The Spice Trekkers crack open the truth about black pepper.
by Marcy Harris
A pinch of just the right spice will inch the flavor profile of any dish in the direction of being truly memorable. Even something as simple as using really good pepper can make a huge difference in our cooking. Recently the Roadhouse upgraded to using Tellicherry Black Pepper #10 from Épices de Cru in Montreal, Canada, and we haven’t looked back since.
Our friends from Épices de Cru visit us in Ann Arbor every year, continuing to educate us all around the Zingerman’s Community on why good quality spices are so important. By sharing their stories of sourcing spices from all over the world, they remind us about how the people and the regions behind these ingredients contribute to how much better our flavor experience can be. Here is some good stuff they taught the Roadhouse about pepper that we are super excited to share with you.
A dash of info about Tellicherry pepper.
Spices in general have come a long way. We all know the story of Columbus and how he sailed the ocean blue to find the best routes for accessing a very precious commodity. Over several hundred years, colonization and industrialization eventually led to mass production of a valuable resource that used to be difficult to obtain. We now have access to spices anytime and anywhere, but how good are they? By exploring a little bit more about Tellicherry black pepper with the Spice Trekkers, we got really good insight about why the stuff we usually grind on our salads is not necessarily giving us the best flavor.
At some point we’ve heard the term Tellicherry, but what exactly is it? Since the ‘90s, it’s become a label for black pepper that evokes an exotic appeal, and promotes an idea of a better product. It’s a lot like when we use the term Champagne to refer to any sparkling wine. The truth is, due to strict wine laws, we can only use the word Champagne to refer to sparkling wine from the specific region of Champagne, France.
While there aren’t any government restrictions on the use of the word, Tellicherry also refers to a region in the Indian state of Kerala, on the Malabar Coast. Real Tellicherry peppercorns are grown in a small village in the mountains of Kerala, on small, single estates. They are unblended, unadulterated, and bold, the grains a bigger size then most peppers. “Extra-bold” refers to that size, sometimes referred to as grade 10. At the Roadhouse we use Tellicherry #10, which is perfect for our dishes and our pepper grinders!
There’s something in the air…
So why is it so important that Tellicherry comes from Kerala? It all starts with the climate. Everything from the higher altitude of the mountains to the Indian spring sun as it dries the pepper berries contributes to the development of flavor in the pepper. A dash of expertise from the growers and pickers gives us the recipe for really good black pepper.
Pepper is actually a fruit, more specifically a berry, that grows on long woody vines. The vines are supported by tall trees in India, grown by small families in their backyards. Once they are picked, they are laid out to dry in the sun. The fruit dries around the seed, and it is this outer part of the peppercorn that offers a great deal of piperine, the alkaloid that makes pepper firey and pungent. After 2-3 days, the peppercorns are painstakingly hand-sorted so only the best, largest grains are sent to be exported. That’s it. Minimal processing.
All the people involved in growing, picking, sorting, and even exporting the pepper in Kerala are super passionate about the quality of the spice. The Tellicherry Pepper #9 from Épices de Cru, for example, is hand-sorted by three ladies before being passed along for export. They are paid very well to do their job, and they are meticulous. The man who in turn exports the peppercorns to Épices de Cru, Sudheer, is eagerly described by the Trekkers as a very passionate individual, with a big heart and a generous spirit. He is determined to work with spice farmers on the quality of the product, paying them highly for taking the time to grow it. He has truly raised the bar on black pepper.
Taste the difference.
Knowing where your Tellicherry pepper is coming from is key, but also understanding the difference in flavor and quality can go a long way in being able to find the right product for your cooking at home. Much of what we find at the store is processed and/or mistreated. The piperine in the fruit can be extracted and sold as an oil, and the rest bottled and sold as an inferior product. The size of the grains can inconsistent, or there might be a mix of grains from different regions that don’t work well together. Storing the pepper in a clear glass jar causes the oils in the pepper to break down, and it loses precious aromatics (Épices de Cru stores their spices in tins!). In the end, you might be left with a pepper that is all heat and little else, at best.
True Tellicherry is generally a larger grain, consistent in size between the peppercorns. As far as flavor goes, it is a visceral, multi-dimensional experience, like a fine wine or olive oil. Whereas with an inferior pepper all you get is intense heat up front, a good Tellicherry pepper develops into lingering flavors including floral, citrus, and even eucalyptus. The profile will vary by region and farm, but the essence is the same. There should always be a far-reaching textural mouthfeel that unfolds into your system, leaving a lingering memory on your palate.
If you’ve ever tried our Tellicherry #10 at the Roadhouse, you might know what we’re talking about here. It’s extraordinary. These large, fully ripened berries have a rich flavor and a long, slow heat that is unparalleled. We crack it over our french fries, rub it all over our Texas brisket, and honestly sometimes just open up a tin, breathe deeply and get whisked away to a beautiful coast in India. Come by and taste the difference!