Friday, April 24, 2015

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

Bryan G. Newman
Updated 2016

 White Peppercorns, Green Peppercorns, Black Peppercorns and the (Misnamed) Pink Peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of Dennis Wilkinson.
Peppercorns, with the exception of the pink peppercorn, come from a single climbing and flowering vine that originated in India. Peppercorns, whether black, white, red or 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 a not a real pepper. They are included because of their name and the confusion they create.

Pepper vines in Vietnam.
Photograph courtesy of Jacques Beaulieu
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 only have come from peppercorns.

There are many other peppers or peppery spices on French menus. They include  Poivre Long - Long Pepper;  Poivre de Sichuan -  Szechwan  or Szechuan peppers; Cayenne  – Cayenne pepper; Maniguette or Graines de Paradis - Melegueta pepper or Guinea pepper; Paprika or Paprika de Hongrie – Paprika or Hungarian Paprika; as well as the Piments d' Espelette - the chili peppers from the Basque Country in France. That list names just a few of the tens of others peppers or spices associated with pepper. In any case, there are far too many for this post. I will write about the other peppers that are important to modern French cuisine in a future post.

Peppercorns in the languages of France’s neighbors:
 (Catalan - grans de pebre),  (Dutch – peperkorrels), (German -  pfefferkorn), (Italian - granello di pepe), (Spanish - grano de pimienta).

Peppercorns and their colors in the French kitchen:

 In the French kitchen, white pepper is used with light colored sauces and fish dishes so no little black specks will spoil the color of a dish.  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 picking the fruit 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  Eric Bégin.
Poivre Noir de Tellicherry -The black pepper or Tellichery.

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

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 A 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.

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 pepper in the languages if 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 fully ripen.  Then the peppercorn is soaked to soften the outer husk, which is removed and the inner peppercorn dried. Removing the husk removes many of the oils which 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.

White peppercorns.
Photograph courtesy of  Michael Dietsch

Using the freshest white pepper is important. White pepper becomes stale and bitter when it is not fresh.
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 wine AOP wine brandies, the other is Cognac)
Filet de Biche au Poivre Blanc, Légumes d'Automne. A filet of farm-raised female red deer prepared with white pepper and accompanied by autumn vegetables. A biche is an adult female deer and the name is 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 language 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.
Green Peppercorns.

Green peppercorns are also often the pepper of choice for cold foods and is the pepper used in Thai green curries; it gives 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 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 then that will 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 and green pepper sauce.

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

Steak au Poivre.
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.

Red peppercorns are ripe peppercorns prepared like green peppercorns; however, the difference is that the milder green peppercorns are picked before ripening.  The red peppers are picked when fully ripe. Even though they are treated like  green peppers, they are truly fiery.  Red peppercorns are even stronger than black peppercorns. French chefs like their aroma, but few French dishes are really spicy.  Poivre rouge also adds color, but will be used, in France, with great caution.

Make the dish as spicy as you like with red peppercorns and added red chilis.
Photograph courtesy of  Rich & Cheryl.
 Like the British, the French also had their own favorite pepper producing areas in India. The French administered their colony of Pondicherry, it was one of France’s most important sources of pepper. The red pepper from Pondichéry was and is considered the best of all red peppers. When the poivre rouge de Pondichéry is being used, its name will be on the menu.
Cailles Fumée au Poivre Rouge de PondichéryQuail, 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..
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 pepper from Cambodia.  The red pepper is clearly offered as a condiment and that means you may add it yourself and thereby you control the heat.   The hangar or skirt steak on this menu listing will rarely be seen in a UK or North American steak house.  These are very tasty steaks but they require a great deal of preparation and that is expensive.  French chefs learn early on how to choose the meat they buy; there is no French equivalent of  US Prime etc., French chefs spend time preparing these steaks  and they will not be tough unless they are ordered “well done”. N.B.: In all probability, a French chef will not accept an order for an onglet well done.  For how to order a steak in France cooked the way you like it click here.
L'Espadon au Poivre Rouge de Pondichery – 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.

Poivre Rosé, Baies Roses - Pink peppercorns.

This pink peppercorn is a berry, it is 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. Pink peppercorns may be included for decoration. The pink berries are also much cheaper than red peppercorns and on their own pink peppercorns have a sweet but pungent smell but no bite.

Despite its slightly similar appearance to peppercorns, this berry has little flavor. 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  Addison Berry.
On the island of Réunion itself, poivre rosé, despite its lack of taste has still found its way into local Creole dishes. The French first brought pink peppercorn plants to Réunion in the 1800’s, but despite many attempts to make Réunion a center for these and many other different herbs and spices sugar-cane became the king. Sugar is still the number one agricultural product in Réunion and the only other spice that is considered commercially important is cinnamon.
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 flavoring of the duck.  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, but  any unique flavor will not 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 when its is used  for many other vegetables,

 Pink peppercorns in the languages of France’s neighbors: 

(German – roter pfeffer),(Italian – pepe rosso), (Spanish - pimienta roja),). The name pimienta roja is also used in Spanish for powdered red chilies).

Poivre Gris  - Gray pepper. 

Gray pepper is the term used for certain ground black peppers corns that still have a white center and when ground produce a gray colored ground pepper.

Pepper spice groups.
Quatre Épices  or Épice Parisienne
The four spices is the oldest recorded  spices 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 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.  The group nearly always includes poivre noir, black peppercorns;  noix de muscade, nutmeg, and clous de girofle, cloves. The disputed fourth was originally gingembre, ginger or cannelle, Chinese cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon is today usually replaced by Cannelle de Ceylan, Ceylonese cinnamon. 
The four spices 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.
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 the Atlantic.
Despite this spice group  not being a creation from France’s modern cuisine, it remains on quite a number of menus. Chefs who studied in cooking schools enjoy showing their knowledge by using a traditional spice group with a fresh recipe.
 The spices used, in the Quatre Épices, I was warned, are never to be prepared and stored.  They must be prepared and ground just before using.
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
A mixture of coarsely ground peppers 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

All peppers and spices were used, in the days prior to refrigeration, 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. The Portuguese could then easily discount these preferred Indian peppercorns.  They were offered at prices far below the prices for the pepper imported from Guinea and so Guinea pepper quickly lost favor. Today; however, many chefs have rediscovered the lighter and different taste of Guinea pepper, but Guinea pepper will require a seperate 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 problems with India’s geography,  most of India’s spices including pepper were far to the South. Eight hundred years later, when the Visigoth Alaric would hold Rome to ransom in 409 BCE, Alaraic demanded gold, silver, silk and 1,400 kilos of pepper as part of Rome’s ransom. The Roman’s agreed and then backtracked and tried to renegotiate parts 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 and so they left out many of the worst effects of sacking a city such as rape and mass murder.

 Peppercorns are still an important commodity in India even though India is not the  world’s largest producer. The world’s largest peppercorn producer today is Vietnam.
Pepper in the languages of France's neighbors:
(German – pfeffer), (Italian – pepe),  (Spanish – pimiento).
 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’s a possible 1,500 peppercorns on one vine.

Unripe pepper spikes.
 No one is really sure when India began cultivating the pepper vine, but active cultivation probably began around 4,000 years ago.  Later, probably three thousand years ago the Egyptians and Phoenicians were buying this pepper. Around that time, the Phoenician traders brought the first taste of pepper 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.  I, as may be expected, occasionally collect misinformation (unintentionally) and  listen to historical matters that needed to be checked out.  My thanks go to Gernot Katzer and his Spice Pages at 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 corrected  information and any that appears in my blog and is still incorrect is my own responsibility.
Connected Posts:
Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
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