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?