Long pepper (Piper longum) is native to India, where it has been used in cookery since at least 2000 BC. In ancient times, it was the pepper of choice, and is mentioned in most medieval cookery manuscripts. It was favoured by the Romans, and remained the dominant variety until the 14th century. A recipe for long pepper with flamingo was included in De re Coquinaria, a collection of recipes from the 4th century that is thought to be Europe’s oldest surviving cookbook. Long pepper fell out of fashion during the 16th century in Europe. Food historians think its disappearance from European kitchens could have been due to the introduction of chilli peppers, which filled the gap in the market for a product that was both cheaper and hotter than common black pepper. Long pepper has been making a comeback of late, in part, due to food writers like Nigel Slater, who calls it ‘the most beautiful spice of all’.
We chatted to the Peppermongers, Tom Alcott and Pete Gibbons, who specialise in high quality peppercorns, and have been key players in the revival of long pepper.
CEREAL: What is the difference between long pepper and black pepper?
Peppermongers: Long pepper grows as catkins on a vine. It’s best ground fresh in a pestle and mortar. It is sweeter and more pungent than ‘normal’ pepper.
CEREAL: Why has long pepper been so neglected, and why is it making a comeback?
Peppermongers: Even until quite recently, it was the most common variety in Europe. Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, wrote a great food encyclopedia around 1860, stating there are three types of pepper; black, white, and long. Long pepper hasn’t been neglected, exactly – it’s always been big in India and Indonesia – it’s just that Piper nigrum boomed. During the wars, black pepper was ignored in favour of Cubeb pepper, while in China and Nepal, the number one pepper is Sichuan flower pepper. Each culture has its preferences which evolve over time. Foods follow fashion; in the 1780s, everything had nutmeg in it, and don’t forget, olive oil used to be only sold in chemists for ear infections. Food fashions ebb and flow. Long is not the new black – it’s the old black!
CEREAL: You sell Indonesian rather than Indian long pepper. What’s the difference?
Peppermongers: They come from the same family – Piperacae, and they are the same genus – Piper. The Indian species is Piper longum, while the Indonesian is Piper retrofactum. In size terms, they are both long, but the Indonesian species is longer! Flavour wise, the Indian long pepper (also known as pippali) has lovely chocolate aromas. It’s very pungent and slightly bitter. We prefer the Indonesian species for its incredible floral, sweet, all-spice aroma. It also has a lovely hit of piperine which comes in slowly and stays longer.
CEREAL: What kinds of food particularly benefit from being combined with long pepper?
Peppermongers: In Indonesia, it gets used a lot with fish, which is a huge part of the daily diet. Sweet chilli prawns with long pepper is lovely. It works really well with desserts too, because of its sweetness. It can be used in cakes, or sprinkled on strawberries, or in cream with vanilla and cardamom. You can also add long pepper whole to stews, skewer them in sweet marinaded pineapple or roast them with pork. They’re really very versatile. Whereas salt brings flavour out, pepper adds it. ■