Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
Exceptional rare pepper from the Elephant Valley
In Confronting our Freedom, Peter Block writes, “A larger, overarching purpose always resides in our own history, if we choose to look closely.” I don’t aspire to empire, but one thing I have in common with ancient Romans is that my pursuit of high-quality black pepper, at times, I say smiling, starts to seem like part of my life purpose. Some people adore art; others make music their vocation, but in the era of the Roman Empire, pepper was, for anyone with the means to access it, an exceptionally high priority! Ancient Romans, in a single year, sent 120 large ships to the west coast of India (the shortest distance between two pepper-centric points) to bring back pepper and other spices. Plant biologist and food historian James Hancock writes,
Pepper became an essential ingredient in food in the Roman world. The wealthy used it liberally in almost everything eaten. In the cookbook attributed to the famous Roman gourmet Apicius, pepper is included in over 70% of the recipes (349 out of 469). Roman cuisine was infused with exotic flavors … Indian pepper was particularly popular.
As petroleum does (unfortunately) today, pepper drove much of the Empire’s power politics and energized its economy.
This massive movement of pepper to Rome continued until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. The story goes that Alaric the Visigoth asked Rome for a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when he besieged the city in 410 CE.
Timothy Snyder says, “History does not repeat, but it does instruct.” Seventeen hundred years after the fall of Rome, pepper for most people has become much more mundane. Studying the prominence of pepper over the years reminded me that what has come to be taken almost for granted by most Americans, is in fact, as special an ingredient as the best wine, bean-to-bar chocolate, or single-estate olive oil. For me, it remains as magical as it once was for Apicius.
Fortunately, we have a very wonderful partner in this peppery pursuit. Ethné and Philippe de Vienne, two of the kindest, wisest, hardest-working, and culturally-interested people I know, have been running their business Épices de Cru in Montreal for about as long as we’ve been doing the same at Zingerman’s. Through their great work, we have about a dozen different peppercorns—all excellent—on the shelves at the Deli. We also have the amazing farm-to-table Telicherry black pepper as our house pepper at the Roadhouse. We don’t use enough to fill one of those Roman ships, but we do buy (and use) a boatload. Something like 1500 pounds a year moves through the restaurant enhancing the flavor of the fried chicken, the ribs, those fantastic Pepper Fries, and well, pretty much everything! (If you order vanilla gelato, seriously, grind some on at the table.)
Last fall, the de Viennes got us a small supply of some very special black pepper sourced from Elephant Valley, from what’s called the Cardamom Hills in southern India, a bit inland from the Kerala coast where the Roman ships would have been docking.
The pepper is from the highest elevation in the Cardamom Hills—rocky soil, great sun exposition on the slope of the mountain. What would be great conditions for wine in a more temperate climate! We first got word of it from [our friend and local spice trader] Sudheer of course. He built a relationship with a farmer who is bringing heirloom peppers back to life. We basically got 50 kg. Harvested only once fully mature, the peppercorns—whose colour varies from black to deep red—are fresh and boldly floral in flavour. Warm, very hot, and particularly long in the mouth, this is an all-purpose pepper which we suggest using as a finishing touch, as this will allow for an even greater appreciation of its complex notes.
For me, the pepper from Elephant Valley is remarkably full in flavor. “Breathtaking” might be an appropriate descriptor—ten minutes after I ate one of the peppercorns, I’m still finding new flavors emerging on my tongue. An almost fiery long finish (in the best possible way), a lovely liveliness on the tongue, super terrific. Grind some onto a fresh goat cheese from the Creamery, a killer cacio e pepe pasta, or terrifically special steak au poivre. Keep the small Épices de Cru tin with you and eat a peppercorn anytime you need to increase your attentiveness. Or use it as a healthy, happy, and holistic way to recenter in the middle of a tense meeting. If you feel yourself losing focus, pop a peppercorn in your mouth and turn your attention to its complex flavors for a minute or two while you get your wits back around you. Rather than slip into reactivity you can eat something really good and remind yourself of the wonder of the world and remember how a Roman pepper lover might have gone as crazy for this Elephant Valley pepper as some might do today for a world-class wine. I’m not sure how they shared “breaking news” back in ancient Rome but the arrival of this pepper might well have provoked a couple of pretty prominent headlines!