Whenever I go to Paris I like to bring back spices. Last time, it was ras el hanout from the Belleville market and this time I found some amazing Madagascan black peppercorns in Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre. Dodgy name aside, Le Comptoir is a fantastic little store with dried beans, leaf teas, and gifts along the walls and a central island made up of heaping vats of spices from around the world.
I could spend hours in a place like this. There are familiar flavours, of course, like the various dried chilies and spice mixes, but even these look – and smell – more interesting when they’re fresh and not stuck in a glass jar.
This turmeric was beautifully vibrant.
There were also some things I couldn’t identify, or at least wasn’t completely familiar with. I think this is some sort of giant saffron, but really it looked like a big basket of hair. A delicious big basket of hair, but a big basket of hair nonetheless.
The assistant was really helpful. In addition to letting us photograph more or less everything in her shop, she was on hand to offer advice on the produce. I overheard her telling another customer that the Madagascan peppercorns were “a little miracle” so I couldn’t resist trying them out. She gave me a taster, grinding a bit into my hand, and the flavour really was unexpected. It’s moderately peppery, not super strong, but with a floral quality that’s quite distinctive. As you can see in the photo at the top of the post, these peppercorns are tiny ovals on stalks, much smaller than regular Indian black peppercorns, and they grow wild in the forests of Madagascar. Given my love of Madagascar’s native wildlife, I was obviously drawn to these little fruits. Perhaps lemurs were playing in these pepper vines before they were harvested and shipped to Paris!
The pepper is going to be used in my regular cooking, but I am also looking for ways to highlight it, rather than just use it as seasoning. I’ve been working up the courage to try Miss Cay’s amazing looking Strawberry Black Pepper Jam, which would surely be the perfect dish to highlight this “petit miracle” of a peppercorn. Until I trust in my abilities to sterilise jars without poisoning my friends, however, there’s the lazy expedient of just rolling fresh strawberries in ground pepper. The combination of sweetness and bite makes a pretty good early evening bite with a nice cold glass of rosé.