New (Entrepreneurial) Beginnings

Dear Reader,

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we will  launch an importing business that Louise will run when we return to Toronto. Our dream is to bring superb Kampot peppercorns to as many North American tables as possible. More details below.

But, importantly, we have a question for you – our fellow foodies: what top two online communities/channels do you go to for inspiration about recipes and new ingredients? We’d appreciate it if you could respond to us through the WordPress site, on Facebook or by contacting one of us directly. Please also share this post widely with all of your friends and acquaintances who might be interested in Kampot Peppercorns. Thanks!

We expect to launch our online store in mid-June. We’ll keep you posted!

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Pepper grows on peppercorn vines like miniature bunches of grapes. Popular around the world for its flavor-enhancing qualities, peppercorn plants are native to tropical climates like south India and southeast Asia. There are many different types of peppercorn and some of the popular names include India Malabar, India Tellicherry, Malaysian Sarawak, Indonesian Lampong and Madagascar. But of all of the different peppercorns, Kampot peppercorns are often said to be the best in the world. During the time we spent in Cambodia, we visited many Kampot Peppercorn plantations and were struck by their wonderful fragrance and taste. We blogged about it here.

We wanted to learn more about the peppercorn trade, and a good place to do that was in Goa, attending the International Spice Conference. I wrote a guest post about the conference for the Toronto Food Lab’s blog. Check it out here.

A Kampot Peppercorn plantation:

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Since visiting the plantations, we’ve enjoyed Kampot Peppercorns with practically every meal, relishing how the peppercorn enriches our dishes’ flavours. The pepper is exponentially better than the regular peppercorns on the shelves of grocery stores.

Our trip has been about realizing dreams. For a number of years, we had dreamed about freeing up the time to travel together as a family. Setting up an importing enterprise is another dream of ours. It will be one of the ways for us to retain some of the time and flexibility that we freed up by taking this family trip together.

Our enterprise will import organic Cambodian Kampot black and red peppercorns to serve the North American market. We want to  enhance as many dishes on as many tables as possible. Kampot peppercorns are grown using farming techniques that are centuries old and proven to deliver the best flavour. We can trace each peppercorn back to the farm and small community from which it originated. This helps us understand how the peppercorns you buy help support Cambodian farmers. And like Champagne, Kampot peppercorns have a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) that safeguards their unique qualities. The PGI ensures that Kampot peppercorns deliver the subtle flavours and fiery heat that transform your food and linger on your palate.

Our dream is that our pepper will make your food extraordinary. And if it’s already extraordinary, our peppercorns will make it even more so.

We made our decision to import Kampot peppercorns early in our trip and we’ve already developed several aspects of the business. We’ve learned that a lot of business planning and setup is possible on the road using an (intermittent) internet connection, a basic mobile phone, an old iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. Some of the details we’ve been able to take care of include:

  • We’ve established relationships with different peppercorn growers. Our first order of peppercorns will ship to Toronto in May.
  • We’ve developed the first iteration of our webpage, logo and branding with the help of a Washington DC-based graphic designer.
  • We’ve consulted our tax advisor and will incorporate a few days after we return to Toronto.
  • We’ve learned the regulations for importing peppercorns from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and how they apply to our business.
  • We’ve developed a social media strategy that incorporates Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Reddit.

Along the way we’ve had tremendous support from our friends and family. They have been of enormous help with their great ideas and enthusiasm.

As we continue to work towards a mid-June launch, we’d love to get your input on websites/online communities to help us create social media buzz prior to launch. What are your top two online communities/channels do you go to for inspiration about recipes and new ingredients?

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The Lows

Getting off a train in Delhi’s Nizamuddin rail station is like stepping into a pressure cooker. The crush of passengers leaving the station. Beggars asking for alms. Hawkers clamouring for attention. Taxi drivers and touts, thousands of them, intent on taking travellers to their destinations. And it’s hot.

We have sunny and optimistic dispositions. There’s a lot of room on a trip like ours for something to go wrong and we have a tendency not to dwell on the low points for too long. But that doesn’t mean our journey hasn’t had its challenges.

This morning at breakfast we talked about the most difficult moments of our trip. It’s good to discuss these things. We learn from them. We also learn a lot about each other. The challenges make the good aspects of our trip seem even more positive.

HEALTH

I called a friend yesterday and one of the first things he asked was: “have you had any health issues on your trip?” This is often one of the first things people think about.

Our medical dispatch documents Saga’s case of Shigella (diarrhoea with blood and mucous), acute dehydration and time in the local hospital. While sick she was tethered to the toilet; she literally didn’t leave it for more than five minutes at a time over a 48-hour period. And Louise and I were mostly tethered to her, keeping her company.

The combination of sleeplessness and anxiety is likely the reason why I came down with shingles a week later. Here is shingles: pain across the left side of my face along my facial nerve. The nerve would fire and throb into my neck. My face swelled up and my head felt like it was in a vice. Open sores broke out on my face, ear and forehead. The acute phase of this lasted a week. It was incredibly intense.

We’ve also had the more regular travelers’ illnesses. A weird itchy arm rash sent us to the pharmacy to get antihistamines. Variants of Delhi Belhi have struck from time to time.

When sick, once we’ve figured out what’s wrong, we come up with plans a, b and c to recover. If a plan isn’t working, we escalate to the next. Uncertainty amplifies the distress but we’ve had the great good fortune to have medical consultations with our favourite pediatrician (my father). He diagnosed Shigella and Shingles from 12 time zones away and has guided our treatments. After that, it’s mostly a waiting game.

THE ELEMENTS

The girls thought it was scary when the Kampot River jumped its banks. The water levels were higher than the girls are tall. They were worried about the animals. They didn’t know if the flood would last forever.

TIME

This trip is largely about time. In Toronto, once work, school, extra-curricular activities, chores, and everything else were accounted for, we were time poor. We didn’t spend enough of it together. We reclaimed our time when we bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia and set out on this adventure.

But once we were time rich, we needed to figure out what to do with it all. It was shocking, in a way, to wake up and realize that we had no office to go to, no school to attend, no play dates. The whole day stretched before us like a blank slate, waiting for us to fill it in new and different and exciting ways. Our daily routine eventually settled into doing three things: we read/learn, we play and we explore (in addition to taking care of the admin of life). Before we got into that routine, however, boredom would sometimes set in. We made it clear that each of us is responsible for our own contentedness. We’re truly happy when we are engrossed in an activity; a book, a game, a sport. Each of us needs to find something that engrosses us. Confronting and embracing boredom in this way has been an important learning experience for us.

RITUALS

We miss aspects of living in Toronto. Our family. Friends and neighbours. Sigurd, our dog. Holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day. Playing the piano and violin. Baking. Running. Sidewalks.

SAFETY

Back at home, we’re careful about a lot of safety issues. Take driving; we buy cars based on safety records, wear our seatbelts, change our tires with the seasons. Here, we mostly ride in rickshaws. Often there are no seatbelts in cars. So far we’ve been fine, although we are aware that, an accident here would impose challenges of a higher order than in Toronto, all things being equal. We try not to think about it too much.

When we stepped into the pressure cooker of Delhi’s rail station two days ago, we had come from Agra and had a flight to catch to Goa. Our train was late and we needed a taxi to take us to the airport. I asked an official where the pre-paid taxi stand is and he made a vague, unhelpful gesture to his right. A swarm of taxi drivers insisted the prepaid desk was closed. We didn’t believe them but couldn’t find the prepaid desk. Exasperated, we agreed on a price with a taxi driver, got into the cab and set out for the airport.

We careened out of the airport, speeding, barely missing pedestrians and other cars. The driver began speaking incoherently. The driving was erratic. More close calls with pedestrians. Faster driving. The driver started taking his eyes off the road to talk to us. The girls cowered in the backseat, terrified. Our driver was drunk.

At a red light in the middle of Delhi’s streets, I took the key out of the ignition. Louise and I got the girls onto the sidewalk, unloaded the car. Incredibly, Delhi traffic waited patiently and respectfully while this unfolded. A woman in the back of a Toyota graciously asked if she could take us somewhere. Into her car we piled, grateful. None of us has ever been so relieved to arrive at an airport.

We arrived on time in Goa and are staying near the beach in the north. Gorgeous Goa is the right place to decompress from our Agra trip and this is where we wrap up the India leg of our journey. On Sunday we fly from Mumbai to Cape Town to continue our adventure in South Africa and Botswana.

Sea Legs

Well, tomorrow we say goodbye to Les Manguiers, Kampot and Cambodia and off we go to Hanoi. We’ve been travelling for almost two months now and this is a good time to review our trip.

TIME

In a lot of ways this trip is about time. All of us know what it’s like to be time-poor. Our family is very lucky in being able to choose to be time-rich. We can (as Rolf Potts puts it) “spend [our] time lavishly in order to create the life values that make the fire worth the candle”. Eight years ago, all of our spare time disappeared overnight when the girls were born. We’ve been heavily scheduled since, trying to fit (as we all do) parenting, family, work, school, hobbies and everything else into our lives.

Here, in our relatively unscheduled day-to-day, we’ve redicovered what it is like to find joy spontaneously.  We swim most days and have giggled endlessly as we prepare swim shows and jump from the rope swing. After dinner we’ve kicked a soccer ball together and then raced home on our bikes (this is my faviourite day ever! – Saga). Impromptu conversations with travelers give us perspectives and ideas about traveling and life that we wouldn’t otherwise hear. We read together voraciously and talk about the themes that come up in the books. We do some of these things back at home but we have to schedule them. Here, they happen as the day unfolds, often appearing as little pleasures that surprise us.

Here are some shots of some post-supper extemporaneous fun with dinner serviettes:

  

Starting our adventure with an extended 2-month stay in our little bungalow by the river has let us use our rediscovered time as we wish. We haven’t (yet) spent long hours riding on planes or trains followed by having to navigate our way through new places. This has freed us up to do the things we enjoy. And it also lets us be deliberate about how we live together as parents, spouses, kids; another big thing this trip is about.

SCHOOLING

This is our first gig as school teachers. We’ve enjoyed combining lessons from the Grade Three Ontario French Immersion Curriculum with lessons from the School of Life (Cambodian Edition). We’ve benefited greatly from the last-minute decision to bring along the big Math Smart Grade Three books. The girls love them. Support from some of the girls’ teachers back home has helped us keep up with the girls’ peers and locate online resources. All in all we have been able to handle teaching grade three. Grade four would have been a stretch but luckily, for us and the girls, we have the pros from Jackman PS for that.

FRIGHTS
No review is complete without a retrospective on frights. Here is our top ten list.

  1. Admitting Saga to the hospital
  2. Readmitting Saga to the hospital
  3. Seeing (and feeling!) Kampot critters’ mass migration to our house during the flood
  4. Mingling with water snakes during and after the flood
  5. Observing the terrifyingly ugly lizards that has been snuggling up in our reading nook from day 1
  6. A frog jumping from who knows where on top of Nigel’s head in the middle of dinner
  7. A gecko jumping, in a pitch-black bathroom, from Louise’s toilet kit directly into her armpit
  8. Riding bikes through Kampot traffic
  9. Going to the local market for the first time, feeling overwhelmed by the sights and smells (and the constant stares and occasional touches by well-meaning ladies)
  10. Looking over the cliff behind the old casino at Bokor Mountain from which prisoners were thrown to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge

WHAT’S NEXT

We’ll fly to Hanoi tomorrow. We’ll stay for a week and take in a water puppet show, spend a night in Halong Bay on a junk and move on to Luang Prabang for two weeks. After that we’ll be in Da nang for a month staying in a downtown flat.

We’ve really appreciated all your comments and ideas and advice and thoughts and shared experiences. Keep them coming. Thanks for reading.

And thank you, Kampot River.

 

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Medical Dispatch

Getting sick. It’s bound to happen.

With this in mind, as we were preparing for our trip we knew something would happen. We just didn’t know what it would be. We went to the travel clinic in Toronto and got all our jabs and malaria pills. We read other family travel blogs and picked up the recommended immodium, gravol, antibiotics. We had a bulky first aid kit from MEC lying around the house and, since there was room in our baggage, we even brought it along. Band-aids, tweezers, trauma kits, disposable thermometers, needles, syringes, afterbite cream (almost all gone), more bandaids. And then we set off.

This week, Saga has been fed through the wringer. Friday morning she woke up with a fever and generally feeling lousy. We hunkered down for the day, looking for lots of sleep and ibuprophen. Friday night the diarrhea started with trips to the toilet all night.

Saturday the fever gradually abated but the trips to the toilet intensified. We started calling home for advice every twelve hours from grandpa/our favorite pediatrician. Our plan A: keep an eye on Saga, get as much fluids and electorlytes into her as possible, take rest and ride it out. We identified the good local hospital and doctors for plan B: get help if we needed it.

By 1am Sunday, blood appeared in the stools and our patient was dehydrated. Diagnosis (from 11 time zones away): Salmonella or shigella. We hoped for salmonella, believing that it’s the lesser of the two. Off we went to a local hospital. Saga was put on a drip and had her tummy checked by the local MD. We were home by 4am, hydrated and happier (for the time being).

On Sunday our patient was able to drink some fluids and rest but all gains were reversed late Sunday night when she was no longer able to leave the toilet. Literally. By this time we were 72 hours in, our hero was dehydrated again and completely exhausted. So were her parents (exhausted).

We went to plan B; back to the hospital Monday morning. Although we got off to a shaky start (5 attempts were made before successfully finding a vein for the drip), the doctors did some tests, presribed antibiotics, put her on a drip and eventually diagnosed shigella.

It’s now Wednesday morning and everyone is back in our bamboo bungalow by the Kampot River. After 48 hours at the hospital, Saga is (almost) back to her normal self.

From our perspective, it was a scary combination (for those in the medical field, however, it might have been perceived as little out of the ordinary). Watch our daughter’s condition deteriorate before our eyes despite all our efforts. Mix in the physical discomfort of being tethered to the bathroom. Abort plan A. Escalate to plan B. Add sleep deprivation. Wait. Breathe. Hope.

They say that the greatest pleasure is relief from pain. Hearing the tuk tuk bring the patient home this morning was one of the sweetest moments. Saga gets the prize for being strong. Ida gets the best sister award. We are extremely grateful to our families who talked us through the experience. And the guest house staff was incredibly helpful and thoughtful.

We learned: make a plan and check it with a pro. Write it down. Review it as you get more and more exhausted. Figure out the local health resources: where the good doctors, hospitals and clinics are. Look after each other, making sure everyone in the family gets the attention s/he needs. Expect that everything will be ok.

Bokor Mountain Dispatch

It’s hot here.

We jump into the river and cool off, then five minutes later we’re hot again. Not sure about the rest of you, but when I’m hot my upper lip becomes beaded with sweat. And lately my upper lip has had permanent beads.

Bokor Mountain is located about 45 minutes from our house. It’s a hill station that, at the height of 1,000 metres, promises cooler temperatures. We went there today to escape the heat and visit local landmarks.

Bokor was first developed by the French in the early 20th century with a casino as the main attraction.  The French abandoned Bokor in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took over the area. Bokor Hill remained a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the early 1990s. Our tour guide’s father is a former combatant (supporting the Vietnamese) who had spent several years at Bokor.

Our first stop was the 30m statue of Lok Yeay Mao, pictured below. Built in the last decade, she is considered a protector spirit for travelers along the southern coastal provinces of Cambodia.

A local photographer caught my attention, taking pictures of tourists and printing them on a printer, powered by a car battery.

Further along the road, the old decrepit original casino stands close to an old church. The Khmer Rouge used the former as a prison and converted the latter into a kitchen. The buildings command a view of Cambodia’s coastline and the church served as an artillery position. Both structures are intact and abandoned. The public is free to roam through them; grim places that seem full of ghosts.


   

The Sokha Hotel Group, owned by its parent company, Sokimex, has a 99-year lease on a casino complex on Bokor Hill. It has built a sprawling casino and a resort boasting luxury bars, accommodation and entertainment but (on the day we visited) no guests.

The girls helped cheer the place up.
  

In Praise of Peppercorns

After tasting probably the finest pepper in the world, we’ve realized that the generic pepper eaten at home is flavourless and uninspiring. We think we can do better.

PEPPER FACTS

Black pepper is the world’s most traded spice. Today, Americans consume more pepper than all other spices combined and pepper makes up about one-fourth of the world’s trade in spices.

Pepper has been around for ever; the plant is native to India and has been used in cooking since 2000 BCE. In fact, pepper was such a prized trade good that it was referred to as “black gold” and used as a currency.

Peppercorns come from a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae. The vine’s fruit is green when it’s fresh. Once it’s dried, we get black, red or white peppercorns. Pepper has demonstrated significant health benefits and is known to improve digestion.

KAMPOT PEPPER

Luckily for us, we’re in Kampot – practically the land of delicious premium peppercorns. Like champagne, Kampot pepper has a protected geographical indication, which recognizes the uniqueness of its key qualities. There’s a mystique surrounding Kampot pepper. Some people in the industry allude to the high quartz content in the soil as an explanation for its rich flavours. Whatever the reason, we’ve fallen under its spell.

In Kampot, pepper is ubiquitous. We’ve found it in everything ranging from curries and chocolate to  vinaigrette and vanilla ice cream. Battered and fried green peppercorns are also delicious. We’ve heard it’s great with fish and the Brits are bonkers for it on their strawberries.

ONE GRIND AT A TIME

We now have an entirely new appreciation for premium pepper. And, just as in recent years high quality salt has found an important place in the kitchen, we believe that the same is true for pepper. It’s black and white.

One of our next stops is Kerala, India – home of the Tellicherry peppercorns. We’ll be sure to report back on our experience with another of the world’s highest grade peppercorns.

 

 

 

Ida’s Post: Visting a Silk Worm Farm in Siem Reap

One of the things I really liked about visiting Siem Reap was going to a Silk Worm Farm.

We took a tuk tuk to the Silk Worm Farm during the second day of our stay in Siem Reap. When we arrived, there was a guide waiting for us. He was good at speaking English. He took us from room, to room, to room while explaining the process. This is some of what I learned.

First, a male moth and a female moth mate and as soon as they are done mating, the female lays approximately 300 eggs and the male dies. Then, when the eggs hatch, the female dies. It’s a bit sad, isn’t it? It’s like an orphanage for the worms.



Afterwards, the worms eat for 3 days/nights straight and sleep for 1 day/night straight. They eat mulberry leaves.


After a month of eating the leaves, they stop eating altogether. Then they turn yellow-ish and are moved onto a wooden tray that is designed almost like a maze.


While they are on the trays, they start working on making their cocoons, using their saliva. It takes almost a month for them to make the cocoons.

The outer part of a cocoon is the raw silk and the inner part is the fine silk. When the cocoon is finished, the moths chew their way out of the cocoons and the people who work a the Farm grab the moths and place a male and a female together (the male is smaller than the female) like matchmakers. The moths then mate and start the cycle all over again.

Separate from the worms, is the precious silk. First, the cocoons are put into boiling water to separate the raw silk from the fine silk.


It’s hard work (and we learned that the people who work there only get paid $4 for an 8-hour workday). Each cocoon makes 40 meters of silk. The silk is so fine. It’s thinner than a piece of thread used for sewing. You can barely see the silk threads; they’re so thin.



After the thread has been put onto big spools – in most instances using bicycle wheels – natural die (from rubber trees, mint leaves, lavendar and other plants) are used to turn the silk red, pink, yellow, green, blue and other colors.


Finally, the silk is woven into scarves, bedsheets, tablecloths, pillowcases – even covers for notebooks and pencilcases. I bought a beautiful silk-covered notebook and my parents bought raw silk scarves.

 

Ida and Nigel’s post: Temples at Siem Reap

We spent three days in Siem Reap. During that time we visited three temples and a silk factory. We’ll write about the silk factory in another post.

The largest religious monument in the world is Angkor Wat, enclosing about 400 acres. It was built to worship the Hindu god Vishnu by  King Suryavarman II in the early twelfth century. The temple gradually came under Buddhist control by the thirteenth century.

In the spirit of saving the best for last, we wanted Angkor Wat to be the final stop on our tour.

After visiting Ta Phrom Wat (Jungle Temple) on Day 1, we went to see Bayon, a structure with a multitude of massive serene faces and impressive bas-reliefs, showing historical and everyday scenes.

Here are some of the faces of Bayon:


  
The holes in the rocks were carved with iron chisels and held wooden pegs, used to move the rocks (with the help of elephants).

Here is an example of the bas relief:

On to Angkor Wat. People like to see Angkor Wat at sunrise. We woke up at 4h30 to get there ahead of the (huge) crowds.

The sunrise was really pretty. Here are some pictures. The first was shot around 5h15:


And then this one followed about 20 minutes later:

Inside Angkor Wat itself there are very steep stairs to get to the top of the towers. The stairs are steep to reflect the difficult climb to get to heaven.


Everything at Angkor Wat seems to be steep and reaching for the sky.

The statue of Vishnu used to be at the centre of the temple. Vishnu was replaced by a statue of Buddha, but preserved at the entrance to Angkor Wat:


It was a great visit, unlike anything we’ve seen before. One could spend a year visiting all the wats here but we found that seeing three of them, spaced out over three days, was just right. Ida and Saga loved it and enjoyed the pace. So did their parents.