There’s a new kid in town!
Meet Alexandre. Last Saturday was the first time he held a stand at the market in L’Isle-Jourdain and I am so glad I met him. His company’s name is Au grain de poivre et sel, and that’s exactly what he sells: salt and pepper.
You might think that I am making a big deal of a pinch of nothings, but that’s where you’re wrong. There is such a variety of salts and twice as many peppers that a few minutes with Alexandre will make you realize just what you’ve been missing.
If you’re looking for spices in France, most people will turn to the closest supermarket where there is, admittedly, a large selection from basic iodine salt through star anis and on to fenugreek seeds, but most spices are sold by spice giants Ducros or Amora, followed closely by the supermarket’s own brand. Packaging is identical in size and content, only the colour of the little plastic top is different. Those spices are OK, but the flavours are standardized and cater more to the indifferent user than to the choosy cook. I generally prefer to know and understand the proportions of spices I need to cook a fragrant couscous to buying a vial labelled “Couscous spice mix” and hoping for the best. The same goes for barbecue dry-rub and curry. As if there was only one type of curry!
In recent years, one can find some more exciting spices in the fair-trade and organic section of the supermarket. Like coffee and chocolate, the spices are marketed with reference to their origin and what the French refer to as terroir – the specificities of the land, its mineral make-up, and its climate. One of my favourites is a Colombo spice mix (I know what I just said about spice mixes. Life is full of contradictions) from the Jardin Bio range at E.Leclerc. It works very well with lime and sesame oil for roast chicken. I buy it all the time.
On outdoor markets, however, most often the spices are presented in wide, open dishes or baskets, with spices looking very attractive and colourful, but where their aroma is blown away by the wind and dust and pollution particles are added to the mix. This is not the best place to buy them. Spices, like oils, should be kept in an airtight container, away from light, humidity and away from other strong flavours.
Alexandre works differently. He seals the salts and peppers in different sizes of test tubes, stoppered with a cork. It looks pretty, doesn’t need reconditioning to fit in a spice drawer, plus he sells a selection of natural wood stands for 3 or 5 vials if you want to show them off on a shelf or your counter. He also sells an impressive array of salt and pepper mills and pestles and mortars of different sizes and materials, because he sells you whole pepper corns and large salt crystals that need some manhandling.
I actually stopped at Alexandre’s stand because I had read a note on a specific type of pepper in a magazine the week before and it had made me curious. Lucky for me, he had some: “le poivre Timut, aussi appelé poivre pamplemousse“. Grapefruit pepper? Absolutely!
I bought a selection of peppers with very different aromas to have some fun with. Describing smells is not the easiest thing to do, but here are my impressions and Alexandre’s recommendations for the varieties I chose:
Timut Pepper from Nepal
Very surprising aroma, pink grapefruit, citrussy, zesty, it reminds me of Sichuan pepper. Turns out the two are related and are so-called “false” peppers, as they might look a lot like pepper corns, but are actually members of the citrus family. They actually look a little like beechnuts when they spilt open in autumn.
I would use this pepper with fish, shrimp, etc., pop a few in the foil packet when baking fish in the oven or grinding them up for a marinade.
5 Pepper Mix from Madagascar
This is a staple in many kitchens, but this specific mix is very pungent and complex. It contains white, green, and black pepper, wild black pepper and red pepper, which is a dried red or pink berry and is actually a member of the cashew family. There aren’t always the same 5 peppers in such a mix, and often the large-grained Jamaican pepper (another “false” pepper) is in there. I am not a fan of Jamaican pepper and its grains systematically clog up my pepper mill.
I use 5 Pepper mixes a lot in salads and all things raw or cold.
Wild Black Pepper from Madagascar
I just mentioned this one as part of the mix. It’s my current favourite. Its aroma is not just “hot” or peppery, it’s far subtler than the usual black pepper I get and I’m finding it difficult to describe. Visually, it’s grains are smaller than the other peppers, with a tiny bit of stick still attached to it. I used some whole corns on Saturday evening to make a saffron and red wine stew with wild boar from the Pyrenees and it was absolutely distinctive and delicious.
Green pepper from the Malabar Coast
This one, I admit, I bought first for the name, second for its flavour. In French, “un malabar” means a strong, burly guy, and I just liked it. Not very scientific, I know.
The Malabar region in Kerala, India, is considered the original home of pepper. Green pepper is simply black pepper harvested before maturity and dried or preserved in brine or vinegar. I personally don’t like the preserved forms, as the brine or vinegar completely override the pepper flavours. The dried variety, however, is very fragile and needs to be used up quite quickly. So, don’t buy large quantities in one go.
I love green pepper with pork or veal, but the subtle taste of green pepper works really, really well with ripe mango, strawberries or on a thin puff-pastry apple tart. Try it, don’t be shy!
Three Pepper Mix from Penja, Cameroon
Penja pepper is renowned for its quality and is the first African produce to obtain a Protected Geographical Indication label. It’s terroir of volcanic soil and high humidity give it a high concentration of essential oils and a strong, rounded, woody aroma. Penja has a very small production and the peppercorns are harvested by hand at different stages of maturity to give the green, black and white peppers in this mix.
Alexandre recommends trying this pepper mix with a slice of caramelized pineapple and a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. I think I might.
Since Alexandre is new to the market in L’Isle-Jourdain, he doesn’t have a “usual” spot, but he will be around every Saturday from now on.