Absolute Press, £25
It took food writer Christine McFadden four years to research and write this book, but the result is a fascinating look at one of the kitchen's keystone spices.
Often taken for granted in the modern culinary world, pepper has a history stretching back millennia and myriad cooking uses, and it comes in many varieties. McFadden not only deals with all of these aspects in her book, but she also gives us nuggets of the spice's medicinal uses down the centuries and a sizeable number of recipes.
The book is often text-heavy, but don't be put off. McFadden is not a dry writer she personalises the history, botanical and culinary lessons she delivers with anecdotes about how her own obsession with the spice developed. And some of the facts she drops in are great: did you know that pepper was used as ransom in ancient times and as a means to pay feudal rents in medieval England, and that the pepper plant is a vine, the peppercorns being the berries which develop on the end of its flowers?
Particularly interesting are sections dealing with the production process and major varieties of pepper, which include tables setting out flavour notes and tasting notes for a vertical pepper tasting. Yes, it's possible, because there are great subtleties in aroma, heat and taste in pepper varieties.
Incidentally, there are hundreds of these in Kerala alone.
McFadden confines herself to listing the qualities of key pepper varieties including the once-favoured long pepper, still widely used in the Far East and used in medieval cookery, but only now regaining popularity in Western kitchens. It has both sweet and pungent notes, which make it ideal for use in desserts, fragrant curries and pickles.
Also invaluable is an appendix of pepper-based spice blends from around the world a discussion of the pros and cons of grinding, crushing and cracking pepper for culinary use and an indication in the 100 recipes (encompassing savoury and sweet uses and drinks) of when to use specific varieties and types.
It's intriguing stuff and will probably make this book an essential kitchen reference point for many years to come.