Amy Eddings' Food for Thought: Pepper

Boy, is my face red.

Or, rather, pink.

In my zeal to try different types of pepper, I bought two big bottles of whole pink and white peppercorns -- the pricey Morton & Bassett kind. I wanted to try red peppercorns, but I figured pink was the same thing. It's not.

I fried up two eggs, and put freshly ground white pepper on one and freshly ground pink pepper on the other. I couldn't really grind the pink peppercorns. Their bright magenta husks are too papery and just fall out of the mill in flakes.  Better to crush them, or use them whole.

I got that familiar, peppery zing from the white pepper.  It was pleasing, not as sharp and hot as black pepper.  But I was really disappointed with the pink peppercorns. I found the flavor so subtle as to be non-existent. I stuck a whole pink peppercorn in my mouth.  It tasted sweet but piney, a little like turpentine. No peppery heat at all.

What gives?

I started doing Web searches on red peppercorns and found, from, that red peppercorns are not red, really. They are a beautiful yellowish-cream color, with just a hint of blush on their cheeks.

Check out a picture on SpiceLines here.

Red peppercorns are the fully ripe fruit of the piper nigrum vine.  That's the same plant that green, black and white peppercorns come from. Different harvesting and processing methods give us the different colors and flavors of green (unripe), black (almost ripe, dried in the sun) and white (mature, with red husks removed). 

SpiceLines describes their flavor as "sweet and fruity, with a sunny warmth that builds to a spicy crescendo." 

That's what I was looking for, but I had purchased pink peppercorns. Not red. Red peppercorns are extremely rare. So rare that every time I did a Web search on red peppercorns, to find a mail order vendor, I was sent to sites selling pink peppercorns. I can't find red ones, at least, not online.

But pink ones proliferate on the Web and in our gourmet food stores. Pink peppercorns are priced as if they are rare, and maybe they are, but they sure are easier to find than red peppercorns. And pink peppercorns aren't even related to red peppercorns. They are what calls "rosy-hued imposters." 

They are from a small tree, Schinus terebinthifolius, also known as the Brazilian peppertree. In Florida, the non-native plant is called Florida holly. It grows like a weed, and is considered a pest. It has an aromatic sap that can cause skin reactions similar to poison ivy.  A related species, Schinus molle, the Peruvian peppertree, also has red berries that are sold as pink peppercorns.

So, I'm a little red. With embarrassment. And, frankly, with anger. Why are these menthol-tasting berries even allowed to be sold as "peppercorns"? Why did I pay $10 for just over half an ounce of berries from a plant that is taking over wetlands in Florida? A spokeswoman for Morton & Bassett told me their pink peppercorns are imported from Brazil. Why bother? Go to the Everglades and cut costs.

I didn't get the chance to ask Chef Julian Medina, my guest, about his pink peppercorn experience. He thinks they taste like strawberries.  I can't find that in my pink peppercorn vocabulary.  I wonder if he's using the red ones in his restaurants?  

And where can I get true red peppercorns?  

If you've got any suggestions, let me know.