Spice up your life?

Food - To pepper or not to pepper, ponders Bee Wilson

We ran out of peppercorns the other week. Usually I would have replaced them straight away, but somehow, I developed a kind of amnesia about it and our pepper grinder stayed empty. The strange thing, if such a non-event can be called strange, is that after a few days, instead of missing pepper, I began to enjoy its absence.

So often, you use pepper automatically in dishes that don't really need it. Salad dressings, for example, and many sauces, are often better without the intrusive harshness of pepper; you can really taste the salt more. Certain vegetable soups, too, particularly those involving potato, taste cleaner and fresher without specks of pepper to muddy them. Watercress soup is peppery enough without pepper. Even a creamy risotto, which seems to be yearning for the final ministrations of an enormous Italian wooden pepper pot, will survive without it. It is all too easy to fall into the Delia Smith trap of "freshly ground pepper" with everything. When you add ground pepper as you begin to slow-cook a dish, it often gets lost by the end, so that all you taste is a faint bitterness. It seemed for a few days as if we had converted to a life without pepper.

But then, one night, we had a kedgeree, with squidgy halves of egg on top, holding their yolks up in anticipation of a little sprinkling of something pungent, and fairly soon we were climbing the kitchen walls, scrabbling to see if there wasn't just one precious peppercorn still lurking behind our chaotic spice jars that we could use to season our plates (there wasn't). Suddenly, it was easy to see why pepper should once have been thought such a luxury that the Caesars used it as currency, storing it in the Roman treasury along with gold coin; such a ridiculous luxury that Roman hosts outdid each other in the pepperiness of the sauces they served up at dinner parties; such a punishing luxury that King Ethelred charged a pepper toll of ships arriving at Billingsgate; such a terrible luxury that French medieval archbishops exacted tribute from the Jews in pounds of pepper.

If it was a luxury, however, pepper was an everyday one. Alexandre Dumas noted that "pepper has always been, of all known spices, the most widespread and the one most used in cooking". Pepper was such an important European commodity that, in 16th-century Antwerp, the price of pepper was used as a barometer for international business in general, just as the Economist now uses the price of a Big Mac to compare economies. The heat of pepper, itself so distinctive, somehow also matches all Europe's different cuisines. The ancients believed that pepper was also an antidote to poison, and, with its warming, volatile oils, it is still considered an aid to digestion and a stimulus to the appetite (pepper literally gets your gastric juices and saliva flowing). It is precisely because pepper is so good, that it is tempting to give it a cameo role in everything and overlook it for the bigger roles, but it can easily hold its own in starring parts, such as salt-and-pepper squid or steak au poivre.

Black, pink, white and green pepper all come from the same plant, Piper nigrum, a tropical climbing vine. Green peppercorns are just the unripe seeds. Pink peppercorns are picked when the seeds are riper. Black peppercorns are picked when red, but left to ferment and then dry in the sun; they turn black in the process. White peppercorns, which have always been more expensive than black even though they have less aroma (Pliny complained about their priciness), are harvested later and soaked until their skins come off. Their main advantage is that they don't leave specks in white sauces, such as hollandaise or bechamel.

According to Alan Davidson, the best black pepper comes from India, for example the Tellicherry pepper from the north, which is used whole in Italian salami. You would have difficulty finding it in British supermarkets, though. I tested five different brands of black peppercorns, Schwartz, Bart organic, Sainsbury's, Co-op and Culpeper. They were all much of a muchness.

So: to pepper or not to pepper? It depends a bit on your temperament. In Martin Amis's Experience, he tells us that his father, Kingsley, was infuriated by the "unbidden approach" of waiters, especially if they were bearing pepper mills.

"'Would you like some pepper, sir?'

"'Well I don't know yet, do I? Because I haven't tasted it.'

"When my turn came," writes Martin, "I accepted a thick coat of pepper on my unbroached starter. Kingsley stared hard at me. I said, 'If you like it you like it. It's not the same as salt. That's why they don't go round with a salt cellar.'

"He seemed to find this genuinely enlightening."

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.