Black pepper ripening on the vine

Issue No. 96: Zingerman’s Five Star Black Pepper Blend

In my book The Guide to Good Leading, I write about our definition of local food. It is less about geography and mostly about having a positive relationship with those from whom we buy, and to those we sell. Since black peppercorns don’t grow in Michigan, that means we buy it from someone with whom we can have a long-lasting connection and conversation.

Someone like the de Vienne family.

They run Montreal’s Épices de Cru, and they’ve given us the opportunity for connection and conversation in spades over the last three years. Spices generally arrive at most business’s doors from distributors. There is no connection to the farmers who grow them or the people who go out into the wild to gather them. Now we have access to real people and real communities with whom we can communicate on almost every spice front. By switching over our pepper purchase, not only are we raising the quality of what we’re buying and improving the flavor of nearly all our food, but we now have begun a direct connection with the folks in India whose diligent work has made all this possible!

That connection is named Sudheer.

Sudheer has made it his life’s mission to master the pepper trade. His story started with his grandmother, who was a supervisor for a cardamom plantation. As a kid, he would visit his grandmother and wander between the rows of cardamom and pepper. Today he’s a spice sourcer in Kerala, down at the bottom of the Indian subcontinent along the west coast. It’s long been known as the “spice garden of India.” It’s also a beautiful region, one that draws many tourists each year. Unlike many agricultural products in the modern world, pepper in Kerala is grown still on a very small scale. “The small farmers here, they have one or two hectares,” Sudheer told me. Of equal importance, Sudheer has a direct relationship with each farmer. “We never buy through traders,” he told me. “Only directly from the farmer.”

That was the old the way the old time spice traders did it centuries ago. Back then spice trading was mostly about extracting as much from the producing regions in Asia and making as much money as possible in the process. That old model was, as many historians have described, mostly a violent and horrible way to work in which farmers and growers suffered and Europeans traders became wealthy.

Sudheer’s approach is the opposite. To raise people up and share the wealth, rather than taking it all half-way around the world. It’s all about working with the farmers to help get them to grow higher quality, paying them more for it, and in the process, making the lives of everyone involved better. Since most people in the world know only “black pepper” as if it were a singular entity, Sudheer is determined to teach people the differences between one black pepper and the next. He explains, “My place is a wildlife sanctuary. If you drive 30 or 40 kilometers from a farm, the pepper will taste totally different.”

From farmer to table: developing a Zingerman’s exclusive pepper blend.

Sudheer and the team at Épices de Cru spent months testing different combinations before settling on three finalists which they brought us to taste. Then we spent three more weeks grinding, cracking, smelling and tasting here before settling on this fantastic blend of five black peppers. All five come from southwest India, the pepper capital of the world:

Tellicherry Reserve – Épices de Cru’s most aromatic black pepper offering. The aroma reminds of burnished old wood, of eucalyptus, of walking through the woods in northern California. The flavor is winelike with a richness and well-rounded heat.
Mlamala – Grown at above 700 meters under full-on southern Indian sun in the Cardamom Hills. Its unique flavor brings lots of low notes, and a long-loving heat.
Rajakumari – Fittingly, the name means “princess” in the local Malayalam dialect. Hardly ever seen outside of India, the fully ripened, densely textured, intensely flavored pepper is an elegant addition to the blend.
Tellicherry EB – Extra-large, fully ripened peppercorns from the Wayanad region that bring long slow heat, big flavor.
Shimoga – A lively black pepper from the Shimoga district in the Indian state of Karnakata. Where Tellicherry goes big, wide and deep, Shimoga is focused, narrow, intense with an almost electric set of high notes, and sensual spicy warmth.

The aroma of the blend is piney with a bit of eucalyptus, aromatic, floral. A hint of juniper—it almost smells like a really high-end gin. Maybe even a little minty. It’s long and lasting. The flavor follows from the aroma. A gentle heat at first that grows as it sits on your tongue. The complexity of the five top-notch black peppercorns the de Viennes have brought together especially for this purpose.

In a world seasoned with anonymous large-scale production peppers, this blend of whole peppercorns is something special and we’re working to put it to use throughout our organization—even in some of our breads. It’s on my table at home. I hope it will soon be on your table too!