Friday, April 24, 2015

Poivre - Peppercorns. White, Green, Black and Red Peppercorns. Grey Pepper and the Misnamed Pink Peppercorns. Pepper in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated October 2020 


White Peppercorns, Green Peppercorns, Black Peppercorns,
 and the (misnamed) Pink Peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of Steenbergs

Poivre - Peppercorns, with the exception of the pink peppercorn, come from the same climbing and flowering vine that originated in India. Peppercorns, whether noir, black; blanc, white; rouge, red, or vert, green, are all the same fruit; however, they are picked at different times and treated differently. Each of these four peppercorns provides us with a different degree of heat and a different flavor. Pink peppercorns are included in this post, even though they are not a real pepper; they are included because of their name and the confusion they create. Poivre Gris, gray pepper, is the ground mix of the black peppercorn and the heart of the white peppercorn.

Pepper spikes ripening on a vine.
Photograph courtesy of Steenbergs

The peppercorn

Poivre en Grain, Grain de Poivre – Peppercorns, any peppercorn, any color. There are many plants with pepper in their name; however, if your French menu only notes the single word Poivre, followed by a color, then that pepper will have come from peppercorns. Peppercorns Sanskrit name is pippali, and that is the source of its western name pepper. The vine's fruit, its peppercorns, are grown in bunches, called spikes. Each vine has twenty to thirty spikes, and each spike up to fifty peppercorns: that is a possible 1,500 peppercorns on one vine.


A few of the many other peppers or pepper-like spices
on French menus
They are not be confused with the peppercorns of this post.

Peppers in French cuisine include: Poivre Long - Long Pepper; Poivre de Sichuan - Szechwan or Szechuan peppers; Maniguette or Graines de Paradis - Melegueta pepper or Guinea pepper and more

Chili peppers, from the capsicum family, in French cuisine include: Cayenne – Cayenne peppers; Paprika or Paprika de Hongrie – Paprika or Hungarian Paprika; as well as the most important, the Piment d' Espelette AOP - the chili pepper from the Basque Country in France. 

Peppercorns in the languages of France's neighbors:

(Catalan - grans de pebre), (Dutch – peperkorrels), (German - pfefferkorn), (Italian - granello di pepe), (Spanish - grano de pimienta). (Latin - piper nigrum).

Peppercorns and how their colors are used in the French kitchen

In the French kitchen, color is just as important as the taste. White pepper is used with light-colored sauces and fish dishes so that no little black specks will spoil a dish's color. Equally, black pepper, not white, will be offered with a dish of smoked salmon for the contrast it shows.

Poivre Noir - Black pepper.

Black peppercorns are picked just before the fruit is fully mature. After selecting the fruit, it is fermented in water and then dried; when dried, the outer layers turn black, and voila, we have poivre noir, black pepper. 

Black peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of Tim Simpson

Poivre Noir de Tellicherry - The black pepper of Tellichery.

The black pepper of Tellichery grows around the city of Tellicherry, now Thalassery, in India. This region began to grow pepper when India was still ruled by the British, and its black pepper is still considered the very best. When a chef is using Tellicherry pepper, its name will be on the menu. Telliicherry is on the Malabar Coast of the State of Kerala near Cochin.

Black pepper on French menus:


Canard Colvert aux Figues Fraîches et Poivre Noir –Wild mallard duck cooked with fresh figs and seasoned with black pepper.


Carpaccio de Boeuf au Poivre Noir - A beef carpaccio flavored with black pepper.


Steak de Cerf Roti au Poivre Noir aux Champignons des Bois  venison steak from farmed red deer flavored with black pepper and served with wild mushrooms. France farms many animals that elsewhere are considered wild game. When the menu listing you are offered is not marked cerf sauvage, wild deer, or the whole menus is not called a Carte de la Chasse, a hunters' menu, then the deer will have been farmed.


The wild mushrooms that, in season will be on French menus include the Morille, the Morel MushroomMousseron - the St. George's MushroomRosé des Prés or Agaric Champêtre – The Field or Meadow Mushroom;  Bolet, Cèpe Jaune des Pins or Nonnette – The Weeping BoletCorne d'Abondance, Craterelles or Trompette des Morts, - The Horn of Plenty, the Black Chanterelle and the Black Trumpet Mushroom; and the Chanterelle Girolle - The Chanterelle Mushrooms.


Entrecôte Sauce au Poivre Noir « de Tellichery,» Ecrasée de Pommes de Terre au Fromage - A rib-eye steak, an entrecote, flavored with cracked Tellichery black pepper and served with mashed potatoes prepared with cheese. When black pepper is cracked, rather than ground, its flavor is lighter and more easily controlled by the chef.

Black peppercorns in the languages of France's neighbors:

(Catalan - pebre negre), (Dutch - zwarte peper), (German - schwarzer pfeffer), (Italian - pepe nero), (Spanish - pimienta negro).

Poivre Blanc – White peppercorns

White peppercorns come from the same vine as the black peppercorn. However, for white pepper, the peppercorn is allowed to ripen fully. Then the peppercorn is soaked to soften the outer husk, which is removed, and the inner peppercorn dried. Removing the husk removes many oils that make pepper spicy, so white peppercorns are not as spicy as black peppercorns. Nevertheless, white pepper is more expensive than black pepper as it is on the vine for longer, and there is a lot more work that goes into preparing it before it gets to market. Using the freshest white pepper is essential as it becomes stale and bitter when it is not fresh.

Drying white peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of Trevor Owens

  White pepper on French menus:


L'Entrecôte de Bœuf de Charolles AOP au Poivre Blanc, Flambé à l'Armagnac -  A Charolais AOP rib steak, an entrecote, flavored with white pepper and served flambéed in Armagnac

Armagnac is one of the two French grape AOP wine brandies; the other is Cognac. France's third AOP brandy is Calvados that is a group of three different apple brandies.


Filet de Biche au Poivre Blanc, Légumes d'AutomneA filet of farm-raised venison, a female red deer, prepared with white pepper and accompanied by autumn vegetables. A biche is an adult female deer, and from that name comes the origin of the English word bitch. This menu listing only reads biche, and that could indicate any member of the deer family. Ask. On French restaurant menus, the words biche for an adult female and cerf for an adult male deer are restricted to venison. The inclusive French word for all types of wild game is gibier

White pepper in the languages of France's neighbors:

(Catalan - pebre blanc), (Dutch - witte peper), (German - weisser pfeffer), (Italian - pepe bianco), (Spanish - pimienta blanca)

Poivre Vert - Green peppercorns

Green peppercorns are picked before they ripen; then, they are pickled in brine and dried but are not fermented. The result is a pepper with a light herbal flavor, much less pungent than black or white peppercorns. Green peppercorns are usually the pepper of choice for a steak au poivre, a pepper steak. When black pepper is used for a pepper steak, it is more difficult to control the peppers' heat. If black pepper is used then almost certainly the peppercorn will be crushed, not ground. Crushed black peppercorns are not as fiery as the ground form.

Green Peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of Epic Spices


Green peppercorns are often the pepper of choice for cold foods and are the pepper used in Thai green curries; they give a lighter but not a pepper-free taste to many dishes.


Poivre Vert de Madagascar
The green peppercorn from Madagascar

France ruled the island of Madagascar until 1960, and they had brought to the island pepper vines from India. Many chefs, not only French, believe that the peppercorns grown in Madagascar are the best and that the green peppers produced there are the best of all. If the poivre vert in a recipe came from Madagascar, it would be noted on the menu. In 1960, the Malagasy Republic, later the Republic of Madagascar, became independent from France.

Green peppercorns on French Menus:


Entrecote Grillée Sauce Roquefort ou Poivre Vert  A rib steak, an entrecote, served with a Roquefort cheese sauce or green pepper sauce.


Magret de Canard Sauce Poivre Vert – Duck breast served with a green pepper sauce.


Steak au Poivre with poivre vert.

A pepper steak with green peppercorns.

Photograph courtesy of @joefoodie


Le Faux-filet au Poivre Vert de Madagascar - A UK sirloin and a North American strip pepper steak prepared with the Madagascan green peppercorns.


Escalope de Veau au Poivre Vert de Madagascar – A peppered veal cutlet prepared with Madagascan green peppercorns.

Green pepper in the languages of France's neighbors:

(Catalan - pebre verd), (Dutch - groene peper) (German - grüner pfeffer), (Italian - pepe verde), (Spanish - pimienta verde).

Poivre Rouge - Red peppercorns, the truly fiery peppercorn

Red peppercorns are ripe peppercorns prepared in a manner similar to green peppercorns; however, the difference is that the milder green peppercorns are picked before ripening. The red peppercorns are picked when fully ripe. Even though they are treated in the same manner as green peppercorns, they are genuinely fiery. Red peppercorns are even more potent than black peppercorns. French chefs like their aroma, but few French dishes are really spicy. Nevertheless, poivre rouge, red peppercorns also add color, and so they will be used, but with an abundance of caution.

Make the dish as spicy as you like with red peppercorns.


Poivre rouge de Pondichéry
Red peppercorns from Pondichéry
Photograph courtesy of Ingredients Monde

Like the British, the French also had their own favorite pepper producing areas in India. The French administered their colony of Puducherry (Pondichéry), and it was one of France's most important sources of pepper. The red peppercorns from Pondichéry were and still are considered the best of all red peppers. When the poivre rouge de Pondichéry is being used, its name will be on the menu. Puducherry is the 29th most populous and the third most densely populated of India's states and union territories. 

Red peppercorns on French menus:


Cailles Fumée au Poivre Rouge de Pondichéry – Quail, the bird, smoked with red peppercorns from Pondicherry. Here the peppercorns will have been smoked alongside the quail; they will not have been cooked inside it, that would have made for a far too spicy dish.


Onglet de Boeuf "Black Angus," Condiment au Poivre Rouge du Cambodge- The onglet is a US hangar steak and in the UK a skirt steak.  Here the steak is seasoned with red peppercorns from Cambodia. The red peppercorns are clearly offered after they have been ground as a condiment, and that means you may add it yourself and thereby control the heat. For how to order a steak in France cooked the way you like it, click here.


L'Espadon au Poivre Rouge de Pondichéry – Swordfish, cooked with the red pepper from Pondicherry. The dish on this menu listing gives little information on how the swordfish will be cooked. You may be offered a swordfish steak or a swordfish stew; ask.

Red Peppercorns in the languages of France's neighbor

(Catalan - pebre rosa), (Dutch - rode peper ), (German - roter pfeffer), (Italian - pepe rosso), (Spanish - granos de pimienta roja).

Poivre Rosé, Baies Roses - Pink berries, not peppercorns.

This pink peppercorn is a berry, not a peppercorn. It is not to be confused with poivre rouge, which is the real red peppercorn.

These pink berries decorate, but they are not spicy. In pre-packed jars of peppercorns, you may see black and white peppercorns and green peppercorns. The pink peppercorns will have been included for decoration. The pink berries are also much cheaper than red peppercorns. On their own pink peppercorns have a sweet and savory smell but no bite.

Despite its slightly similar appearance to peppercorns, this is a berry with little flavor and only rarely used on its own; its value is in its use for decoration. This berry was discovered in Jamaica though it probably originated in Brazil. Today France and the rest of Europe receive most of their supplies of these decorative berries from France's island region of Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

Pink peppercorns
Photograph courtesy of Sheri Wetherell

On the island of Réunion itself, poivre rosé has still found its way into local Creole dishes despite its lack of taste. The French first brought pink peppercorn plants to Réunion in the 1800s, but despite many attempts to make Réunion a center for these and many other different herbs and spices, it was sugar-cane that became the king. Sugar is still the number one agricultural product in Réunion, though two spices are considered commercially important. The first is vanilla, and the second is cinnamon. Additionally, the Lentilles de Cilaos lentils come from Réunion and are highly rated in mainland France.

Pink peppercorns on French menus:


Poitrine de Canard au Miel et Poivre Rose Duck breast cooked with honey and pink peppercorns. Here, the honey, along with some other herb or spice, will be the duck's flavoring. The pink peppercorns are mostly decoration and texture.


Noisette de Veau aux Baies Roses  A small cut of veal prepared with pink peppercorns. This menu description may not say so, but the taste will come from the veal or another herb. Or possibly the taste will have come from a marinade that had been used in the dish's preparation; no unique flavor will have come from the pink peppercorns.


Carpaccio d'Espadon au Poivre Rose et Julienne de Céléri - Swordfish carpaccio flavored with pink pepper berries and served with a celery Julienne. France has many different cuts for vegetables, and a julienne is just about the most basic. Here the celery will be cut into 2mm x 2mm x 5mm or 6mm long matchsticks. The same cut will be seen on French menus for many other vegetables. (N.B. Julienne has another meaning on French menus, so be careful as the popular name for the fish lingue is Julienne).

Pink peppercorns in the languages of France's neighbors: 

(Catalan - pebre del Perú (Schinus molle)), (Dutch - roze peper) (German – roter pfeffer),(Italian – pepe rosso), (Spanish - pimienta roja), (Latin - schinus terebinthifolius raddi and schinus molle L.) (N.B. The name pimienta roja is also used in Spanish for powdered red chilies).

Poivre Gris - Gray pepper.

Certain black peppercorns have a white center and that, when ground, produces gray pepper. However, today most of the gray peppers are, in fact, black peppercorns, and the center of white peppercorns ground together that also produce a gray-colored ground pepper. The taste may be different from the original format but few will notice.


The ingredients for most of today's gray pepper
Photograph courtesy of deserteyes

Peppercorns in spice groups. 

Quatre Épices or Épice Parisienne

Quatre Épices is the oldest recorded spice group used in French cuisine. The original spices used in this group have not changed, though one of the spices used was nearly always disputed. That, still today, allows for two different but official spice groups with the same name. Today a chef may add one more spice to the four, and they will still be on the menu as the Quatre Épices or Épice Parisienne. The group nearly always includes poivre noir, black peppercorns, noix de muscade, nutmeg, and clous de girofle, cloves. The disputed fourth was either gingembre, ginger, or cannelle, Chinese cinnamon, and today Chinese cinnamon is usually replaced by Cannelle de Ceylan, Ceylonese cinnamon. 

Despite this spice group not being a creation from France's modern cuisine, it remains on quite a number of menus. Chefs who have learned a great deal in cooking schools enjoy showing their knowledge by using a traditional spice group with a fresh recipe.

The Quatre Épices spice group on French menus:


Cuisse de Porcelet Farcie Rôtie au Quatre Épices et Miel de Lavande – A suckling pig’s leg stuffed and roasted with the traditional four spice group and lavender honey.


A whole suckling pig will weigh between 3-4 kilos and will never have tasted any food other than its mother's milk. This dish is at its best when the piglet is simply roasted and flavored with wine and herbs. Originally roast suckling pig, sometimes with the traditional apple in its mouth, was a dish that was reserved for special private occasions and celebrations. Now roast suckling pig is on many restaurant menus, and you will be offered slices, not a whole pig.


Foie Gras de Canard aux Quatre Epices, Gelée au Porto – Duck foie gras, fattened duck liver, prepared with the four-spice spice group and served with its natural aspic released in the cooking, flavored with Port wine. 


Lomo de Thon Rouge aux Quatre Épices – A thick cut from the Blue Fin tuna, prepared with the quatre épices, spice group. This tuna is caught in the Mediterranean and off France's Atlantic coast.


The Thon Rouge, the blue fin tuna, is one of the three tuna family members caught along France's mainland coasts. The other two are Germon – The Albacore tuna and Thonine - The Little Tunny or Little Tuna.

The spices used, in the Quatre Épices, I was warned, should never be prepared and stored. The spice group must be prepared or ground just before using it.

The the four-spice group in the languages of France's neighbors: 

(German – viergewürz), (Italian- quattro spezie), (Spanish- quatro épices)


Mignonette Poivre, Poivre Mignonette or Poivre Concasse

Mignonette Poivre is a mixture of coarsely ground peppercorns pre-prepared for use in various dishes and sauces. Mostly this will be mixed ground white and black peppercorns, though I have seen a menu listing where the term was used for ground green peppercorns on their own. 

The original use of peppercorns

In the days before refrigeration, all peppers and spices were used to disguise the taste of meats and fish that were far from fresh. When the Portuguese found, in the 16th century, the route around Africa directly to India, they brought back peppercorns. Before the Portuguese traveled around Africa, peppercorns were brought via mule and camel train to the Mediterranean and then via boat to France; that was a costly journey. The Portuguese quickly realized they could easily discount the Indian peppercorns brought via an overland trek. The Portuguese imports were offered at prices far below that of the other popular black pepper, the maniguette or graines de paradis imported from Guinea. Following on, Guinea pepper quickly lost favor. Today, many chefs have rediscovered the lighter and different taste of Guinea pepper, but Guinea pepper will require a separate post.

The value of pepper in history,

When Alexander the Great tried to conquer India in 326 BCE, one of his aims was to control India's spices and sugar canes. However, Alexander had a problem with India's geography; most of India's spices, including pepper, were far to the south. For nearly eight hundred years, pepper remained a spice of incredibly high value. When the Visigoth Alaric would hold Rome to ransom in 409 BCE, Alaric demanded gold, silver, silk, and 1,400 kilos of pepper as part of Rome's ransom. The Romans agreed and then backtracked and tried to renegotiate aspects of their agreement. The angry Visigoths sacked the city to teach the Romans a lesson. Luckily for the Romans, many of the Visigoths had converted to Christianity. As fellow Christians, they left out many of the worst effects of sacking a city, such as rape and mass murder

Peppercorns and India

 Peppercorns are still an important commodity in India, even though India is no longer the world's largest producer. The world's largest peppercorn producer today is Vietnam.    

No one is really sure when India began cultivating the pepper vine, but active cultivation probably started around 4,000 years ago. Later, probably 1,000 years later, the Egyptians and Phoenicians were buying this pepper from India.  Around that time, the Phoenician traders, the Mediterranean’s first seaborn wholesalers, brought the first taste of peppercorns to the Greeks and Romans.

Thanks to the experts 

Much of the information on herbs and spices in this and other posts on herbs and spices comes from talking to chefs and the managers and owners of spice shops in many countries. That information comes along with reading menus and tasting the results of the dishes I have ordered. As may be expected, I occasionally collect old wives' tales and misinformation on the origins and uses, as well as historical matters that include conflicting times and dates. Whatever I had not seen with my own eyes needed to be checked out. My thanks go to Gernot Katzer and his Spice Pages at http://gern, and Eric Schoenzetter, webmaster of his Toil'd 'épices at They have an incredible amount of information and history. Both have given me a great deal of information, and any details that appear in my blog and are still incorrect is my own responsibility.


Bryan G. Newman 

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2015, 2020

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog, write to Bryan Newman.


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