The way to kill a dish is to say pass the pepper. This is the first warning that a food has failed.
Salt and pepper are as common to the table as knife, fork and spoon. But salt acts as adverb and adjective to the meal. It supports and embellishes a foods flavour. Pepper, however, is our way of saying, I cant taste a thing. Pass the pepper, at least that has flavour.
But the pepper that is usually at hand is likely as tasty as sawdust, perhaps with a dash of bitterness and pain. Try some by itself. It is like having tears without emotion. We dash it on and feel that somehow, it has done some good. Feeling more sophisticated, we grind a couple of pepper corns onto our steak or eggs. We savour the bite, the small dose of agony that we have come to prefer to the bland food set in front of us.
How wonderful it is then to taste pepper that stands on its own, that is filled with a hundred floral notes, that stacks up to coriander or juniper or nutmeg. Thank you Philippe de Vienne. De Vienne is a Montreal caterer who couldnt find the quality of spices he wanted. He scented them out and brought them home. Two of his most interesting finds are long peppers grown in India and grains of paradise from the Caribbean. (For the moment, his spices are only available at Les Douceurs du Marché in the Atwater Market.)
First up are long peppers. These are corns that have formed into thin rods, 5 cm. long. They look like miniature pine cones. Break off a nugget and let it roll across the tongue. There is a sweet perfume and then, a long minute later, a bite that snaps us to attention with a short sharp shock. This is the pepper that was prized from Roman times through the Middle Ages. It was worth three times the price of black pepper back then and that ratio remains the same today.
Another delicious pepper is called grains of paradise. These are about the same size as black pepper corns. They have a reddish shell and are pure white inside. They taste heavily perfumed, similar to cardamom to which they are related. They have only a slight bite. Theyre expensive, $120 a kilo, but a gram or two goes a long way.
Long peppers and grains of paradise are rarely used alone. Combine them with whole black pepper corns in a table grinder. This adds an aromatic swath to the singular sharpness of ordinary pepper. Or use them like cooks do in India and Ethiopia, mixing them with other spices such as nutmeg, cloves and turmeric to give substantial flavour to cooking.