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A Pepper Primer: True Red Peppercorns

True red peppercorns are the fruit of the piper nigrum vine. Hand plucked when fully ripe, they have a sweet, fruity flavor with mild peppery heat. The peppercorns shown here are freeze-dried on the Poabs Estate in India.

True red peppercorns are the fruit of the piper nigrum vine. Hand plucked when
fully ripe, they have a sweet, fruity flavor with mild peppery heat. The peppercorns
shown here are freeze-dried on the Poabs Estate in India.

These are the real thing.

No, I’m not talking about “pink peppercorns”, those rosy-hued imposters that you see in gourmet peppercorn blends. Those are not pepper at all, but the dried berries of schinus terebinthifolius, a tree native to Peru. Today, most baies roses, as they are also known, are grown on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

True red peppercorns are rare even in the lush, monsoon drenched equatorial regions where the piper nigrum vine flourishes—and in the past, if you found them on a spice merchant’s shelf, they were likely to be pickled or brined.

But all that’s changing with the introduction of freeze-dried red peppercorns. The flavor is extraordinary: sweet and fruity, with a sunny warmth that builds to a spicy crescendo.

Trouble is, you’d never recognize them without the label on the spice can.

Family: Piperaceae

Botanical Name: Piper nigrum

Where: India

What are they?

True red peppercorns are the fully ripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine from which black, white and green peppercorns also come. (The differences in color, flavor and aroma are due to different harvesting times and processing methods.) Red peppercorns are left on the vine to soak up the sun until the berries are mature. Just as they turn yellow and red, they are plucked by hand.

Ripe red peppercorns are very fragile. Although fresh clusters are occasionally found in the markets in Kerala and other pepper-growing regions, most ripe pepper berries are immediately brined and sealed in jars. Attempts at drying ripe peppercorns have been unsuccessful: The husks are so papery that they are difficult to use in the kitchen.

In 2007, however, freeze dried red peppercorns appeared on the market, largely due, it seems, to the efforts of the Poabs Organic Estate, located in the Nellyampathy Hills in Kerala. India. This 1,000 acre biodynamic farm, which also grows tea, coffee and other spices, produces exquisite freeze-dried red peppercorns sold through Bart Spices in Bristol, England—double sealed tins with a use by date of 2009 can be had through Chelsea Market Baskets in New York.

The first thing you’ll notice is that these fat, round peppercorns are not especially red. Instead, they are a rich yellow-brown blushed with a russet tinge.

Poke your nose into a tin of these red peppercorns and you’ll inhale a subtle peppery aroma. That’s just a prelude. Crunch one between your teeth and a sort of sunny sweetness spreads across the palate, quickly followed by a taste of ripe fruit and flowers, then the soft flavor of peppercorns. Gradually a slow burn builds to a small, lingering fire—hot but tolerable.

How are they used?

Freeze dried red peppercorns have a papery husk and even though the inner core is firm, they don’t grind well in any sort of peppermill. Instead, crush them in a mortar and pestle or gently smash them in a plastic ziplock bag with a hammer or rolling pin,

Sweet red peppercorns are wonderful with briny fresh shellfish, such as shrimp or lobster and some citrus, such as oranges, clementines and tangerines. I love to marinate raw shrimp in crushed red peppercorns, then sautee them with clementine sections, shredded ginger and toasted walnuts. The dish has a marvelous interplay of sweet and spicy flavors which is offset by the rich, crunchy nuts.

There’s also an interesting recipe on the Bart Spices tin: goat cheese rolled in ground red peppercorns and sautéed until warm, then served over salad leaves with a dressing of orange juice and cranberries whisked with damson plum syrup and olive oil. Here the peppercorns add a softly spicy note to the rich, tangy cheese, while the whole salad is bathed in the sweet tart flavors of the citrus dressing.

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