Driftless Terroir: Wild Szechuan Peppercorns & Our Taste of Place

Erin Crooks-Lynch

by Erin Crooks Lynch

One of the most enjoyable ways to familiarize myself with a new place when I travel is to learn about the kinds of foods people eat and why. At a glance, it’s clear that climate dictates what a region can grow or catch and, therefore, what it eats. Take France, for example: In Normandy one sees their famous apples along with Camembert cheese and Calvados the liquor; in the Languedoc Roussillon region one can find Armagnac, the noteworthy Roquefort cheese and the Tarbais beans you know from the popular dish cassoulet; and in central France one finds folks who pride themselves on growing the best green lentils, pumpkins and even saffron. These different regions honor their terroir by protecting, cultivating and marketing the treasures of each region, and in turn, these treasures contribute to each region’s unique cuisine, culture and traditions.

In a similar way, I have dreams that we, from the Driftless Region, too can develop and encourage a love and pride of terroir so that our own unique cuisine, culture and traditions can flourish. I think it begins by getting to know what grows here, what we can eat and what we can do with the flora and fauna of our surrounding land. I’ve discussed in past “Driftless Terroir” columns ways in which one can incorporate native nettles, morels and sumac in the diet and even how to enhance one’s microbiome by eating locally grown foods. What else can we add to the Driftless catalog of edibles? Let me introduce the Szechuan (Sichuan) peppercorn. Like the others mentioned, it is used both medicinally and culinarily. It comes from the Prickly Ash shrub and, despite its name, has more in common with citrus than with peppers or peppercorns.

At the kitchen, after picking these berry-like fruits from Prickly Ash’s thorny branches, we winnow the leaves and seeds from their pods.

Toward the end of summer, the last week of July and well into August, a group of us wander along trails to the edges of woods and marginal lands where we find 10- to 25-foot shrubs with tiny quarter-inch bright red fruits containing a single shiny black seed inside. These berry-like fruits grow in clusters at the ends of the Prickly Ash’s thorny branches. When they’re ready to be picked, the fruit is open like the mouth of Pac Man in the arcade game when he’s ready to eat the next dot, and the seed is exposed, hinging outward almost loosely on the edge of what might be the roof of Pac Man’s mouth. A fragrance of citrus oils surrounds us while we strip the branches of the tiny fruits and we have to blink because, yes, we’re still in Wisconsin and not in the tropics. By the end of harvest our hands are numb and bleeding from the half-inch-long thorns, but 4 pounds later, the reward is worth it.

Back at the kitchen, we winnow the seeds from their pods, making sure to get every last one. The seeds are gritty and unpleasant to taste. We let the fruits dry, do another pick through for any last round dark seeds and finally we jar up our loot. By this time, the original red husk has turned from fire engine to the color of burnt ash, the oils have mellowed, and they’ve shrunken in size, but their aroma is still very strong.

Lightly toast the pods in a dry pan to reduce the citrus notes and to bring up the woody notes, let them cool and then grind.

Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing, tingling and almost electric feel in the mouth. The citrus aroma is intense and mind-clearing. It’s almost indescribable. You must experience it for yourself. I often smell both a blend of orange and lime oils with earthy notes, but it’s much more complex than that; it’s a sensation. Before cooking with these little treasures, lightly toast them in a dry pan to reduce the citrus notes and to bring up the woody notes, let them cool and then grind them. In many parts of Asia they use these peppercorns in the famous Szechuan-style cooking. They are also heavily used in the Himalayas because it’s one of few spices that can actually grow there. You’ll find thousands of Szechuan recipes online, almost always pairing the spice with chili peppers and often with almost any meat from poultry to beef, or mushrooms. It’s likely you’ve eaten Szechuan peppercorn before in a Chinese, Indian, Nepalese or Japanese dish.

As far as health benefits go, Szechuan peppercorns are known to enhance blood flow and the immune system, strengthen the bones, reduce inflammation, stimulate appetite and reduce blood pressure. Native Americans ground the bark to put on toothaches. The husks contain anti-cancer and anti-aging properties, and can increase eye health. Can you believe this medicinal wonder can be found in our back yards or neighboring farms?

Dry-rubbed (coriander, crushed red pepper, paprika and Szechuan peppercorn) and slow-roasted Enos Farms pastured pork loin on a bed of roasted cherry tomatoes was served with a multi-whole grain and fresh herb pilaf at our 2017 Harvest Moon Dinner.

While you can buy culinary Szechuan peppercorns, I recommend getting outdoors and harvesting some yourself. A little goes a long way and you don’t have to get your fingers numb and bloody to have enough for the year. A small jar will do and a pair of gloves won’t hurt. Medicinally, they come in capsules with a range of potencies. I recommend doing your own research and consulting with an herbal medicine practitioner before taking Szechuan peppercorns to cure ailments.

Cultivating a catalog of Driftless edibles can help us develop a deeper sense of pride in our terroir, not to mention a healthier standard of living. I think we can and are cultivating it, every time we step out each spring to pluck the tops of those first baby nettles, in the fall when we reach high to harvest the heads of the sumac shrub, or in summer when we pluck Szechuan peppercorns from the Prickly Ash. When we eat and learn from our local edibles, we honor and cultivate our own Driftless Region terroir.

Erin Crooks Lynch and her husband, Jeremy, own and operate Enos Farms, a sustainably minded operation in the Wyoming Valley, and Enos Farms Catering, a farm-to-table affair offering menus based on the seasons. Enos Farms offers Brunch & Cocktails at the Riverview Terrace Café in the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center on Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. through April. Erin will speak at the Friends of the Spring Green Library Chocolate Lab event on Feb. 3. For more information, see enosfarms.com or e-mail contactenosfarms@gmail.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.