and the berries are named Muntok after the islands main port. It is commonly available, economical and preferred by some compared to the rarer white peppercorns.
b. Sarawak: Sometimes a superior product is produced in a region not known for a different type of product. This is the case with Sarawak "extra Fancy" White Peppercorns from Malaysia. These berries are large and flavorful and with a uniform creamy white color and hot flavor. The price is higher than for Muntok and is popular with our customers.
c. Penja White: This may be our hottest white pepper and quite expensive. It originates from the Penja Valley of Cameroon where pepper was only first cultivated in the late 1950's. Their production is quite small, and almost all of it goes to France, which is where our supplier is located. If you prefer white pepper and like it hot, this may be the one for you.
d. Talamanca Del Caribe: This single-estate pepper was grown in Ecuador, processed to a very high-quality standard, and was the hottest white pepper we have ever tasted. Unfortunately, the owner sold this farm in about 2007 and it was incorporated into a neighboring pineapple plantation. We sold the last of our stocks in late 2011 and so this product no longer exists.
Red Peppercorns: In the world of pepper, there is probably no other term that causes more confusion than "Red Peppercorns". Some persons or cookbook publishers use this term interchangeably with what we call "Rose" or "Pink" peppercorns. That wid be fines except for the fact that there is a true (piper nigrum) Red Peppercorn. (Do not confuse with “Red Pepper” which is finely ground Cayenne and other capsicum peppers.) Red Peppercorns are extremely rare and not presently imported into the USA to my knowledge. It is generally safe to assume that any recipe that calls for "Red Peppercorns" is, in fact, referring to the "Rose or Pink Pepper" described above.
So what are they? Red peppercorns are fully ripened berries that are bright red in color when they are picked. They may be used fresh, but they spoil quickly, so they can be preserved in brines, freeze-dried, or air dried. The air-dried samples I evaluated from Cambodia looked like very large black peppercorns, with a slight reddish-burgundy hue mixed with the black color. The aroma is complex with little pungency, and the flavor is hot... (Is this respect the flavor is very similar to what you get with the highest grades of Tellicherry, as those berries are almost ripe when picked.) It would be expected that the freeze-dried or red peppercorns would retain their red color and have a completely different flavor. We can't say for sure until we get some to try.
Black peppercorns: This is the most popular form of pepper in the USA. Black peppercorns are produced by picking the mature but unripe berries as they are beginning to turn from green to yellow. They are then boiled briefly and then allowed to ferment and dry naturally in the sun (or by forced-air heating) until wrinkled and black. Black Pepper is moderately hot, pungent and aromatic.
Most generic black pepper sold in stores is a mixture from a variety of sources bought at the lowest possible price. None of the varieties or grades that we offer would fall into this category. We sell only distinct varieties of the highest grade available with the names indicating the origin as follows:
a. Malabar: is the "original" pepper and is a popular variety that originates from the Malabar Coast in the SW portion of India, where peppercorn cultivation first began. The berries have a slightly greenish hue. This is an excellent pepper with a pungent aroma and robust flavor available at a modest price. This variety represents for many what "pepper" should smell and taste like.
b. Tellicherry: comes from the same region as Malabar and is a family of quality designations representing the largest and highest quality berries, and is widely recognized as a premium product with more name recognition than any other variety. These berries are picked much closer to fully ripe than the Malabar, as the berry color reaches yellow-orange or even red. The color is a dark chocolate brown to black and the flavor is highly complex and aromatic. Tellicherry peppercorns are large in size and have a complex spicy aroma and slightly more heat with hints of cedar, flowers, and cherries. The complexity in aroma and flavor comes at the expense of pungency, which is why some tastes prefer Malabar. There are several grades of Tellicherry and they vary in price and flavor.
c. Sarawak Black: In recent years the Malaysian Pepper Board has encouraged growers and processors to experiment with techniques such as rapid harvesting and collection and forced air drying, aimed at increasing product quality rather than reducing costs, and these efforts are paying off. Premium Sarawak Black pepper is a medium-sized pepper with brown-grayish hues. It has a mild flavor with a fresh aroma that is often described as fruity with hints of chocolate, licorice, and Syrah.
d. Lampong: comes from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and is similar in some respects to Sarawak except for being hotter. This is the variety most often sold in the UK. Lampong peppercorns have an earthy and smoky aroma. This peppercorn is slightly smaller in average size than others, and it grinds extremely well in almost any mill.
e. Vietnamese: Some of the world's best spices are coming from Vietnam these days and their pepper is no exception. This pepper is often compared to Lampong but I find the berries to be much larger and with a pleasant lemony/citrus aroma and taste that is different from Lampong. This variety is very versatile and worth trying. We are one of the few retailers to offer it as a distinct variety.
f. Talamanca Del Caribe: This was one of our most popular peppercorns until the production ended as described above. Not everyone's favorite, it but it was a "pepper-lovers pepper". The aroma was earthy, bold, and pungent. The flavor was bold and hot and it had what we called "the ten-second delayed fuse", after which a second, stronger sensation of heat would come on and linger. It was and is, the hottest black pepper we have tasted to date. Our stocks sold out before the end of 2010, there is no more available anywhere, and we do not have another product that is equivalent.
g. Madagasacar: This is another variety largely unknown to American Chefs. Madagascar was once a colony of France, and the close relationship continues with most of their peppercorns being exported to there. Madagascar pepper features a medium-sized berry, brownish-gray in color, with a rich aroma reminiscent of hickory smoke or charred oak barrels. The flavor is mild and not too hot. Some Chefs in France refuse to use anything else. Definitely worth a try.
h. Kampot: Hailing from Cambodia, Kampot is an organic, luscious black peppercorn that is crisply sweet in fragrance with overtones of guava and eucalyptus. It is a large berry with an equally large paper-white center that ensures good heat. Kampot’s flavor is crisp with a mildly smoky finish.
Pepper has been grown in this region for over 100 years, but, the Kmer Rouge regime destroyed the pepper plantations in favor of rice production in the latter part of the 20th century and the industry has only recently begun to emerge from this wreckage. This variety is largely unknown in the USA but highly regarded abroad, with most of the production going to Japan or France. We have this variety in stock on occasion.
k. Pohnpei: This is another area of micro-production that only dates back to the early 1960's. Pohnpei (formerly Ponape) is a small island in Micronesia that became famous for its high quality but limited pepper production> The industry was virtually eliminated by government policies in the 1980's and 1990's. As a result, there is only a single;e surviving grower on Pohnpei. As a result, the price remains very high. This peppercorn is organically grown and has a deep black color, an appealing balanced aroma, and a flavor that is often described as sweet. This peppercorn has a small but intensely loyal following. We kept this peppercorn in stock until mid-2012 when the government meddled once again, and prohibited shipping via the Postal Service, which was the only practical way to ship from this remote location.
l. Penja Black: As detailed above, the pepper industry is Cameroon has existed for only 50 years and is very small in size and total production, almost all of which goes to France (which is where we get it from). The Penja Black Peppercorn is a small to medium-sized peppercorn with a uniform dark brown/black color. The aroma is rich and pungent with a hint of Cumin. The flavor is also pungent with a high heat that comes on quickly and has "depth". This is another "pepper lover's pepper". If you are mourning the loss of the Talamanca Del Caribe, you might like this one. It is expensive, but it's worth it!
Szechuan peppercorns: Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorns are not a true pepper at all, but berries from the Prickly Ash tree native to China. It is widely grown and consumed in Asia and is a vital component in many Chinese and Japanese dishes. The peppercorns are air-dried rust-colored berries with hair-thin stem connecting to a split husk containing a black seed. The husk and the seeds are often separated as they have different flavors.
Szechuan peppercorns have an aromatic and resinous flavor that leaves the lips tingly and slightly numb when tasted directly followed by a moderate heat that lingers. The peppercorns are often lightly roasted before crushing in a mortar and pestle and go well with fish, chicken, and duck, or any dish where a spice heat is desired.