Nothing to Sneeze At

by Mark R. Vogel

Inside your nose lie approximately five million scent receptors.  Their nerve endings, designed to detect a plethora of aromas, are also highly sensitive to irritants.  When an astringent agent such as piperine, the chief chemical compound in pepper which imbibes it with piquancy, stimulates them, an involuntary response is triggered.  In an effort to expel the offensive substance, air is reflexively ejected from the nasal passage at over 100 miles per hour.  In essence, you sneeze.

            Black pepper, botanically speaking piper nigrum, is a flowering vine cultivated for its berries.  Despite its homonymic name, it has nothing to do with hot peppers or bell peppers (part of the chile pepper family), Sichuan pepper or pink peppercorns which are all unrelated species.  Black pepper, long touted as the “king of spices” is one of the oldest and certainly the most popular spice in the history of the world.  Indigenous to the Malabar coast of India it spread to Europe in the 5th or 6th century BC and was introduced to Greece by Alexander the Great.  It became a widespread spice in the Roman Empire as well.

            Pepper was so highly valued, (and expensive) in ancient history that it became, for all intents and purposes, a form of money.  It has been used to pay taxes, rent, fines, and ransoms, included in dowries, and even demanded as the spoils of war.  When the Visigoths defeated Rome in 410, amongst the valuables confiscated by their king Alaric was 3,000 pounds of pepper.  Pepper, like most spices at one time or another was also used as a medicine and prescribed for a host of ailments.  However, the only thing it cures is bland food.

Until the early Middle Ages pepper, because of its cost, was a spice for the rich.  However, as the influx into Europe grew, it became increasingly available to the general public.  During the Middle Ages the Venetians and the Genoese had a veritable monopoly over the spice trade, especially pepper.  Pepper’s popularity and the stranglehold the Italians city-states had over its market impelled exploration, the objective of which was to discover alternative trade routes to India.  Vasco da Gama, sailing for Portugal, became the first European to reach India by sea.  Likewise Christopher Columbus was motivated by the economics of the spice trade and not a quest for a new country.

Peppercorns can be black, green, white, and whole or ground.  Black peppercorns are the unripe berries which have been dried by natural or mechanical means.  Enzymes in the berries darken their hue.  Black pepper is the most pungent.  Tellicherry peppercorns from India’s Malabar Coast and Lampong from Indonesia are considered to be the best.  Green peppercorns are also unripe berries but are either treated with sulfur dioxide or freeze dried to preserve their green color.  They may come dried or preserved in a brine. They tend to have a fruitier taste than the black.  White peppercorns are ripe berries that have had their fruit removed.  The leftover seeds are then dried.  White pepper is often used in light colored dishes to avoid the visible specks that black pepper would create. 

            It is universally recommended to avoid ground pepper and grind your own peppercorns as needed with a pepper grinder.  Pepper, especially ground, loses its flavor and aroma rapidly.  This is facilitated by air and light; therefore, ixnay to the see-through pepper grinders.  Use whole peppercorns within one year, brined green peppercorns that have been opened within one month, and if you must, ground pepper within four months. I have three peppermills:  One for black, one for white, and one for a combination of black, white, green and pink.   

            Pepper is indeed the most used spice the world over.  (In case you’re wondering about salt, salt is not considered a spice.)  Nevertheless salt and pepper form the dynamic duo of the culinary world and a cornerstone of most dishes.  Apply them both to the main item prior to cooking and adjust as needed along the way. 




1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon white peppercorns

1 tablespoon green peppercorns

1 tablespoon pink peppercorns

2 6-8 oz. steaks about one inch thick or less

Olive oil as needed

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons butter

2 oz. cognac, brandy or dry sherry

1 cup beef or veal stock

2 oz. heavy cream


            This recipe is very flexible.  First, you can simply use all black peppercorns, (which is the traditional method).  I like an assortment for a greater breadth of flavor.  Grind the peppercorns and spread them out on a plate.  Versatility continues with the steak options.  Choose tenderloin, rib, or strip steaks.  Brush the steaks with a little olive oil and season with salt.  Then place each side of the steaks on the peppercorns to coat.  Melt the butter in a skillet and sear the steaks on each side.  Remove the steaks to a 200 degree oven or cover with foil to keep warm.  Deglaze the pan with the cognac, (or brandy or sherry.)  To maximize flavor via caramelization ignite the alcohol by tipping the pan toward the flame or with a match.  Boil the alcohol and scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits, otherwise known as the fond.  Add the stock and reduce it by at least half.  Season the sauce with salt.  Add the cream, return the steaks to the pan, and simmer until the steaks reach your desired doneness. 


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