Food and Drink: A hot Indian summer: Black peppercorns with big flavour and a kick will soon be on sale, says Joanna Blythman

A SPICY, exotic-smelling envelope dropped through my letterbox this week. Inside was an unbleached cotton pouch containing a handful of reddish- black berries: a sample of a unique crop of peppercorns from south-west India scheduled to go on sale here next month.

The man responsible for bringing Parameswaran's Selection to Britain, Colin Hamilton, a Scottish antiquarian bookseller and publisher, was not surprised to hear that I could taste the difference. 'It has never been marketed commercially before, either inside or outside India, yet it is the finest quality black pepper to be had in India, if not the world,' he says. I am not inclined to argue. It is intriguingly different and I will never think of black peppercorns as a uniform commodity again.

My standard black pepper has a pungent, earthy smell. Parameswaran's is perfumed. Once ground, it looks different, too: paler, browner, with a fresher flowery, fruity aroma. The flavours, as well, are worlds apart. My household pepper tastes musty and dank. It is mild, one- dimensional; Parameswaran's is much, much hotter, almost burning on the lips. While mine tastes like black pepper, this special selection tastes like a spice, with almost nutmeg overtones and a hint of Chinese Sichuan peppercorns.

The selection's source is the same as most other peppers. White, green or black peppercorns are the fruit of a vine called Piper nigrum, which grows in many different places around the globe. It is cultivated in plantation-type environments, where the vine twines around a variety of host trees. (Pink peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorns are, however, the berries of totally different shrubs, related only in their use.) The vine normally fruits between January and March and the berries are picked, while still green, in long thin clusters.

A small number of green berries are preserved in brine, or kiln-dried for the pepper mill. But the bulk are separated from their stalks by treading, then dried in the sun and packed. As they dry and shrink a little, they blacken and become what we recognise as black peppercorns. White pepper comes from berries picked when a bit riper, whose outer casing is removed, which produces a pale colour and makes them less hot.

The nub of the difference with Parameswaran's Selection is that its pepper berries are harvested when they have fully ripened. They are grown on only three plantations on the Wynad plateau, in the state of Kerala.

Mr Hamilton, who lives part of the year on a plantation run by Parameswaran, where a variety of other crops - rice, coffee, ginger and turmeric - are grown, noticed that the pepper from this 2,500ft-high plateau attracted consistently higher prices and was always separately quoted on the spice market. 'Within India, Wynad pepper is considered a superior product,' he says. 'No one is quite sure why, but it is due to some combination of high altitude and soil type.'

Mr Hamilton discovered that the pick of Wynad pepper, what he calls the 'private cuvees', was harvested in small quantities just for the plantation owner's own consumption.

'Instead of harvesting them at the usual time, the pepper berries are left to ripen fully, until they turn a reddish colour,' he says.

And unlike green pepper berries, which are harvested in one picking, the Wynad berries ripen at different times over a two-and-a-half month period, which renders their harvest more labour-intensive.

This riper pepper, therefore, was never thought to be a commercial proposition. But Mr Hamilton believes that Parameswaran's Selection will fetch a premium price, once consumers come to appreciate its finer qualities. Last year he tested the selection's appeal in a few small British outlets, and found that it sold well; this year he expects to sell 1,000 kilos of it.

Mr Hamilton emphasises that there is no exploitation by the affluent West. He works in partnership with Parameswaran, and says no artificial fertilisers or pesticides are used in the pepper's production: each pepper vine is fed every year with 10 kilos of organic manure from local water buffalo, cows, compost and green leaves. And the estate's labour force is 100 per cent unionised, with wages 10 per cent above the union minimum.

All the work - from harvesting to the final shipping from Cochin - is carried out in India. That way, the pepper does much more for the local economy than the standard cash crop.

The explanatory leaflets that come with the peppercorns are made from local hand-made paper, silk-screen printed with silver ink, and all the handwoven cotton bags in which it is packed come from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

'Parameswaran has established a production which he hopes will sustain the livelihood of the plantations and the numerous families dependent on the pepper harvest there in years to come,' says Mr Hamilton.

The arrival of Parameswaran's Selection in June looks sure to enhance our perception of peppercorns, and spices in general.

If you simply grind Parameswaran's Selection into a stew, the difference will not leap out at you. But if it is freshly ground over a tomato salad or, better still, a warm risotto or pasta, the aroma is evident and markedly different from standard black pepper.

Analogies with wine spring to mind, especially when you discover that Parameswaran's Selection will vary with each harvest. And, again like wine, there is an ageing element. 'Many Indians believe that, if stored in a cool, dry place for months, even years, the flavour improves with age,' Mr Hamilton says.

Fancy the youthful 1993 harvest when it arrives, or should you lay it down to mature for a bit? The great thing is that we now have a choice.

Parameswaran's Selection will be on sale in June, at about pounds 2 for 100g.

Stockists will include:

Villandry, 89 Marylebone High Street, London W1M 3DE (071- 487 3816)

Justin de Blank, 42 Elizabeth Street, London SW1W 9NZ (071-730 0605)

Original Porter Provision Company (telephone orders only, 071-403 5857)

Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh EH7 4AA (031 556 6066).

(Photograph omitted)

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