By Bob Schwabach
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1979
In 1934 an Armenian named Garabed Bishirgian tried to monopolize the world supply of pepper. For six weeks he succeeded. When the crash came, three old-line London brokerage houses went under and a number of Wall Street speculators in New York went broke. Bishirgian had managed to corner 16,000 tons of pepper in London warehouses on notes using the pepper itself as collateral. That was 10 times the entire English supply for the previous year.
In January, 1935, the price of pepper started moving from 12 cents to 36 cents a pound. Then on Feb. 9 growers in India and Indonesia shipped 20,000 tons of pepper to London and the corner collapsed under the massive supply. There was enough pepper on hand to supply all of Europe and America for three years.
In the ensuing chain reaction over the manipulation of a seemingly trivial commodity, the British pound dropped 11 cents in two days. This precipitated a drop in the Argentine peso and the Polish zloty, making Argentine wheat and Polish rye cheaper on the American market. Farmers found they could not sell their grain above production cost and started a campaign in Congress for price supports. Hardly anyone could understand why the manipulation of pepper could cause such a fuss. A few centuries earlier no one would have been surprised.
THE DESIRE FOR pepper started the British Empire and marked the fall of the Roman. The search for it started the age of exploration and the getting of it, the wealth of nations. For centuries its value was so great a pound of black pepper was considered a suitable gift for one king to give to another. Rich men bequeathed single jars of pepper to relatives, rents for land and houses were once set in peppercorns, and London dock workers who unloaded pepper ships had to have their pockets sewed closed.
“It is, you have to realize,” says Holly Murray, an executive with McCormick Co., the largest spice firm in America, “the most important spice in the world. It always has been, and I suppose it always will be.”
Or, as Russell Bry, chef at Le Bastille, puts it: “Pepper? You use pepper in everything.”
It is a spice, as opposed to salt, which is a mineral, or sage, which is an herb. The American Spice Trade Association says it is beginning to call virtually anything used to flavor food a spice, except salt.
BY PEPPER WE mean black pepper and not red, which comes from a family of fruits called capsicums, of which there are hundreds of varieties. There is essentially only one kind of black pepper, with slight variations in taste being the result of growing the plant in different regions. Pepper comes from a perennial tropical vine and has never been successfully grown outside of a relatively narrow equatorial belt. Green pepercorns are simply the unripened fruit of the black pepper vine; white pepper is the same fruit with the hull removed; and black pepper gets its color from lying the fruit in the sun to dry.
This last, finally, is what we Americans call pepper. White pepper is preferred in Europe, but it forms a tiny fraction of the pepper consumed here. Black pepper outsells the next nearest spice, cinnamon, by 14 to 1. We use it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it sometimes appears in the dessert. It is on virtually every restaurant table in the land, and while the cook uses some in the preparation of the meal, more in the flavoring of the sauces, we put still more on our food at the table. Some dishes, like steak au poivre, or the more pedestrian pastrami, are literally caked with it.
WHITE PEPPER normally is used by chefs for sauces and light colored dishes where the object is to get the flavor but avoid the visual disruption of black specks floating around. White pepper, by the way, is milder in flavor than black, though black itself has variations which we will get into later.
Green peppercorns have become increasingly fashionable recently for a green peppercorn sauce, which Nancy Goldberg, owner of Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, says goes beautifully with duck, fish, or even steak.
THE CONNOISSEUR OF black pepper will grind his own. The trend toward having your own pepper mill and buying the whole corns to put in it is more than an affectation. David Orwig, a St. Louis spice dealer whos family has been in the business 200 yars, says there is no question that grinding it yourself really does improve the taste.
For the “why bother” crowd, several commercial grinds are available: cracked, butcher’s grind, barbecue, coarse, medium, and fine. Pepper flavor deteriorates with age, so the size of the grind makes a difference. The coarser it is, the longer it will hold its flavor. Whole peppercorns will hold their flavor as long as a century, if stored in ideal conditions. Even in the finest grind the life of black is several weeks, according to dealers, and if the containers are kept tightly sealed, this can be extended to months.
The long life and distinctive flavor — there are no substitutes– is what has given pepper value over the centuries. The explorer Vasco de Gama made Portugal a world power when he stopped one afternoon to talk with an Arab sailor on the dock of an East African port. The man offered to steer him to a region in India known as the Malabar coast. Then as now it was the premier pepper-producing area of the world.
One of the ship’s officers wrote in his account of the voyage how the Arab merchants gathered in several groups and eyed De Gama as he walked along the docks and bought for trinkets and small change what would bring its weight in gold back in Europe. Without thinking it through they dimly understood that this man walking through the port of Tellicherry was breaking a monopoly that had lasted a thousand years.
TODAY THE BEST quality black pepper still comes from that port and is called Tellicherry, easily recognized by its large and very regular peppercorns. The Italians and Germans buy virtually nothing else.
The next grade is Malabar, taking its name from the whole general region. The Dutch, seeing the wealth of Portugal grow from the pepper trade, founded an empire in Indonesia. The pepper from there is called Lampong and is considered of comparable quality to the Indian. The few other major varieties are Sarawak (now part of Malaysia), Brazilian, and Ceylon.
Black pepper is black pepper, and unlike condiments, such as mustard and catsup, no one has ever been able to establish a brand loyalty for pepper. One firm’s black pepper tastes pretty much like another’s, unless it is not fresh.
The best white pepper is amatter of some dispute, but the weight of opinion falls twoard Sarawak and Muntok. This last is a variety from the small island of Bangka off the coast of Sumatra and is the kind most frequently sold in the United States.
In all, about 120,000 tons of pepper (240 million pounds) are produced in the world each year, of which about one fourth (60 million pounds) is consumed in the United States. The wholesale price is $1.10 a pound, delivered on the New York docks, and Bishirigian, the mysterious Armenian, could have made a killing if he could have just held on.
But in real terms the price has declined steadily over the years and is down quite a bit from the high of around $5,000 a pound in the 5th Century. When Alaric sacked Rome and demanded a ransom for the city, the Romans offered him gold. But Alaric demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper — a conservative barbarian goes for value, not flash.
Some recipes designed to let you taste pepper in its three forms: Click for printer-friendly version of pepper recipes
Deep-Fried Black Pepper Mandoo
1 pound ground pork or beef (or combination of both)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package (1 pound) won ton wrappers
1 egg, beaten
4 cups oil
Rice wine vinegar
1. Saute meat and onion in medium skillet until browned.
2. Season with freshly ground black pepper and salt. Drain excess fat.
3. Place 1 generous tablespoon of meat in center of each won ton wrapper. Brush edges with beaten egg. Pinch edges to seal.
4. Heat oil to 375 degrees in wok or electric skillet. Deep fry mandoo 4 at a time until golden on both sides, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Serve hot with vinegar and soy sauce as dipping sauces.
White Pepper Almond Soup
Serves four to six
1 cup slivered blanched almonds
4 hard cooked egg yolks
1 quart chicken stock
2 cups creme fraiche or sour cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 tablespoon Benedictine
1/4 cup sliced natural almonds
1 tablespoon butter
Freshly ground white pepper
1. Grind 1/4 cup of the slivered almonds and 1 egg yolk at a time in blender or food processor into coarse paste.
2. Heat chicken stock until warm in 6-quart saucepan.
3. Stir in creme fraiche until smooth.
4. Add almond-egg yolk mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time until smooth. Heat soup to boiling, stirring constantly.
6. Reduce heat; cook and stir until slightly thickened, 5 minutes.
6. Add 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and Benedictine; cook 5 minutes.
7. Strain soup through coarse sieve; keep warm.
8. Saute sliced natural almonds in butter until golden; sprinkle with freshly ground white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning of soup.
9. Garnish soup with almonds. Add freshly ground white pepper to taste.
Green Peppercorn Steak
This recipe is from Jean-Marie Martel, chef of Maxim’s.
2 tablespoons butter
2 strip steaks, about 8 ounces each
1 can (3 1/2 ounces) green Madagascar peppercorns
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup brandy
1/2 cup demi-glace (requires 24 hours to prepeare; recipe below)
Salt to taste
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1. Melt butter in medium skillet. Saute steaks on both sides until done as desired. Transfer each steak to heated serving plate and keep warm.
2. Add green peppercorns, wine and brandy to pan. Cook for a moment, stirring and scraping solidified juices from bottom and sides of pan with wooden spoon.
3. Turn heat down and simmer 1-2 minutes until reduced by half.
4. Add demi-glace and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Pour sauce over steaks and serve immediately.
1 tablespoon butter
10 pounds veal bones (leg bones with joints) cut in 3 1/2 inch lengths
5 carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces
5 onions, sliced and quartered
1 bunch celery, peeled and cut in 2-inch lengths
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
2 or 3 overripe tomatoes, quartered (do not peel or seed)
6 to 7 cloves of garlic, peeled, left whole
3 sprigs parsley
7 bay leaves
6 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon thyme leaves
1. Butter bottom of 13-by-9-inch roasting pan. Lay bones in single layer in pans. Put in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.
2. Add carrot and onion pieces to bones and return to oven for 10 minutes.
3. Pour bones and vegetables into large strainer and let sit 30 minutes until all grease has dripped out.
4. Put strained bones and vegetables in a 24-quart, tall kettle along with celery, tomato paste, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, bay leaves, salt, peppercorns and thyme.
5. Fill container with enough water to cover bones. Put on range top over high heat until liquid boils. Turn heat down to very low simmer.
6. Use ladle to skim as brown scum appears. When scum has disappeared, continue skimming grease hourly except when sleeping.
7. Add water to cover bones after 6 hours; fill pot again after 12 hours. Do not add water during last 12 hours.
8. When liquid has simmered 24 hours, remove from heat, strain and measure. There should be 3 quarts liquid. Discard bones.
9. Put liquid in clean pot over low heat. Skim, de-grease and simmer gently until reduced to 1 quart.
10. With ladle, force demi-glace through very fine French strainer into clean pot. Allow to col. Demi-glace will keep about 2 weeks in refrigerator and is used as the base of many fine sauces.