Botanicals Guide: Cubeb pepper & a spiced shortbread

Cubeb pepper is a spicy little berry that looks much like black pepper but offers so much more – especially to gin drinkers!

Botanical guide: the cubeb pepper and a spiced shortbread

A key ingredient in all of the gins produced by Poetic License (including this month's Craft Gin Club special edition), when distilled it has not only the piquancy of black pepper, but also delicate floral, earthy notes that can lend a beautiful complexity and depth to gin. 

Native to Indonesia, the Piper cubeba plant is cultivated mostly in Sumatra and Java, and it is sometimes referred to as Java pepper. Its fruits are harvested before they are completely ripe before being carefully dried. The berries have little stalks attached, distinguishing them from black pepper and lending them their alternative name of ‘tailed pepper’.

Cubeb was a prized and valuable spice in the Middle Ages, used for marinating meat and also candied and eaten whole. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, cubeb cigarettes were popular – even being prescribed for asthma and hayfever. 

Despite the dubious nature of claims that smoking cigarettes can cure anything, cubeb has in fact been credited with numerous medicinal benefits by many different cultures. Indian Ayurvedic medicine prescribes the spice for use in a mouthwash to treat oral and dental diseases, and in Victorian England, it was used to calm throat complaints.

Living up to its ‘spicy’ reputation, cubeb has also been lauded as an aphrodisiac and intensifier of sexual pleasure, featuring in a range of love potions – as well as in many 19th century gonorrhoea treatments.

These days, as well as being a prized gin botanical, cubeb features in various spice mixes from around the world, such as French quatre épices and Moroccan Ras el hanout. The flavour of the spice when cooked combines pepperiness with aromatic notes of nutmeg and cardamom – something that lends itself deliciously to baking, as in the shortbread recipe below. 

Cubeb Pepper Shortbread

cubeb pepper shortbread biscuits

4 tbsp of cubeb peppercorns, finely ground
225g/8oz plain flour
Pinch of salt
55g/2oz caster sugar
170g/6oz butter

1.    Sift flour into a large bowl and stir in the salt, sugar and ground cubeb pepper. Add the butter and rub into the flour, kneading until smooth. 
2.    Pre-heat the oven to 150C. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to around 7-8mm thick.
Cut into desired shape (fingers, triangles or circles work well, but you can get creative!).
3.    Place the shortbreads on a baking tray covered with baking parchment. Bake for about 30 minutes until golden.
4.    Sprinkle with sugar and ground cubeb peppercorns to taste. Allow to cool before eating.