A few years ago, I was very surprised to find myself in agreement with a member of the last Bush administration but I have to say that Ambassador Thomas P Foley, as he prepared to leave Dublin, hit the nail on the head in one respect.
Mr Foley was, in my book, as wrong as wrong can be on many issues, including genetic engineering, but he's right about pepper. Yes, pepper. It may seem an odd topic on which to dwell before he bade farewell to the grey skies of the Emerald Isle, but he pointed out that the general run of pepper in Ireland is not up to much.
He actually said that pepper tastes different in Ireland than back home. What he meant was that pepper in Ireland is only woejous.
Now, being something of a pepper aficionado, this comment caught my attention and I concluded that (a) broadly speaking Mr Foley is right but that (b) he must eat in very good restaurants back home. Because there's lot of really rubbish pepper available to the citizens of the United States.
Pepper may be one of the oldest spices in the world, it may have been a form of currency in the ancient past, civilisations may have been built upon it, fortunes made and lost with it but we came to it rather late in this country.
All through my childhood I seem to recall that my mother had just one medium sized tin of ground white pepper in the kitchen cupboard. It was used as sparingly as tincture of opium.
And, of course, it tasted horrible; because that's what stale, ground white pepper does. As a thirteen year old I stayed with rather sophisticated relatives in England and I caught a whiff of the fruity fragrance of freshly ground black pepper. I was seduced. But I managed to embarrass myself by trying to shake the pepper from the top of the grinder. A quick lesson from my kind hostess meant that I had morphed, as far as I was concerned, into something resembling a Parisian boulevardier.
On my return to Dublin I suggested that the family should acquire one of these devices and we found one in Smith's of The Green.
True pepper is the berry of a plant called piper nigrum, which is a native of India's Malabar coast. These days, it's grown throughout the tropical world and most of the planet's pepper is traded through Singapore. But the best pepper still comes from the Malabar coast and the best of that is known as the tallicherry. It delivers warmth and fragrance, not fieriness.
Black peppercorns are the unripe berries that grow on the pepper tree - not so much a tree, actually, as a very vigorous vine that can grow three metres high. They are picked and dried in the sun and the pulp between the skin and the seed shrinks, producing the characteristic hard, wrinkly surface.
If you let the peppers ripen fully, they turn bright red and the outer skin peels away (with a bit of help) to reveal the seed itself. This is white pepper, which is generally thought to be too ripe to have much flavour of its own and which is not highly prized.
Then you have pink peppercorns which are harvested just as the outer skin of the berry starts to turn colour. These are rare and should not be confused with red peppercorns, which are not pepper at all, but the berries of a South American shrub which smell and taste vaguely pepperlike. Green peppercorns, which have become very fashionable in recent years, are merely unripe pepper berries which are either dried or pickled. They have a very distinctive taste (and can make a great steak sauce if used with some cream to deglaze the pan). Lemony tasting, zingy Sichuan peppercorns come from an Asian cousin of our own Ash tree of all things and, again, have nothing to do with the true pepper.