The Very Best: Spices

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This page underwritten by SpiceLines

Chilling Out
“Scientists have combined a normally inactive lidocaine derivative with capsaicin, the ‘heat’-generating ingredient in chili peppers, to produce pain-specific local anesthesia.  When injected into rats, this combination completely blocked pain without interfering with either motor function or sensitivity to non-painful stimuli” (Harvard Medical School Press Release, October 3, 2007).  “The new work builds on research done since the 1970’ showing how electrical signaling in the nervous system depends on the properties of ion channels, that is, proteins that make pores in the membranes of neurons.”  “The team must overcome several hurdles before this method can be applied to humans.  They must figure out how to open the TRPV1 channels without producing even a transient burning pain before QX-314 enters and blocks the neurons, and they must tinker with the formulation to prolong the effects of the drugs.  Both Bean and Woolf are confident they’ll succeed.”  Also see Nature, October 4, 2007, “Inhibition of nociceptors by TRPV1-mediated entry of impermeant sodium channel blockers.”  (2/27/08)

Chilies Fight Cancer
“Capsaicin, the chemical that makes chile peppers hot, may have the power to destroy cancer cells” (The Week, April 7, 2006, p. 20). Cedar-Sinai in California has discovered that it shrinks prostate tumors in mice 80%, and, in lab tests, the spice killed 75 percent of human cancer cells.  See “Capsaicin, a component of red peppers, inhibits the growth of androgen-independent, p53 mutant prostate cancer cells.” See PubMed.  (10/11/06)

French Lavender
You can read much about the growing interest in lavender at our sister site  But certainly this is a matter of even more passionate interest in France than America.  “Along an official ‘Lavender Route,’ organized tours lead visitors through perfumed purple-blue fields, distilleries, museums, restaurants, art galleries and, of cours, gift shops” (“In Provence, Commerce’s Scent is Tinged with Lavender,” New York Times, July 21, 2006, p. A4).  Lavender, in France anyway, is said to disinfect the air, help psychiatric patients, clean wounds, help insominia, and drive away flies and mosquitoes.  “France now accounts for only 50 percent of the world’s production of fine lavender, although 90 percent of its lavendin.”  Lavendin is “a sterile, hardier and much more prolific hybrid with a cruder, industrial, camphor scent.”  (8/16/06)

Going-Away Spices
Richmond Hill Inn, a very classy inn on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, puts a little present outside your door in the morning, dazzling you with the wonders of nature instead of all the cares of man you would find in any newspaper.  There you will find a small sampling of an herb or spice, along with a card, telling you of its history and many uses.  Our party found lavender on one day, rosemary on another.  Simultaneously this reminds you that this inn has an ambitious kitchen, absolutely smashing gardens (its best feature), and active tilling that provides plants to delight both the eye and palate.  For more on Richmond Hill, see “Gabrielle’s Place—Asheville, North Carolina.”  (7/5/06)

Wasabi—The Real Thing
“Most sushi restaurants, both in the U.S. and Japan, do not serve the genuine article.  The green stuff next to your spicy tuna roll is usually a combination of horseradish, mustard extract, and food coloring.  Genuine wasabi is expensive (the plants are hard to cultivate) and tastes sweeter, with less concentrated heat” (FSB, January 2006, p. 118). Doug Lambrecht’s Real Wasabi in Hilton Head, S.C., imports wasabi plants from Asia, makes them into powder that it sells online.  (Please note: website was down at time of posting.)  He is trying now to grow a little on his farm near Cashiers, North Carolina.  Pacific Farms in Florence, Oregon has grown and sold wasabi since 1997.  (6/7/06)

America’s Favorite Spice: Cinnamon (or is it Cassia)?
A few weeks ago, hastening through the San Antonio airport, our heads swiveled as we passed a Cinnabon shop.  Our nostrils quivered as the all too familiar, sweet, syrupy, cinnamon fragrance wafted enticingly towards us, as it does in airports and malls across the country. 

Later, as we climbed through blue skies to cruising altitude, it occurred to us that cinnamon is practically our national spice—as American as apple pie, a dessert, which not coincidentally, is often made with generous sprinklings of cinnamon, nutmeg and other sweet spices.  We crave cinnamon in homestyle baked apples, oozing with butter and brown sugar.  It makes mass market breakfast foods (think Pop Tarts or Apple Cinnamon Cheerios) more alluring.  It’s one of the secret ingredients in Coca-Cola, surely the quintessential American soft drink.  Even our much maligned domestic diva loves cinnamon: During her five-month stay at Camp Cupcake (a.k.a. Alderson), Martha Stewart was reportedly snared by prison guards with pilfered brown sugar, butter and cinnamon stashed in her lingerie.  Perhaps a midnight dessert was in the offing. 

What few Americans know is that the spice most of us call cinnamon is actually a near cousin, cassia.  Both spices come from the peeled bark of tropical evergreen trees in the Lauraceae, or laurel family.  Both are native to Asia.  Both are sweet spices, imbued with an aromatic oil that trumpets “cinnamon!” to our smell and taste receptors.  But here their paths diverge.   

Cassia bark is reddish-brown in color, and when stripped from the tree, forms a hard scroll-like “quill”—or stick—which breaks with snap.  Its fragrance is pungent, its flavor sweet and hot with a rough, astringent edge.  It is an assertive spice that enhances the flavor of baked apples, cinnamon toast, rice pudding and any other dessert in which a distinct cinnamon taste is desired.  Yet cassia also lends unusual depth to savory dishes, such as Moroccan lamb shanks braised with onions or to bstilla, the classic Moroccan pigeon pie made with almonds and a touch of sugar. 

Over half the world’s cassia comes from Indonesia.  The best—or, at least, the smoothest—cassia is grown on the government-protected slopes of Mount Korintje on the island of Sumatra.  Chinese cassia is spicier and has a distinctively peppery bite.  It is an essential ingredient of Chinese five-spice powder and is used in the red-cooked or red-braised dishes of Hunan province.  Vietnamese cassia, also known as Saigon Cinnamon, is so hot and aromatic that some purveyors recommend using half the amount specified in recipes.  In Vietnam, cassia sticks are used to flavor pho, a delectable slow-simmered broth of various meats served with mint, basil, lime and lashings of fiery siracha or red pepper sauce.   

True cinnamon, also known as Ceylon cinnamon, grows principally on the island of Sri Lanka.  (Most farms are far enough inland to have escaped the tsunami of 2004.)  Pale golden brown in color, it is sold in “quills” made of concentric layers of paper thin bark.  Unlike cassia, true cinnamon is shaggy and tends to shred when broken.  Its aroma is complex: sweet, warm, and woody with whispers of clove and citrus.  If you chew a bit of the bark, the flavor unfolds like a flower.  First the mouth puckers, with a tight, mildly astringent sensation, then the palate is suffused with warmth and a well of sweetness blossoms.  Only then does the flavor of cinnamon, with faint woodsy undertones, emerge. At the end, there is a little bite, a fleeting pungency. 

When true cinnamon is used in cooking, all these nuances infuse the dish.  It is particularly good for baking delicate pastries—in fact, the British prefer it—but it is also used traditionally in Mexican cooking, where it performs a balancing act with fiery chiles in complex dishes such as the moles of Oaxaca.  

One way to sample the differences between cinnamon and cassia is to order the lot from Penzeys.  This Midwestern spice merchant carries fresh grade A Korintje, Chinese and Vietnamese cassia, as well as true Ceylon cinnamon.  Contact:  Penzey’s Spices, 19300 Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin 53008-0924.  Telephone: 800.741.7787.  Fax: 262.785.7678.  Website:  (4/20/05)

Worldwide Gourmet
We actually got started on this site (
htm) because of the spice sections, which do include a few recipes we did not know for some of the spices with which we are experimenting.  But there’s a lot more here, too, including uses and other tips on a multitude of recipe ingredients, a tour of the cuisine of several countries, some top interesting restaurants at several ports of call, information on some top restaurants around the globe and their chefs, etc.  
See (3/30/05)

Spice Advice: Wisdom from Chef Cardoz in Fine Cooking
Those who are new to spices—or to Indian ways of using them in the kitchen—may wish to pick up a copy of the March 2005 issue of Fine Cooking.  In “Spice Up Your Cooking” (pp. 56-61), chef Floyd Cardoz recommends a “layered” approach to building a spice pantry.   Step one:  Begin with familiar spices, such as black peppercorns, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Step two: Add “versatile” spices, such as cumin, coriander and cardamom.  Step three:  “Venture off the beaten path” with nigella seeds, fenugreek and other unusual spices. 

Cardoz, who cooks at Tabla, one of New York’s top Indian fusion restaurants, does not reveal the secret of his addictive crabcakes.  (Perhaps he is saving it for his forthcoming cookbook.)  But he does offer a recipe for Peppery Pink Lentil Soup which calls for two techniques that transform the taste of whole spices.  Toasting peppercorns and coriander seeds in a dry pan conjures up smoky, almost citrus-like flavors, while sizzling cumin and mustard seeds in hot oil creates a vibrant tarka or garnish that adds zest to the pureed soup.  

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Floyd Cardoz about his early years in Mumbai and his love for spices, in particular black pepper.  To see the interview or his recipe for Black Pepper Shrimp, Watermelon and Lime Salad, please visit SpiceLines.  (3/23/05)

Spice and Life
A somewhat neglected older study, ”Antimicrobial Functions of Spices: Why Some Like It Hot,” by Jennifer Billing and Paul W. Sherman from Cornell in the March 1998 issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology documents the importance of spices, particularly in hot climates, for controlling food diseases, long serving as preservatives and bug killers particularly before refrigeration came along.  Billings did most of the hard slog work, looking at 4,570 recipes from 93 cookbooks for the cuisine of 36 countries.  “Garlic, onion, allspice and oregano … were found to be the most all-around bacteria killers,” according to a Cornell press release about their work.  See The Economist, “Antibiotic Spices,” May 19, 1998.  To get a list of top 30 spices with Microbe Fighting Ability ranked by effective, see the fairly detailed Cornell Release at  Dr. Andrew Weil, incidentally, theorizes that tumeric may offer some help against Alzheimer’s and other diseases, noting that India where it is widely used enjoys lower rates of the disease than other major nations, suggesting that spices with a low ranking as a germicide may be terribly important in other regards.

Street Food in Asia
Just recently Amanda Hesser took a trip to seven countries along the Pacific Rim, which is summed up in “The Spice Route,” New York Times Style Magazine, November 7, 2004, pp. 154-159.  Here, as she says, she skirted restaurants and visited with “the street vendors who shine, defining the tastes of the culture and providing an immediate sense of place.”  In any event, she was visiting many of the very countries from which we derive our best spices.  She touched down in Myramar, India’s Calcutta, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, etc.  Essentially this is a montage of stunning pictures and provocative recipes.  We have taken to the “shrimp chao.”  As she says, “Much of the street food in Southeast Asia includes rice in one fashion or another.  Chao, pronounced jaow, found in Vietnam, is a savory porridge made essentially of rice,” and she picked up this version in Central Vietnam’s Hue.  She makes much of the cilantro, but there’s plenty of green chili, lotus seeds, and  coarse black pepper to excite the palate.  Nonetheless, you have to work on her recipe a bit to make the dish come together.  Combine Hesser with a read of Johnny (R.W.) Apple’s articles in the Times about his trips to India and Thailand where you learn more about the food, the mood of the country, and the ingredients.  Now well into his second career as a bon vivant, he brings more panache to this role than he did to political writing.

More than Spice
Peruvian food has been nourished by the country’s huge biodiversity, namely its “dozens of microclimates.  Potatoes, squash, peanuts, hot peppers, beans and maize were all grown before the Spaniards.”  At the market one can choose between “60 different varies of fresh fruit and vegetables and 70 different species of seafood.”  Cultural diversity has also made a mark on the food. 

“In such a poor country, food has traditionally been robust, spicy but lacking in sophistication.”  Now, with 14 cooking schools in Lima and  a dozen upmarket restaurants, style is being added to the rich mix of ingredients.  And Peruvian chefs are migrating into Chile, Colombia, and the United States.  See The Economist, January 31, 2004, p. 35.  For a bit more on Peruvian food, see

Top of the Shop: Best Spice MerchantParis
The regal sounding GoumanyaT et Son Royaume is located on a plebian street in the Quartier du Temple near the Place de la Republique.  But there is nothing ordinary about this elegant spice shop, part tiny boutique and part inter-active museum.  There is, for example, the large glass apothecary jar filled with the most richly fragrant red gold threads of saffron we have ever encountered.  There is “le sniffing bar,” where one can poke one’s nose into jars of blade mace, star anise, cloves and juniper berries, inhaling aromas so vibrant and complex that grocery store counterparts seem but pale ghosts. There is the fact that Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon and other Michelin-starred chefs come here to buy true pink peppercorns from Pondicherry and other rare spices.

GoumanyaT is a gentle conceit, a princely figurehead invented by David Thiercelin, a sixth-generation spice merchant whose family business was founded in Pithiviers in 1809. For decades the family was a leading exporter of saffron; today, the business has expanded to include 180 spices, as well as other “natural products from the vegetable kingdom.” The catalogue verges on the poetic, offering les partums du ciel (flowers, jams, honey, vanilla); les secrets du feu (saffron, pepper, whole spices), les saveurs de la terre (mushrooms, herbs, grains, oils) and les couleurs de l'eau  (sea salt, sea weed, caviar).  We took home a small sampling, including very fresh, fragrant Szechuan pepper, orange blades of sultry mace, and black peppercorns from Kerala, less robust than some, but with a controlled burn that we imagine would suit French chefs perfectly.  We also brought back a coolly aromatic spice mixture, Melange Al-andalusi, which includes coriander and caraway, as well as cubebs and long pepper, two exotic peppers widely used in medieval cookery; they are ideal for rubbing on a pork tenderloin, marinated in a little red wine and olive oil, and then grilled.

The genial M. Thiercelin, when he is not chatting with a chef who has just purchased a king’s ransom of black truffles, is a fount of spice information.  Almost all saffron, he told us, now comes from Iran, since so little is produced in Spain and Kashmir has so many problems.  Why is good quality vanilla so costly?  Three years of bad weather and political and economic strife in Madagascar.  And why are his spices so much better than others?  “We are very strict with our suppliers.  If they deliver something that is not up to our expectation, we don’t accept it.  They know our rule.”      
Contact:  GoumanyaT et son Royaume, 3 Rue Dupuis, 75003 Paris.  Telephone:  01 44 78 96 74.  Fax: 01 44 78 96 75.  Website:

Culinary Castration
Now very much a writer about cuisine, Wolfram Siebeck was a culture critic before he decided to singlehandedly bring German food out of the Dark Ages.  He attributes the history of mediocrity in German eating to the Thirty Years War in 16l8 and the succession of wars and disasters since.  There has never been enough settled, peaceful times to allow the forces of culture and civilization to lead to gustatory refinement.   

“People prefer their food to be mild,” he says.  “That’s something that gets me on the barricades because mildness in food—it’s a castration.”  See New York Times, “Taking the Oxymoron out of ‘German Cuisine,’” November 1, 2003, p. A4.

All About Sea Salt
Ms. Marlene Parrish of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette authored an excellent sea salt primer called “Sea Salt Adds Wave of Extra Zip and Crunch” at  Her husband is Robert L. Wolke, author of What Einstein Told His Cook, who provided her with background on the differences between land-mined and sea salt.  Kosher salt, for instance, seems best used in sauces, while the different sea salts do best as toppings.  She then goes on to provide a rundown on some of the finer sea salts—Fleur de sel, Naruma Sea Salt, Peruvian Pink Sea Salt, Australian Murray River Salt Flakes, Hawaiian Black Lava Salt, Hawaiian Red Aloe Salt, South African Sea Salt, Mexican Benequenes, and Maldon Sea Salt.

Most Exotic Peppermill
One glimpse of the Atlas Peppermill set us to dreaming of the wine-dark Aegean sea and plates of peppery octopus consumed with glasses of ice-cold ouzo at a harbor restaurant in the Greek town of Nauplion.  It was here that we spent a blissful summer photographing shards from an archeological dig, learning to pluck sea urchins from the rocks in the bay and devour them without impaling ourselves on prickly spines, even discovering the archaic power of Medea performed in its orignal language.  At noon, the streets of Nauplion were hot and deserted, but the fragrance of freshly baked bread hinted at  meals eaten within tightly shuttered houses.  At night, the whole town turned out to watch the sunset and eat fish at the string of open air cafes that lined the harbor.

But back to the Atlas:  This sturdy peppermill, which is made in Greece, is based on the design of a coffeemill created hundreds of years ago for soldiers in the field. There are many colors and styles to choose from, but we are partial to the 404 model which resembles a narrow copper tower topped with a rounded cupola and a brass handle for grinding; bands of embossed grape clusters and leaves encircle the body of the mill, adding to its exotic allure.  The Atlas is easily filled by unscrewing the handle and removing the cap; our model holds an ample half-cup of whole peppercorns.  The grind is adjusted by loosening or tightening a screw on the bottom; within, a heavy steel mechanism with hand-cut burrs efficiently pulverizes the pepper. Our only quibble is that the mill is heavy, weighing in at one pound five ounces.  Still, it is handsome enough to move from the kitchen stove to the dining table, and is just the peppermill for your own summer taverna feast of grilled swordfish or shrimp souvlaki.  Contact:  Pepper Mill Imports, Inc., P. O. Box 775, Carmel, California 93921.  Telephone: (831) 393-0244.  Website:  Also available through Dean & DeLuca, though not pictured on its website,

Best Small Estate Indian Black Peppercorns
Earlier this winter at Dean & DeLuca, we spied a display of small cream-colored cotton  bags imprinted with a red label:  Parameswaran’s Special Wynad Pepper.  Curious about its provenance, we purchased a 200-gram bag.  Back in the kitchen, we opened an inner vacuum sealed packet, and were nearly bowled over by a sudden burst of aroma which  conveyed the essence of black pepper:  fresh and hot with dark mysterious undertones. The very large, very black peppercorns were rich, fruity and intensely pungent, with a lip-searing heat that lingered awhile.  They tasted of the sun, as if they had been plucked and dried yesterday.

This exceptional pepper is grown on a small organic family estate on the Wynad plateau in Kerala, which produces India’s  finest black pepper.  In a valley that, according to the handprinted brochure, abounds with elephants and the occasional tiger, the peppercorns  are left to ripen on the vines longer than usual.  When the green spikes are flushed with red, they are hand picked  and laid out on mats to dry in the sun until they turn black.

The result is a premium black pepper with unparalled  intensity of flavor and aroma, fit for a rajah’s palate.  It is absolutely the right pepper for making black pepper crab, one of Singapore’s most delectable dishes. Contact:  Dean & Deluca, 560 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.  Telephone:  212-226-6800.  (Not available on the website,

Black Pepper:  Al the Flavor Without the Burn
Recently, exploring one of our favorite spice websites,, we ran across an intriguing new product:  black pepper pericarp.  The pericarp is the outer covering of the black peppercorn.  It contains most of the piperine, or volatile oils which give pepper its irresistible aroma.  Curious, we ordered a small sample from Herbies, which is based  in Australia.  The 40-gram packet which arrived days later contained a dark brown, very finely ground pepper with a wonderfully fresh, nose-tingling aroma.   The big surprise came when we tasted it:  the flavor was full and rich, but also mild, with less heat than most black pepper.

Ian Hemphill, one of Sydney’s premier spice merchants, went in search of black pepper pericarp at the request of an international chef.  He found it on the island of Sarawak in Malaysia, where much of the world’s white pepper is produced.   (Black, white and green peppercorns all come from the same vines, but are harvested and processed differently.)  In a process known as decortication, the black outer covering of the peppercorn is mechanically removed from the central core which is then sold as decorticated black pepper.  The remaining pericarp, when ground, produces a wildly fragrant “dust” with all the aroma of black pepper, but little of the burn.  Hemphill himself uses it to make pepper steak with “lots of flavour but not too much heat.”  We have found that a light dusting transforms ordinary grilled salmon into a feast.  Contact:  Herbie’s Spices, 743 Darling Street, Rozelle NSW 2039 Australia Telephone:  (61) 02-9555-6035.  Fax:  (62)02-9555-6037.  Website:

Best Medicinal Herb and Spice Reference Books
Dr. James A. Duke has spent his entire professional life in the world of plants-- first, as curator at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, then economic botanist at the US Department of Agriculture, now explorer of the Amazonian rain forest and teacher of botanical healing.  Throughout, he has devoted himself to the study of plants as medicine.  The culmination of this lifelong passion are two worthy books so packed with scientific data that we were tempted at first to recommend them for professional use.  Indeed, dipping into the Handbook of Medicinal Herbs and the CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices is like opening the door to a world where an alien language is spoken, a world of  alpha-terpineols, bornyl-acetates and the like (chemical factors which contribute to the antibacterial powers of certain herbs).

And yet there is much for the layman’s delectation.  In  his discussion of  the herb myrtle, Duke tells us that ancient Jews viewed the plant as a “symbol of divine generosity,” an emblem of peace and joy.  “Arabs say that myrtle is one of three plants taken from the garden of Eden, because of its fragrance.”  We learned that its oil is used in perfumes and that in Sardinia whole pigs are roasted over aromatic myrtle wood fires.  In other cultures, various parts of the plant are used to cure everything from boils and headache to asthma and uterine fibroid tumors.  Duke’s underlying thesis is that with a better understanding of the healing properties of herbs and spices, modern medicine could dispense with many drugs that have adverse side effects.  Medicinal Spices cites an alarming report in The Journal of the American Medical Association (May 1, 2002) that Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs) are America’s biggest killer.  Priced like vintage wine, neither book is a casual purchase, but either could be a valuable addition to the home reference shelf.  Contact:  CRC Press, 2000 N.W. Corporate Blvd., Boca Raton, Florida 33431.  Telephone:  (800) 272-7737.  Fax:  800/374-3401.  Website:

Contact:  The Conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden, 245 First Street SW, Washington, DC 20024.  (The main entrance is on The National Mall on Maryland Avenue SW.)  Telephone:  (202) 225-8333.  Fax: (202) 225-1561.  Website:

The Best Peppermill
The pantry is stocked with a long winter’s supply of peppercorns:  boldly aromatic black peppercorns from the Malabar Coast, creamy white peppercorns from Sarawak, fresh-tasting green peppercorns from India.  But the real challenge is finding the right peppermill.  There are a few immutable rules.  The mill must feel “good” in one’s hand:  comfortable, solid, easy to operate.  It must be simple to refill.  The grind must be adjustable, from fine to coarse.  It must be so well made that you feel that you might be able to pass it on to one of your children when he sets up his own household in years to come.  And, of course, it must be beautiful.  Or, at  least, able to move from the stove to the table or sideboard without causing too much commotion.

We extensively tested five peppermills, two of which are regularly touted as the world’s best.  In all of them, we used Penzy’s Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns, which have become the black pepper of choice in our household.  Here are the results:

Personal Favorite.   The voice on the other end of the line was abashed:  “You mean you’re still using a Peppergun you bought 15 years ago?”  No surprise, actually:   even the most basic Tom David Unicorn peppermill is tested for 40,000 grinds.  We love our Peppergun—a slim bright red plastic cylinder with rabbit ears for handles—because it’s easy to use and makes us smile every time we look at it.  To grind pepper, simply squeeze the handles together; you can do this with one hand while the other is stirring the pot.  The mill is filled through a large hole in the side which opens when you twist the body; we’ve found that using a funnel helps to corral stray peppercorns.  The grind, adjusted by turning a black screw on the underside of the mill, produces pepper that ranges from finely ground to coarsely cracked.  Our sole complaint—and the only reason we didn’t rate this number one—is that our model will not sit evenly on its base when the screw is turned out for the coarsest grind.  (This may have been corrected in later models.)  In the meantime, we tend to keep it set for a medium-coarse grind.  Although the exterior is plastic, the grinding mechanism is metal with a zinc chrome alloy coating. The company, located in Nantucket, makes other mills, including the Magnum Plus (a black plastic cylinder sans rabbit ears that has a much larger grinding surface) which was Cook’s Illustrated’s choice for best peppermill in 1997.  You will see these mills all about you if you summer on the island.  Contact: Tom David, Inc.  Telephone: 1-800-634-8881. Website:

Sexiest Peppermill.   Peugeot has been making pepper and salt grinders since 1842, and the brand is regularly billed as “the best” by many vendors.  We were Peugeot neophytes so we selected a modestly priced model ($22) made of dark wood, with a sensuously curved body and a satiny surface that almost begged to be fondled.  Beneath the Euro-sleek exterior is a tough case-hardened steel mechanism with grinding and channeling grooves that cut peppercorns in half before they are ground to the desired fineness.  In spite of its impressive grinder, we found two problems.  To adjust the grind, you must loosen or tighten the brass screw on top of the body.  For a very coarse grind, the top must be loosened so much that the body becomes wobbly and unstable.  The Peugeot is also difficult to fill:  When the top is removed, the peppercorns must be poured into the body, passing around a  plastic support which holds the central shaft in place.  Hard little block peppercorns bounced all over the kitchen when we tried to fill it a little too swiftly.  Peugeot, which offers a lifetime warranty on all its peppermills, makes many other styles, in materials such as beechwood, clear acrylic and stainless.  Contact:  Williams-Sonoma, 1-800-541-2233. Website:  Broadway Panhandler,  44 Broome Street, New York, NY 10013.  Telephone: 1-800-COOKWARE or 212-966-3434.  Website:

Most Ancient Regime Peppermill.    One can just imagine the Zassenhaus peppermill dancing atop a swaying table in Beauty and the Beast.  Of all the peppermills we tried, it has the most fanciful, old-fashioned appearance.  Its rounded walnut body resembles a turret crowned by a burnished brass “minaret.”  The handle angles elegantly up in the air, ending in a smooth walnut knob; a gold “P” is discreetly emblazoned on the side.  Made in Germany for over 100 years, the Zassenaus has a grinding mechanism made of carbon tool steel, which is machined rather than cast, so that it stays sharp for years.  The grind can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the “minaret,” and ranges from very fine to medium coarse; of all the mills we tested, this produces the finest uniform grind.  (If you prefer very coarsely ground pepper, you’ll be better off with another mill.)  It can be filled by unscrewing the top and pouring in the peppercorns.  In all, a solid, well-crafted peppermill, for those who like the old-fashioned look.  Contact:  Penzey’s Spices, 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin 53008-0924.  Telephone: 800/741-7787.  Fax: 262/785-7678.  Website:  (Note: Penzey’s sends the Zassenhaus filled with Tellicherry peppercorns.)

Sturdiest Peppermill.   When we want coarsely ground pepper—and it seems that’s what the world’s palate craves these days—we always reach for our Perfex.  Made by a 50-year-old French company, this mill has a sleek nickel-plated cast aluminum body which houses a rugged metal grinding mechanism with stainless steel heads.  To grind  pepper, simply turn the crank top.  Actually, this takes two hands and just a bit of muscle, especially when the mill is set to grind coarsely.  To adjust the grind, there is a round nut underneath the body which turns smoothly.  (As a clerk at Williams-Sonoma explained, “righty-tighty” produces a reasonably fine grind, “lefty-loosey” creates a coarser grind, with many variations in between.)  The Perfex is easy to fill through a capacious pull-out chute in the side; we use a funnel to channel the peppercorns into the grinder.  Favored by many chefs, this is probably the best-made of all the mills we tested.  It is attractive in an industrial sort of way, feels solid in the hand, and produces a wide range of grinds.  If only it had a little more, ummm, flair—then we would be unabashed admirers.  Contact:  Williams-Sonoma.  Telephone: 1-800-541-2233.  Website:  Also at

Cheapest Peppermill.  Cruising the grocery aisles, we noticed that McCormick is selling whole black peppercorns in a glass bottle with a built-in plastic grinder.  The mill, similar to those sold in Europe, is not adjustable nor is the bottle refillable, so you toss it when empty.  The grind is coarse and the “mill” hard to turn. Still, at $1.99, we’d buy it in an emergency, or for a picnic or beach barbecue when we wouldn’t want to risk losing our good peppermill.  (It’s strictly for the kitchen, however, since the bottle bears the spice merchant’s familiar label.)  Now, if only McCormick would put premium peppercorns inside.  Widely available at grocery stores.  See also

Best Coffee Table Book About Spices
The most seductive volume we’ve run across lately is Alain Stella’s The Book of Spices (Paris: Flammariion, 1998).  Beautiful photographs of the twelve “sovereign” spices—cloves, nutmeg, pepper and so forth—are interspersed with ancient maps and historical paintings, creating an intoxicating visual essay that hints at why these precious commodities so captured the world’s imagination over the centuries.  Brilliant fields of purple saffron crocus in Spain, and a glimpse of Maison Israel in Paris, a spice lover’s paradise if ever there was one, are the stuff of a traveler’s dreams.

On a bleak afternoon, snuggling under a mohair throw, with a steaming pot of cinnamon tea nearby, we nearly lost ourselves in Stella’s occasionally Franco-centric tales of the spice trade.  One of the more fascinating figures from the past was Pierre Poivre, an eighteenth-century Frenchman who singlemindly devoted his entire life—losing an arm in the process—to stealing nutmeg and clove plants so that France could break the Dutch stranglehold.  The chapters on each spice are a pleasure to peruse; the connoisseur's guide in the back offers intriguing information about spices used in perfumes and chocolate, as well as a list of the author’s favorite spice shops in the U.S., England and France.

Best Black Pepper:  Tellicherry and Beyond
One whiff of the rich, fruity aroma of Tellicherry peppercorns explains much about the Age of Explorationwhy, when most Europeans were subsisting on watery gruel and rotten meat, an ounce of fragrant black pepper could cost as much as an ounce of gold, and why captains from half a dozen nations risked everything on perilous, globe-circling voyages to distant equatorial lands.  Today, of course, pepper is commonplace, as accessible as the nearest supermarket, but the ordinary finely ground stuff that appears in shakers across America is a pale echo of the pungent spice that launched empires and destroyed countless lives.

There are at least 13 different types of black pepper.  Tellicherry peppercorns, which are grown on the Malabar coast of India north of Cochin, have long occupied pride of place in our spice cabinet and are considered top grade by the spice industry.  Like French grapes, their flavor begins with the terroir or particular soil in which they are grown.  The berries are left to ripen on the vine longer than others, resulting in peppercorns that are larger, sweeter and more complex in flavor.  Though not actually black, Tellicherry peppercorns are are more uniformly dark brown than other pepper when dried.  Cracked or coarsely ground, they have a vibrancy which enhances a surprising range of flavors.  Lately we've found that ground Tellicherry pepper on our strawberries makes them even sweeter.

As with all good comestibles, one eventually discovers greater possibilities.  Recently we ran across an even more select grade of  pepper in the pages of Penzeys' Catalogue of Seasonings:  Whole Special Extra Bold Indian Black Peppercorns.  (In industry terms, "special" means best flavor, extra bold refers to the extra large size.) According to Penzeys, only ten pounds out of every ton of pepper can be given this moniker; the berries are Tellicherry but they are left even longer to ripen and are picked from a particular part of the vine.  This pepper differs from Penzeys' Tellicherry in that the initial flavors are more robust, and that the slowly ascending heat achieves a mellower burn.

We'd use either of these premium black peppercorns as a cracked or coarsely ground condimenton creamy goat cheese, or over slices of luscious mango sprinkled with lime juice.  But we also used the Special Extra Bold peppercorns with abandon in a version of Singapore-style pepper shrimp with ginger and garlic to great applause from our teary-eyed dining companions.  Next up:  black pepper ice cream. Contact: Penzeys Spices. 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin 53008-0924.  Telephone:  800-741-7787.  Fax:  262-785-7678.  Website:

Best Indian Spice Shop in Toronto
Squeezing through the narrow aisles of Kohinoor Foods, a slightly ramshackle corner grocery store in Little India, one virtually bathes in the fragrance of fresh spices.  Neatly wrapped and labeled packages of wrinkly black cardamom pods, golden Gujarati fennel seeds, fiery chili peppers and a dozen other spices found their way into our shopping basket.  Kohinoor is also a good source for uncommon ingredients such as palm sugar and black salt.  We’re still trying to figure out what’s in the addictive red paan masala, a spice mixture chewed as a digestif after a heavy meal.  We've identified fennel and silver dragees, but what are those dyed crimson seeds that have given us a permanently pink mouth?  Kohinoor Foods. 1438 Gerard Street East, Toronto, Ontario M4L1Z8.  Telephone:  416-461-4432.

Best Spice Websites

e. Best A to Z Spice Encyclopedia on the Web.  As a quick research tool, we highly recommend The Encyclopedia of Spices at This Canadian website provides an attractively illustrated page detailing everything you need to know about each of 40 exotic spices and herbs, from ajowan to zeodary.  For each spice, there are short sections on history and lore, physical description, preparation and storage, culinary and medical uses, plant cultivation, and links to recipes.  Looking up ginger, for example, we learned that in the 19th-century barkeeepers put out small containers of the ground spice for customers to sprinkle in their beer (supposedly the origin of ginger ale), that the best ginger is a pale, buff-colored rhizome grown in Jamaica, and that it was used in the time of Henry VIII to combat the plague.  In the recipe section, we found a wonderful Singaporean recipe for prawns with ginger and coconut milk.

For anyone who is interested in the history of spices, The Epicentre has reprinted a superb article from The Economist, “The Spice Trade:  A Taste of Adventure”  (December 1998, pp. 51-56), and a chapter from Tastes of Paradise, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, which debunks the common perception that spices were used so heavily in the Middle Ages to disguise rotting food.  Instead, he argues that they were tangible gifts form an exotic world, an imaginary paradise far superior to the muddy, cold, disease-ridden realities of medieval Europe.  Just like our BMWs and Hermes Kelly Bags, they were meant to advertise the possessor's wealth and status to the rest of the world.

d. Quirkiest Spice WebsiteDragon’s blood, spikenard, grains of paradise.  Virtually unknown today, these are all spices that were used in ancient and medieval times.  They can still be had from the website ( of Francesco Sirene, Spicer, a 15th-century Venetian trader invented by David Dendy and Jane Hanna, two members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Members of this offbeat group tend to be obsessed with times past: they try to live as one might have in 13th-century England or 17th-century Russia (for example), and regularly stage complicated feasts which recreate outlandish dishes from old cookery books.  

The proprietors’ aim is to provide all the paraphernalia one might need for historical cookery.  Hence, Sirene sells old cookbooks, such as Curye on Inglysch: English Culinary Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century, as well as exotic, hard to find spices--including the aforementioned dragon’s blood (actually a red resin used in incense and various pigments) and spikenard (a bitter, aromatic root used in ancient Rome and in medieval spiced wine).  One of the most intriguing sections is Spice Chests, which discusses in some detail all the spices one might need in order to cook as did the ancient Romans or Norwegians of the 12th century. (In case you were wondering, grains of paradise are a type of pepper, wildly sought after in the Middle Ages, now mainly used in African cooking.)

c. Most Scientific Spice WebsiteGernot Katzer is a 33-year-old Austrian chemist who took a vacation from his work on silicon hydrides and theoretical thermochemistry in order to travel to Asia where he explored his consuming passion for spices with camera and pen in hand. The remarkable website,, that ensued discusses 113 herbs and spices in great scientific detail.

Typically a Katzer entry on, say, pepper, begins with a long list of the names of the spice in many languages.  We learned that in the Punjab, one would ask for Kali marich, but in Turkey, one would request biber.  This is followed by a close-up photo of  the different varieties of pepper and an analysis of the chemical constituents that make up its aroma and flavor--in this case, the pungent principle is “an alkaloid-analog compound, piperine.”  Katzer also includes a section on etymology (pepper derives from the Sanskrit  pippali which in turn stems from the Greek peperi and the Latin piper), photographs of pepper plants in various stages of growth, a smattering of history, harvesting information, and a summary of the way pepper is used in various cuisines.  We’re intrigued by his suggestion that pepper might enhance the sweet-tart flesh of the mango.  

Despite its academic bent, Katzer's site never gets dull.  He is an enthusiastic, often amusing, always passionate writer.  Unfortunately, the site, which is located at the University of Graz in Austria, can be hard to access and tricky to navigate.  To get the list of spices, you must be on the Welcome Page.

b. Most Exotic Spice Website in the Southern Hemisphere.  Most of the spices in our cupboard are grown within a narrow band around the equator and it occurred to us that a spice purveyor not too distant from the black pepper groves of Malabar or the cinnamon forests of Sri Lanka might have a slight edge in obtaining high quality, very fresh spices.  One can almost smell these exotic fragrances while perusing the Australian site,  Ian Hemphill, a.k.a. Herbie, spent 30 years in the spice trade before opening a shop near Sydney which offers an enormous range of the world’s herbs and spices.

The website vividly communicates Hemphill’s lifelong love of spices.  Click on any one of the 22 newsletters, for example, and you’ll discover a report on a trip to India to see the pepper harvest or a lively discussion of the complex fragrances of the Moroccan seasoning mix, ras al hanout. Tantalizing recipes, many with an Asian slant, are scattered throughout the site.  The global product list includes all the usual herbs and spices, but also more off-beat offerings such as dried Australian wattleseed, said to lend a coffee-like aroma to ice cream. Our only quibble is that each product description is accompanied by a generic picture of some spice packages.  (We’d actually like to see those wattleseeds.)

Currently in search of pepper to upgrade the larder, we ordered a variety of peppercorns including the hard to find long pepper (spiky peppers with a musky odor widely used in medieval recipes) and inky “extrablack” supergrade whole peppercorns from India.  Our faxed order was acknowledged hours later by e-mail, with a query:  Did we wish to purchase green peppercorns that could be ground in a peppermill or freeze dried peppercorns that could simply be crumbled? (We took both.)  The package arrived within 10 days, each variety individually packed in a heavy vacuum-sealed plastic bag. (The peppercorns will be reviewed in a forthcoming segment of Best of Class).

Note:  Hemphill’s fascinating Spice Notes may be ordered directly from the website, or in the U.S. in March 2002 under the title, The Spice and Herb Bible:  A Cook's Guide (Amazon).  The book recently made the Saveur 100 list  (see the Jan./Feb., 2002 issue, p. 63).

a. Most All-American Spice Website.  Penzey’s is probably the finest small spice retailer in the U.S.   We discovered the Wisconsin-based shop years ago in the pages of Saveur :  we were struck, then as now, by the freshness and  quality of its spices and the variety of its product line. Today, Penzeys operates a chain of 9 stores, as well as a thriving mail order business.  It is a good source for unusual herbs and spices, as well hard to find varieties of the usual suspects--i.e. soft, citrusy “true” cinnamon from Ceylon, or fine 100% red thread Indian “Mogra Cream” saffron from Kashmir.  Despite the exotic origins of most of Penzey¹s spices, both the catalogue and website ( have a distinctly Midwestern flavor, with down-home recipes for pork roast and twice-baked potatoes outnumbering those for chicken biryani.  

We enjoy Penzey’s website because, like the catalogue, it is informative and well-illustrated.  An essay on peppercorns, for example, explains in straightforward detail how pepper is grown and harvested in India and Borneo.  We discovered that the famed Tellicherry peppercorns are plucked from the clusters of pepper at the tip of the vines which receive the most sunlight, and that harvesters in Sarawak preserve the flavor of their peppercorns by means of an indoor hot air drying process--at the request of German sausage makers.  Following the essay are clear photos of all the different types of peppercorns carried by Penzeys, and links to short descriptions of each variety.  We also like reading the employee newsletter, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the business.

In our quest for the best pepper, we recently ordered every type of peppercorn on offer, as well as vanilla beans and cinnamon chunks for apple cider.  Though service is normally quick, our faxed order languished unanswered and we did not receive our shipment for about three weeks--albeit with a note of apology for the delay.  (Peppercorns will be reviewed in a forthcoming segment of Best of Class).

More Black Pepper from India and Malaysia
Our pepper explorations have opened unexpected doors.  We've crunched on more black peppercorns than we ever imagined possible.  With burning lips and scorched taste buds, we've made the not-so-surprising discovery that the flavor of pepper grown in different geographic regions can be as subtle and varied as chocolate, or even varietal wines.  The soil in which the vines of piper nigrum are planted, the ripeness of the berries when plucked, and the method of processing and drying all contribute to the particular taste of peppercorns from, say, India or Malaysia.

In the spice industry, it is widely agreed that the best black pepper comes from India and that Malabar pepperhigh in volatile oil and pungent oleoresinsis the finest of the mass market varieties.  Even so, we found that the quality varies widely.  Some Malabar pepper that we tasted was, well, nearly tasteless, hot and nothing more; some was simply stale.  But Penzeys Spices, a high-end Wisconsin-based purveyor, offers a particularly fine India Malabar pepper with a light, fragrant aroma and a rush of fiery heat that lingers on the palate.  Though not as complex as the company's Tellicherry pepper, this is still a good, all-purpose pepper which you could use in almost any culinary fashion, from making a French vinaigrette to finishing a bowl of lemon, mint and ricotta pasta.  Contact:  Penzeys Spices, 19300 West Janacek Court, P.O. Box 924, Brookfield, Wisconsin, 53008-0924.  Telephone:  800-741-7787.  Fax:  262-785-7678.  Website:

Another Indian black pepper came to us via Herbie's Spices, based in Sydney, Australia.  These South Indian Super Grade Extra Black peppercorns have been blanched to accelerate the enzymatic reaction that turns freshly picked green peppercorns black.  The peppercorns are, indeed, quite black and also very large. Their flavor is strong and bold,  rich but not particularly subtle, with a straightforward medium heat.  We'd use it in dishes that require an assertive cracked or coarsely ground pepper: steak au poivre, for instance, or pepper crab, an unforgettable dish we devoured with streaming eyes on a moonlit terrace in Singapore some years ago. Contact:  Herbies Spices, 745 Darling Street, Rozelle NSW 2039, Australia. Telephone:  02-9555-6035. Fax:  02-9555-6037.   Website:

Pepper has been grown in Sarawak on the island of Borneo since 1875.  In an essay in his catalogue, Bill Penzey says that he likes working with Sarawak pepper growers because they believe that "high quality pepper is worth more than money.... [I]t is a source of pride and a part of their cultural heritage."  Penzeys' Sarawak Black pepper is hand picked at the right moment of ripeness and then, unlike most other black pepper, is dried indoors, which protects it from the elements and helps to preserve its flavor.  This is one of the most intriguing peppers we tasted:  the flavor is toasty at first, with fresh green notes, followed by a mild heat that peaks quickly and  fades.  Because it is relatively delicate, we'd use this pepper as an adventurous seasoning for sweet fruit, such as pineapple and strawberries, and in baked goods, such as black pepper biscotti, where one wants just a hint of fire.  Contact:  Penzeys Spices, as above.

Best Guide for Pepper Travelers
Our kitchen table peregrinations through the lands of pepper were helped immeasurably by Salt and Pepper, a wonderful book by Michele Anna Jordan that was recommended by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic Monthly:  Jordan is funny, smart and probably has a very keen palate.  We were charmed by her visit to the Malaysian Pepper Marketing Board, where the aroma of bushels of fresh black pepper nearly drove her mad with hunger, and to a nearby farm where she downed potent rice wine and nibbled fresh green pepper berries off the vine.  There is good, solid information about the different varieties of pepper and salt and many useful addresses in the glossary.  Our only frustration is that we have been unable to find the very fine Malaysian pepper, sold under the label Naturally Clean Black Pepper, but it is always good to have a grail to search for.  The book has 135 recipes, including one for black pepper ice cream, which we made with Penzeys' Sarawak Black peppercorns:  imagine a good vanilla ice cream with a luscious afterburn. Salt and Pepper (New York: Broadway Books, 1999) is out of print, but you may find a used copy at

Best Sea Salt from Portugal: Necton's Flor de Sal
The first thing one notices about Necton's sea salt is how thin and flat the crystals are. At the harvest along Portugal's Algarve coast, food writer Corby Kummer observed a crystal floating on the water like "an oversized dragonfly's wing."  As Kummer relates in The Atlantic Monthly ("The Cream of the Salt Pan," March, 2002, pp. 100-102), the discovery of this lovely salt was a happy accident.  Two Portuguese aquaculture students who were restoring wetlands in order to produce algae for food manufacturers stumbled across a detritus-clogged salt pan.  After cleaning it out and letting sea water flow into the maze of ever shallower channels and eventually evaporate under the blazing Algarve sun, they saw something wonderful:  "irregularly shaped, mica-like formations skittering along the surface, visible only if viewed at the right angle, glinting in the sun."  It was flor de sal, the very finest, topmost layer of mineral-rich sea salt, whiter even than the prized fleur de sel from Brittany.  Soon plans for algae production were put on the back burner as they began to harvest the salt by hand.

Now comes the kicker:  Under Portuguese law, this lovely, but unrefined flor de sal is classified as Grade III salt, fit only for de-icing  roads.  A few daring gourmet shops in Portugal carry it; in this country one can order it from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor (  The flavor is fulsome, at first intensely salty, but quickly mellowing into a briny sweetness that leaves the tastebuds refreshed.  The enclosure which came with the salt suggested a test:  frying an egg with common table salt and another with Necton's flor de sal.  We complied.  The former was merely salty, but the latter was a revelation:  a light sprinkle enhanced the rich creaminess--even voluptuousness--of the yolk, imparting a faintly sweet flavor to the white.  Icy roads never had it so good.

More Sea Salt from Around the Globe:  England, Sicily, Hawaii
Traveling along our own exotic salt routes, we had close encounters of the most delectable kind with a number of other sea salts.  Although not as stellar as Necton's or the Guerande fleur de sel, each is far superior to ordinary table salt and to the Kosher salt favored by many professional chefs.  Maldon Sea Salt, produced along the English coast in Essex since 1882, has large, bright white, flakey crystals with a lightly salty taste that rapidly dissipates, making it ideal for cooks who simply want to add a soupcon of flavor to the pot.  From Sicily comes Sale Marino di Trapani, produced in the ancient Phoenician manner at saltworks near Marsala and Trapani:  the large, grosso (coarse-grained) crystals are very salty, packing a wallop that stands up to meaty swordfish grilled with rosemary, lemon and garlic.  And finally, we confess to an unfashionable fondness for Alaea red seasalt, harvested from tidal pools in Kaua'i.  Purists complain that the salt is mixed with natural iron-rich clay to achieve a color that varies from light rose to deep terracotta, but the mellow flavor of the medium-sized crystals seems to enhance almost every sort of food. Besides, Alaea is still used in sacred Hawaiian rituals, a notion which returns the use of salt on food to its wondrous roots.  

Maldon Sea Salt and Sale Marino de Trapani may be ordered from Corti Brothers, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95819.  Telephone:  800-509-FOOD.  Fax:  916-736-3807.  Alaea sea salt may be ordered from  Hawaii Specialty Salt Company, P.O. Box 5766, Hilo, HI 96720.  Telephone:  808-334-3929.  Website:




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