The pepper mill

An everyday luxury

An everyday luxury

A twist of pepper from the mill has a dramatic impact on the flavour of a dish. The pepper pot has been a pillar of tableware since the 19th century. In tandem with the salt cellar, it’s the instrument with which the diner can orchestrate his preferred taste.  As a loose powder, it quickly loses its aroma. The mill, which grinds it as required, is the best way to instantly release its potency.

For centuries, the pepper pot was found only on the wealthiest tables. In the France of the Middle Ages there was even an expression: “As expensive as pepper.” Alexander the Great brought it back with him from expeditions to the borders of India and China. By replacing the pestle and mortar, the pepper mill democratized its use. As a design object, mechanical or electrical, it gives us grind control.

The mechanics of taste

The pepper mill is a product of the 19th century industrial revolution. Its grinding system, the solidity of its cogs, the way the seeds are steered into its mechanical jaws, the quality, precision and size of the grind, all these are the result of a series of innovations. The first mills were boxes with a crank handle and a small drawer. Up until then, everyone used a simple pestle and mortar.

Some like it hot

In the black and white duo of pepper and salt, pepper is a spice, unlike salt. A good indication of a spice is that it originates from a plant and has a taste as distinct as it is insistent. Like salt, however, pepper is a flavour enhancer. Of all the basic seasonings, pepper is the one that raises the temperature. It’s best to go easy with the pepper pot. But while we unwittingly over-consume salt, an overdose of pepper makes itself felt as soon as it sets your taste buds alight, rather than making them tingle with delight.

Tastes and colours

Each colour has a flavour. Green pepper seeds were harvested before maturity and preserved in alcohol vinegar. If red, they were picked when ripe. Dried in the sun for three days to a week, they become black and more pungent. White pepper was picked red and then rubbed by hand in water to remove the pulp and retain only the white core. Grey indicates a low quality blend. Whether from Southern or Southeast Asia (India and Indonesia), East or Central Africa, pepper always hails from afar. The most famous peppers are from Malabar (India), Sarawak (Malaysia), Kampot (Cambodia), and Madagascar (Africa). Each provenance provokes a different taste. Chefs like Olivier Roellinger have made it a speciality of theirs to match varieties of pepper with dishes.

Dynamic duo

The art of silverware has graced us with magnificent examples of the salt and pepper duo, such as the salt cellars created by Benvenuto Cellini for François I. The two products were associated and thus elevated to the height of luxury, taste and refinement. The price of pepper remained high longer than that of salt. But it has not been subject to taxes like salt, long a currency of commerce, a source of taxes and income, hence the word “salary”.

Good for your health? The word “pepper” comes from the Sanskrit “pippali” which became “peperi” via the pen of the Greek physician Dioscorides: as early as the 1st century AD, he was a fan of its hot taste and prescribed it to relieve epilepsy. In ancient Arabic medicine it was used to treat kidney and bladder stones. Even today it’s reputed to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion, thanks to the piperine (an alkaloid) it contains. Other virtues, in particular concerning the intestinal biotope, are yet to be scientifically proven. Consumed in excess, it can irritate the intestinal system. As with any spice, it’s best used in moderation.

The cook's tip


Don’t add pepper too early during cooking: the pepper loses its flavour and creates acidity. Well chosen, freshly ground, it should be added at the last moment.

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