The curious case of the white peppercorn
When walking through Oriental grocery stores in London’s Chinatown, the senses may be roused by the potent smells emanating from each of the food areas. The overriding scent is fresh and verdant, a lively smell created by the rows and towers of stacked crates of fresh produce. This becomes sweet and exotic around the ripening mangos or durians, or sour and pungent near the packaged bamboo shoots, but venture to the the dry commodities and spices there will be the distinctive smell of white pepper. It’s strong, pervasive and unforgettable.
It’s unusual for pepper to have a strong scent as the volatile oils which create the pepper’s aroma are locked within the dried berry and only released when grated or cracked – hence the pepper mill coming round at the table just before tucking in. ‘Cracked pepper, sir?’
So why does white pepper smell? It turns out that the smell of white pepper is created during the fermentation process of the pepper berry. Green, black and white pepper all come from the same berry, piper nigrum. Green pepper is dried unripened fruit; black pepper is ripened, washed and dried; but white pepper is ripened and then fermented to dissolve the outer husks – the inner corns are then air-dried.
There is definitely something of the fermentation barrel about the smell of white peppercorns, very earthy, musty and musky, perhaps even ‘intimate’. There is the perfume of pepper of course, but also something very old – and maybe even off. White pepper is rather like a fine cheese – we might wince from the odorous fumes, cringe from the whiff of chemicals, or recoil from something that has been left to breed bacteria and naturally deteriorate. But just as when the cheese is eaten, once the pepper is used in a sauce, all these smells make perfect sense and form part of a complex, but enjoyable food experience.
The white peppercorn flavours can be altered by purifying the fermentation process, but even with the purest of white pepper, I still get the same earthy tastes and smell. I know this, because one of my favorite chefs is Simon Hopkinson, who is a white pepper aficionado and recommends its use on just about everything (especially any edible white emulsion that might be spoiled by black specs). In following by example, I long ago realised that white and black pepper are not interchangeable flavours – the white still retains its characteristic scent and is not in any way a milder form of black pepper. Ground white pepper tastes of dried herbs, wood and smoky tea, there is citrus and perhaps a dash of fennel. Ground black pepper has more pronounced woody, fruity and citrus notes – these are mainly contained in the outer coating or ‘drupes’ which have dried onto the black peppercorn, but are removed on the white.
Pepper is one of the world’s most traded spices. It is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia, so naturally, China has been a big trader since ancient times. White pepper is commonly used in Chinese cooking and is an essential flavour in many Oriental sauces and stocks. It’s become my secret ingredient of late, the missing link in my duck sauce and a key component of my five spice glazed gammon.
However, a word of warning – you can have too much of a good thing. A little white pepper goes a long way – always use sparingly.