The Big Black Pepper Upgrade: Roadhouse Takes its Telicherry Pepper Up Two Notches

Farm to Table Telicherry

By Ari Weinzweig

It’s a Natural Law of Business that if you want to be great, you’ve got to keep getting better all the time.  The process of self-improvement, to me, never ends.  It’s for life.  Which means that even in—or maybe especially in—a 14-year old business like the Roadhouse we’re constantly looking for ways to improve.  Often they’re small, almost invisible to the casual observer or eater, but they’re things that, in the long run, we believe are going to take our food and/or our service to higher levels.

To that end we’ve taken a step forward to bring our black pepper to the next level.  From good to great.  From classy to world class.  While that sort of small subtext of a transition may not get everyone excited it goes get me very very pumped up. Why?  I generally have little interest in headlines, but I have high enthusiasm for the small things that really shift what we do towards a better tomorrow.

What’s the big deal?

a) I love black pepper.

I don’t mean “I like it.”  I mean I really really love it.  It drives me.  Pepper rocks my world, it brightens pretty much every meal I eat.  Like the Romans two thousand years ago, I’m kind of addicted and I’ll go great distances—both physically and intellectually—to get it!

While I know that much of the world lived without pepper for millennia, I also know that I don’t want to live without it now.  Even for 24 hours.  I love great fresh ground pepper so much that I often travel with it in a small push button hand grinder.  The truth is that a bit of good pepper can improve even the iffiest meal.   It’s not ideal, but when faced with mediocrity a bit of great pepper can at least liven things up enough to make the meal manageable.  To quote food writer Isabelle Vischer from her wonderful 1953 cookbook, Now to the Banquet, “Pepper ready-ground becomes completely meaningless, once you have started using the pepper-mill.”

When I go to restaurants I usually end up begging the server with big eyes wide open to just leave the pepper grinder with us at the table.  “It’ll be easier for you—otherwise you’ll have to keep coming back every ten minutes,” I often tell them in efforts to persuade.  I love the vitality that really good, freshly ground pepper brings to every dish.  I like it’s liveliness. I like the subtle sweetness that underlies its slowly building, steady but never overwhelming heat.  I love the aroma.  So bringing even better pepper than we’ve had here is, for me …  .a very big deal!

b) I love quality improvements that are internally driven.

Clearly being responsive to guest feedback is an essential element of any good customer focused business.  We’ve made many many changes over the years after customers were kind enough tell us where we’d gone awry or where we could do better.  But what I particularly love are the improvements that we make just because we know we can do better.  This shift to farm to table Telicherry is one of those.

The truth is that we were already buying pretty good black pepper.  We made the move to purchase and cook with Telicherry pepper many years ago.  At the Roadhouse we took that to an even better level—we’ve always ground our pepper for each recipe rather than order in large quantities of pre-ground pepper.  (This alone is a huge qualitative difference—one pepper, or any spice is ground its aromatics and essential oils are released to the atmosphere and its flavor starts to diminish.  Grinding pepper fresh for each use is much like grinding coffee beans to order!  Once you get used to it, it’s not all the difficult.   And the upside in flavor improvement is enormous.)   So what we’ve been using is already much better than the mass market commercial stuff—generally lower quality and more often than not pre-ground—than most folks are using.

All of which worked quite well.  Until . . . we met the folks at Epices de Cru.  Many of you will already be familiar with their work from past newsletter articles I’ve written.  Or because you’ve been buying their spices at the Deli or via Mail Order.  Or maybe you’ve come to hear the de Vienne family speak at one of the classes they’ve done here over the last few years.  Better still you may know their products—exceptional spices from all over the world—because you, like we, have switched over to using them.  The de Vienne family is all about high quality–in their business dealings, in their approach to life, and, of course, in their spices.  One of things that happens when you get around higher quality people and/or products is you almost inevitably start to find out that what you thought was quite good . . . wasn’t as good as you thought.  It’s what happened to us with bread—as I traveled the world I realized what we were buying here wasn’t anywhere near as good as it could be.  In 1992 we started the Bakehouse.  It’s what happened with cream cheese.  I realized that we were still using commercial grade, high pasteurization, stabilized factory made product.  In 1999 we started making our own at the Creamery.  The same story has been played out here with dozens of other products as well.  Our drive to learn and to improve continues every day.  And now, we’re starting the same shift with black pepper.  From good to great.

The move started when I sent a sample of what we were buying—remember, already better by far than what most people buy—to the de Vienne’s to have them check it out.  We got back a note and a photo.  The note reaffirmed what I thought I’d already known.  What we were getting was not at all a bad product.  Not top drawer, but definitely nothing to sneeze at (sorry I couldn’t resist).  The photo told a more interesting and revealing story.  The de Viennes had politely broken the pepper we were purchasing out into proper grades (as per the formal grading system for Indian black pepper) for the photo.  The results were impossible to argue with.  Like the visual evidence that busts the criminal on a TV detective show, the picture was worth a thousand words.  I was surprised, but I suppose not totally shocked.  It turns out that although we were diligently ordering “Telicherry pepper,” only like 5 percent of was of the proper size berries to qualify for top grade Telicherry!

The same habit of cutting high end, high prestige raw materials with lesser, more easily available, lower cost ingredients is all too common.  It happens with tea, with coffee, with chocolate, olive oil . . . the only way to avoid it is really to know who you’re buying from and develop a positive, trust-based relationship.  Do due diligence, find someone on the supplier end who shares your values, check regularly on this end for quality.  Repeat regularly.  We will not make that same mistake again.   We now have top notch pepper on hand.  And you really can taste the difference!

c) Better pepper makes a big difference.

While what we were already getting was pretty good – let’s say a 7.5 out of ten – we’re stepping up to a solid 9!  Maybe more that that, but I’m a tough scorer.  By the time you read this all of the Roadhouse black pepper—in the kitchen, on the pit, at events and in the dining room—will be the terrific Telicherry from small farms in the Kerala region of India, where true Telicherry should be coming from.  Sure it costs more—most improvements in raw materials do—but it also tastes, and smells, totally terrific.  And this time, it’s totally, 100 percent, all Telicherry.   A twenty percent improvement in flavor in our black pepper translates into big improvements in so many of the Roadhouse dishes.  We use the pepper in nearly every dish we make; we use it in the dining room and we sell it on the retail shelves. It stands out in simply seasoned foods like our fresh fish, burgers and steaks.  It’s really made a difference in the BBQ and the ribs.  Because it’s in all the pepper grinders on the tables, servers are now talking about it regularly at the tables.  It’s given a new and consistent way to convey our commitment to ever greater quality and better relationships.  Guests can smell and taste the difference!

d) Farm to Table Makes a Difference/It’s Local

In Secret #   in Part 1 of the Guide to Good Leading, I wrote about our definition of local.  It was, and is, less to me about geography and mostly about having a positive relationship with those from whom we buy, and to those we sell.  Since peppercorns pretty clearly don’t grow here in Michigan, that means that buying it in a meaningful way is, for us, finding someone with whom we can have a terrific long lasting connection and conversation, not just a vendor to get us decent product without knowing who grew it and really where it came from.

The folks at Epices de Cru have given us this opportunity in spades over the last three years.  Whereas spices generally arrived to our door from American distributors without really giving us connection at all to the farmers who grow them or the folks who go out into the wild to gather them, now we have access to real people and real communities with whom we can communicate on almost every spice front.  By switching over our pepper purchase, not only are we raising the quality of what we’re buying and improving the flavor of nearly all our food, but we now have begun a direct connection with the folks in India whose diligent work has made all this possible!

I haven’t yet been to visit Sudheer and the pepper farmers he works with in person but . . . one day.  I have a feeling that before long he’s going to show up in Ann Arbor as well. His passion for pepper and spices and the story of his work is inspiring.  To me.  And, clearly, to him.  He’s driven to keep raising the bar on quality across the board so I have a feeling this is just the beginning of what I believe will be a very long and mutually rewarding relationship.

Sudheer’s story with spices started with his grandmother who moved to the region to be a supervisor for a cardamom plantation.  As a kid he would visit his grandmother and wander between the rows on cardamom and pepper farms.  When he grew up, Sudheer started on the sort of path so many of us in the specialty food world did—he set out to get his degree in economics with the intent of working in a bank.  Fortunately, the fates intervened—all of our lives are now spicier and more flavorful for it!  Kerala, down at the bottom of the Indian subcontinent along the west coast, has been a major source of spices for over 5000 years.  It’s long been known as “spice garden of India.” It’s also a beautiful region, one that draws many tourists each year.  One of the hotel managers in the town was trying to come up with some locally interpreting activities for his patrons to partake in and he had the thought to reach out to Sudheer with the idea that his childhood memories of the spice farms would give him the background to lead tours.  It turned out to be a very good idea!  Even more so for Sudheer than for the hotel guests!  They got a good tour; and in the process he found his vocation!

Sudheer has since made it his mission to master the pepper trade; the set a new and higher bar for high integrity spice trading.  To find a way to work that’s drastically different from the way the old time spice traders did it centuries ago—back then spice trading was mostly about extracting as much from the producing regions in Asia and making as much money as possible in the process.  That old model was, as many historians have described, mostly a violent and horrible way to work in which farmers and growers suffered and Europeans traders became wealthy.  When Vasco de Gama stepped onto Indian soil for the first time in 1498, he reputedly stood up and claimed the land: “For Christ and for spices!”

Sudheer’s approach is the opposite—to raise people up and share the wealth, rather than taking it all half way around the world.  it’s all about working with the farmers to help get them to grow ever higher quality, paying them more for it, and in the process making the lives of everyone involved better.  Since most people in the world know only “black pepper” as if it were a singular entity, Sudheer is determined to teach people the differences between one black pepper and the next.  In part on quality level.  But also by showing off the difference between one pepper growing farm and another, often no more than 30 kilometers apart, the flavor of their pepper can very different! My place is a wildlife sanctuary.  This is where the Tribal Pepper is coming (we have it at the Deli right now).  They only have a few hectares.  Their they pepper plants produce a small size berry but with very good aroma.  But there only small amounts of it.  But when I take the cuttings from the tribal areas to to my house thirty kilometers away, it will grow, but it will taste different.”  The soil and the microclimates make a big difference.  “If you drive 30 or 40 kilometers from a farm,” Sudheer said, “the pepper will taste totally different.”

e) I love Telicherry

Maybe it’s because this was the first great pepper I was exposed to years ago.  But this is still my standby, the one I can’t—despite many attempts—let go of.  It’s a special pepper.  It’s also—like so many high value artisan foods—one of the most misrepresented.  (Darjeeling tea, vanilla, etc. have all been historically cut with phony substitutes over the centuries.)  Philippe de Vienne says, “Telicherry is probably the most famous and abused name in the black pepper trade. The town is one of many harbours on the south-western coast of India known as the Malabar Coast. The justly deserved reputation grew during the British period when the town was the export point for the area pepper.  Over time the word Telicherry became synonymous with quality pepper. In those days the pepper from the surrounding mountains was exported through the now disused port of Thalassery as it is now called. The great peppers still come from the hills, most notably from the Wyanad area. Today other ports are used but the name remains, a sure sign of the reputation of the black pepper from this area.  As the name does not benefit from an A.O.C. protection, it is greatly abused by people who want to project a quality image for their second rate pepper.”

He goes on: “Even within the region of course, there are big differences, from one district to the next.  And within each district, from one grower to his or her neighbor, and even then, there are like all agricultural products different results from different parts of the estate.  “There are really four districts in the hills around Thalassary, that are generally recognized as the source of Telicherry pepper, » Philippe explains.  «They are all in the same hydrographic basin, each with it’s distinct terroir. It’s really the Bordeaux of pepper. Some pepper is also grown lower, closer to Telicherry but does not hold a candle to the higher elevation peppers. If Telicherry is the Bordeaux of the pepper world, then Wyanad is Margaux or Pomerol.  All our Telicherry peppers comes from villages aroud Wyanad. Our friend and partner Sudheer spends several weeks there during the harvest buying directly from small farmers. »

Because Telicherry pepper is in such high demand, unscrupulous traders often cut it with lower cost peppers.  It’s pretty much the same course of action taken by traders of Darjeeling tea—more of it is sold in the world each year than is grown!  Cheap black pepper from Vietnam or Brazil can make ones “authentic pepper from India” a lot less expensive!

The real thing is an inspiration.  How do you know you have it?  One obvious answer is buy from people you trust, as we do with the de Viennes.  Another is to learn to know the smells and flavors that accompany the authentic article. The aroma of the de Vienne’s Telicherry Reserve is BIG.  Stick your nose inside the tin and take a deep breath.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t make me sneeze.  It reminds of burnished old wood, of eucalyptus, of walking through the woods in northern California.  The flavor is big too. Supermarket pepper by contrast, is rather one-dimensional, hot in a narrow and not all that enticing if still better than nothing kind of way.  Great authentic Telicherry like this is winelike in that its flavor grows slowly in your mouth; it has legs you could say.  Like a big, bold spicy Zinfandel maybe.  It’s spicy but it’s hardly habanero-hot.  This is a spice that livens the tongue, that continues to resonate without really ever taking over.  The heat is rich, well-rounded, well off, worldly, wonderful.

Concluding Thoughts

If you get to Kerala, be sure to seek out Sudheer.  He has a shop in the town where they stock over 20 different varieties of pepper.  If you aren’t going to be in India any time soon, you can find a good half of them here at Zingerman’s.  Every one of them is excellent.  I use most of them regularly—I have them on the counter at my house.  Each has its own distinctive flavors and aromas; each is excellent!

Unlike many agricultural products in the modern world, pepper in Kerala is grown still on a very very small scale.  “The small famers here, they have one or two hectares,” Sudheer told me.  Of equal importance Sudheer has a direct relationship with each farmer.  “We never buy through traders,” he told me.  “Only directly from the farmer.”

One big benefit of that direct relationship is that he can influence the work that the farmers are doing to help get them to produce higher quality pepper.  In return he pays more.  As it has with coffee, cheese and pretty much every other craft food product, this also means that Sudheer can and will pay more for the better quality.  The folks at Epices de Cru have been adamant about paying more for better spices. Higher prices to high integrity farmers enhance quality of life in the producing areas.  Higher quality of life for those producing better quality, leads others to follow suit.  The farmers do better, the villages in which they live do better, their environment does better, the de Viennes and the staff at Epices de Cru do better, you eat better . . . rather than the old win-lose model everyone comes out ahead.

What does better quality mean?  Maybe I should start with the opposite—what are most pepper traders purveying?   They pick pepper in March, early in the season, before the berries have had time to properly ripen; in the process they miss out on the pungency that takes great pepper to another level.  They rush the drying process to save money which means that the odds of fungus and mold developing go up.  While you may not see them by the time the pepper has arrived here, they will have impacted the flavor (in the same way that poor fermentation will drastically downgrade coffee and cacao beans).  They don’t take the time to hand sort meaning that pepper can include an array of sizes and potentially foreign objects.  What are we getting from Sudheer?  Pepper berries from the right region, left on the vine until late April or early May to develop the right balance of sweetness (pepper is a fruit after all) and spiciness, slowly and properly dried and then carefully hand sorted.  The difference .. . . all I need to do is stick my nose in the ten (or in the five kilo bags in which it arrives at the Roadhouse) and my energy is lifted and my spirit soars.  For me this kind of quality, community connection, farm to table growing, holistic economics is what it’s all about.

These sorts of small improvements are what inspire me for more than awards or honors.  The little things, done well, direct action, making a meaningful difference . . . I’m excited.  I hope you are too.  Next time you’re in grab the pepper grinder from the table.  While you’re waiting for your food, grind a bit into the palm of your hand.  Smell it.  Telicherry pepper has an amazing winy aroma that I can’t get over.  It blows my mind every time I stick my nose up to a tin of it.  If you haven’t lately smelled or tasted pre-ground commercial pepper, you might want to grab some—at home, or at most restaurants—to get a point of comparison.  It’s a pretty eye-opening experience.  I believe you’ll taste the difference too.   My deepest appreciation to the de Viennes for doing decades of work around the world to make this pepper upgrade a possibility.  To Sudheer for finding his passion for pepper and sharing that with the world.  To the crew at the Roadhouse for being willing to make this move forward, to spend more to get better quality and help others have a a better life in the process.  And to you, our guests—our business has been built for 35 years on the strong belief that you really can taste the difference.