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A pepper that will test the patience of a saint

MAT COWARD introduces the Sichuan pepper, for centuries a regular of the Chinese cousine and also noted for medicinal qualities

WITH Sichuan pepper, the part you eat is the bit you throw away with many crops — the seed case, not the seed itself. One of the world’s most used spices, especially in Chinese cuisine as an ingredient in Five Spice powder, it’s easily grown in Britain. You don’t even need much space, as it will do perfectly well in a large pot on a patio or balcony.

You’ll find it under various other names, including Szechuan pepper, Szechwan pepper, mountain pepper, Chinese pepper and prickly ash.

Zanthoxylum simulans is the most commonly sold species for growing in this country, but several other members of the Zanthoxylum genus are also available. 

There’s one online UK nursery currently offering a choice of eight. Each is said to have a distinct flavour, but be aware that not all are self-fertile, so some types might need more than one plant to produce fruit. Simulans is self-fertile, one reason for its popularity.

Starting Sichuan pepper from seed is not difficult, but it does mean waiting a few years for your first crop. A faster, but of course more expensive, route to getting a tingly tongue is to buy a young plant.

In open ground it does best in full sun, but will tolerate a fair amount of shade. The soil needs to be fertile and well-drained. Sichuan pepper is completely indifferent to cold winters.

Mine grows in an 18” (46cm) pot, but I think slightly larger than that would be better, not because it needs a lot of space — I planted it 10 years ago and it’s still only 3 ft (1 metre) tall — but because I find the compost sometimes dries out during the summer. A greater volume of compost will retain moisture for longer.

Whether in a container or in the ground, Sichuan pepper benefits from regular mulching with garden compost or manure to prevent drying out , especially when it’s young.

It can be worth pruning the bush into a lollipop shape, so that the thorns aren’t at face level for any passing pets or toddlers. Beyond that, and watering, there’s no regular maintenance involved.

The summer flowers are insignificant to human eyes, but bumblebees love them. These are followed by small, hard, red or pink berries.

By mid-autumn some of these peppercorns will begin splitting open, displaying a shiny black seed inside. At this point, I pick all the berries, open or not, before they have a chance to fall to the ground and vanish.

Lay the berries out indoors for a few days, and the warmth will soon cause the closed ones to open up. Discard the black seeds, which are not used in the kitchen, and store the red-pink seed cases in an airtight jar. They’ll keep well for at least a year.

The young leaves in spring, by the way, are also delicious, used as if they were bay leaves, with their own special flavour of warm spice.


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