"For a full half-hour my mouth was a red wet ball of fireworks"by Wendell Steavenson / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
There is a spice shop around the corner from my apartment in Montmartre called Le Comptoir Colonial. Inside is a white-haired lady called Josiane Anne, kind and enthusiastic—“Paprika, yes of course! How strong do you prefer it? Smoked or sweet?”—who has worked there since 1973, when it was still an old-fashioned dry goods store, a graineterie, selling beans and flour out of sacks. Le Comptoir Colonial is one of my favourite shops. The place smells of a hundred scents, each bright and curious and promising. And there is Josiane, standing in the middle beside mounds of multi-coloured spices, eagerly waiting for you to ask: “What’s that?”
One day I asked about the different peppercorns. Josiane crunched a few grounds into my palm. “For everyday purposes, I like this Pondicherry,” she said. “It has a reddish colour, it’s not the most expensive (€145 a kilo).” I sniffed: fruity aroma, berry spice and tang unfurled between tongue and palate and nose; it was delicious.
I bought a little and at home roughly smashed the wrinkly reddish brown berries in a pestle and mortar. Pondicherry transformed everything. It elevated simple feta with olive oil into something aromatic and complex; sprinkled on steak it spiked heat and sweet; it bounced salads into another league. I went back for another bag.
This happens not infrequently: I am cooking along, quite happily, using ordinary pepper or pasta or butter or table salt, and then I discover the premium version. The fragrant hit of Pondicherry. The sweet creaminess of hand-churned butter. Mild Maldon salt crystalises into little pyramids that melt on the surface of hot food. It is so much better that I can’t go back to the regular version.
Different peppers are a result of variations of the plant in the wild, and how long the berries or “drupes” are allowed to ripen before being picked and dried. There are also false peppers that do not belong to the Piper nigrum genus but have a peppery pungency; Szechuan, and pink peppercorns.
Le Comptoir Colonial sells 32 kinds. Josiane talked me through them. She ground dark black beads of timut from Nepal onto my palm. It smelled sharply citrus, very grapefruit. “It goes well with strawberries and raspberries,” she said. Wild pepper from Madagascar had small dusty chocolate-looking berries but packed a fire-ant fury; the Kampot from Cambodia was even stronger…