Our spice buyer, Julia, has been working really hard on our spice selection here at the shop. She recently spearheaded an effort to improve packaging – the new tins not only better protect the spices from sunlight but they also hold up better. Previously, some of the Turkish peppers would actually cause the plastic containers to crack open and this no longer happens. An added plus – the new containers look really chic too!
Julia has also been making an effort to bring in some new and special spices. This week saw the addition of three new peppercorns to our shelves. Before working at Formaggio, I had no idea as to the range of peppers that were out there. Last year, our two Turkish peppers (Maras and Urfa) not only featured heavily in the staff survey but they became new staples in my own kitchen.
In the peppercorns that arrived this week, I was amazed at the diversity in flavor and appearance that they presented. The first was the Sarawak white peppercorns. Julia characterizes this as a “light, sweet and delicate pepper.” It is very white in appearance when it is ground and she suggests using it for milder dishes such as fish.
Comet’s Tail peppercorns are at the other end of the spectrum. Per the name, each peppercorn has a little tail. Julia tells me that lavender and herbal notes characterize this pepper with a slightly bitter, tobacco-like finish. In contrast to the Sarawak, this pepper grinds very black. For the artistically minded chef, that could provide a cool juxtaposition when thinking about plating a dish.
The third batch of peppercorns that arrived were the most unusual: Balinese Long Pepper. Julia informed me that efforts to farm this strain have not been very successful so it is harvested from wild plants. To me, the peppercorns almost look like little pine cones. Its flavor is earthy and sweet but there is some definite heat to this one. Don’t sniff at it too hard (!) but, once ground, it releases some really nice floral notes. The cool thing about this pepper is that it can be used just like any conventional pepper but it can also be used like a bay leaf in soups and/or braises.
With pepper on the brain, I did a little bit of reading in “The Lore of Spices” by J.O. Swahn. Apparently, pepper originated in India and, interestingly, it is the long pepper (one now so unfamiliar to most people) that was the first pepper to make its way westward. Alexander the Great is the first Westerner known to have tasted the pepper – in 326 B.C. when he marched into northern India. The other little tidbit that I learned is that black, white and green peppers all come from the same plant – piper nigrum. The peppers simply represent different stages in the aging process – green being the youngest, white the middling age and black the most aged!