Normal black peppercorns need more heat than you'll get in Britain — but there are extraordinary alternatives which will spice up your cooking and even save you a fortune, as Mark Diacono explains.
There are a few things that will indicate when I succumb too fully to middle age: not kicking a windfall apple that happens to have fallen in my path, not having to have chocolate and ice cream when I go to the cinema — and not bending down, as I walk past the pepper plants that grow in my garden, to rub their leaves. For eight months of the year, their spice scent perfumes my fingertips — and long may it continue.
The black pepper that sits on most kitchen tables comes from a plant that is native to southern India and requires heat beyond the capability of these islands, but we can grow other kinds of pepper. Szechuan, Japanese and Nepalese peppers offer their distinctive flavour and scent in both the peppercorns and leaves and, although you can find Szechuan pepper in the shops, it is expensive — homegrown, it is so much better. The plants are easy to grow (I’ll come to that), requiring little attention, so your choice is down to which of these very different fragrances and flavours you like the sound of most.
There are a good number of Szechuan pepper species, from the earthily scented Zanthoxylum simulans, to the zestier Z. schinifolium and Z. giraldii. Nepalese pepper — Z. planispinum, also known as Z. alatum—has leaves and peppercorns with a bold lemon/grapefruit scent and flavour; the pink peppercorns are a little smaller than most varieties, but they are full of oomph. The peppercorns and leaves of Japanese pepper — or sansho pepper, Z. piperitum — are the least intensely peppery of the three, but their flavour and aroma is bold and bright.
All share a special quality — the ability to bring a gentle numbing sensation to the lips and tongue — that is especially lively in Szechuan varieties and forms part of the experience of that region’s food.
Each plant (to buy, visit www.pennardplants.com) follows the same dance over the year. Leaves break from small, tight buds early in spring. Growing quickly, they resemble ash leaves, which, together with the spiky stems, makes sense of the common name — prickly ash.
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Even when tiny, the leaves carry that amazing scent and, if small and tender, make wonderful punctuations to a salad. Their flowers remind me of elder in that they form similarly upward-facing landing pads for insects — bees are especially fond of them — before the flowers turn to mini fruit. Their increasing weight flips them over to hang slightly as they develop.
You can harvest peppercorns at any stage. Most commercially grown pepper is harvested when it has turned a gloriously vibrant pink-red and the outer casing is breaking on the first few. I tend to pick some early in July, when they’re still green and very bright in flavour, for pickles, for putting in sauces (especially with steak, roast vegetables or halloumi) and even later when they are deep red, sometimes as late as December.
There is a point at which the outer casing splits and the dark (usually flavourless) seed drops, followed quickly by the case, which carries almost all of the flavour. Twist the clusters of pepper, being careful not to snag your fingers on the spikes. You can use them fresh or lay them flat to dry for a couple of days so that they’ll go through a pepper mill more easily.
If you have even a sliver of entrepreneurial spirit, quietly say ‘£5… £10… £15…’ as you twist off each cluster of pepper. You can eat the casing alone, but it is common to grind the whole, seed and all, which moderates the flavour a touch.
As fine as the peppercorns are, don’t overlook the leaves. Although too tough to eat once developed, they are superb when used to infuse flavour as you would bay (pepper-leaf mayonnaise is excellent) or crushed into spice blends. The leaves of the Japanese sansho pepper are more popularly used than the peppercorns.
It is almost indecently easy to provide for Szechuan, Japanese and Nepalese peppers. Plant direct in the soil or grow in a container, mulching around the base with compost and/or manure to feed the plants, eliminate any grass or weed competition and retain moisture. A tree guard is useful to protect from rabbits; a 12in spiral guard should suffice.
No pruning is necessary, but I tend to snip here and there for shape, size, and to remove dead or cluttered branches when the leaves have fallen.
As with most plants, I water frequently as they become established and through the growing season if they are in pots. Container-grown peppers should be fed once a month with a slow-release feed such as pelleted chicken manure. That really is all that’s between you and growing your own delicious pepper.
Mark Diacono grows edibles, both usual and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon — www.otterfarm.co.uk
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