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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Peppercorn Particulars

We’ve learned a lot about peppercorns during our travels. We went to see peppercorn plantations in Kampot and Kerala. We visited the International Peppercorn Exchange in Kochi. We attended the International Spice Conference in Goa. We’ve blogged about peppercorns regularly, including this dispatch.

We know that we’re not the only ones interested in learning more about delicious peppercorns. After all, who isn’t interested in improving the taste of our food if we can do it with the right peppercorns and a simple twist of the pepper grinder?

Recently we learned that the Kampot Peppercorns further cemented its status among the best peppercorns in the world when it won the coveted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the EU. For reference, PGI distinguishes French Champage, Italian Parma Ham, French Gruyere Cheese. Read more about it here, in the Vancouver Sun.

Hill Station Dispatch

The Western Ghats are a chain of mountains that run parallel to India’s west coast. They cross the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujurat. The mountains cover around 140,000 square km in an almost uninterrupted 1,600 km long stretch.

The Western Ghats are on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of their immense geological, cultural and aesthetic importance. By moderating the tropical climate of the area, the region represents one of the best examples of the monsoon system on the planet. Its tremendous range of plants and wildlife has made it one of the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity. It includes some of the best representatives of tropical evergreen forests anywhere. It’s home to at least 325 globally threatened species.

The Western Ghats are also home to serene hill stations, one of which is Munnar. (A hill station is a high altitude town, often used as a place of refuge from the summer heat). At 1,500m to 2,500m in altitude, Munnar has close to 100,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by more than 20 tea estates. There are approximately 25,000 tea harvesters based in the town, a quarter of the population, picking tea on a 15 day cycle.

We were happy to arrive in Munnar to get some fresh air and a break from the busy streets of Ernakulam. We are staying outside the city on the edge of a tea plantation. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.

PEPPERCORNS

Peppercorns are never far from our minds and here they seem to grow everywhere. Seemingly random trees at the side of the road have peppercorn vines:

The picture below is of a small-scale plantation. The trees on the left have mature vines. The smaller trees on the right have tiny vines growing at their base.

Even the local church has a piece of the action.

TEA
Tea plants are in fact trees. They can grow as high as 60 feet and live for a hundred years. They are usually kept at a height of four to five feet to facilitate harvesting. Here is a close up of one of the trees at the side of the road. It looks like it burrowed into the brick retaining wall.



We enjoyed walking through the tea trees, along staircases built of stone.

Tea trees have a remarkable way of  softening the landscape.

We went to the local tea museum to learn how the leaves are processed into the tea that we drink. Leaves are fed into a cutting machine for four stages of cuts.

They are then oxidized…

….and sent to the dryer along a conveyor belt.


Dry tea subsequently goes into bags and large pieces are sorted out. Then it’s ready for prime time.

SPICE

Visiting Munnar, one understands why Kochi has such a thriving spice trade; this is where it all comes from. The local chai walla has a cardamom plantation. Here is a cardamom plant. The pods are at ground level.

 

Ida’s holding fresh pods. We opened them up and tasted the fresh cardamom. Delicious!

And this is the machine (an old model), along with its operator, to crush the dried cardamom.

 



TREES 

Walking around here, one understands why the forests in the Western Ghats are so important. The trees are gorgeous.

They stretch forever into the sky.

Kochi, Pepper and Spice (and Everything Nice)

SPICY TIMES

The story of Indian spices is more than 7000 years old, with some of the earliest records of ships bringing Indian spices to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Later, ancient Greek merchants thronged the markets of South India, followed by the Romans.

By 1511, the Portuguese controlled the exceptionally lucrative spice trade, based in Kochi.  Black pepper, counted out in individual peppercorns, was as valuable as gold at that time and a sack of pepper was said to be worth a man’s life. In fact, over half of Portugal’s revenue came from Indian pepper and other spices and West African gold.

Kochi is still a major spice capital and it’s easy to see why; spices grow everywhere. We took a boat trip through the backwaters the other day. As we floated through the canals we saw pepper vines, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, coffee, cacao and turmeric growing in the wild. Here’s a shot of our boatman who doubled as a spice guide.

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Kochi is home to the International Pepper Exchange, an organisation that deals with the global black pepper trade. The exchange was established in 1997 and is the world’s only international pepper exchange. (It has been compared – perhaps generously – to the New York Stock Exchange.)

We’ve been bitten by the pepper bug on this trip. We were blown away by how any dish can be enhanced by Kampot’s feisty and flavorful peppercorns. We dug a little deeper and are impressed by Kampot’s organic cultivation methods that are hundreds of years old. The mighty peppercorn’s benefits in improving digestion and promoting intestinal health are also well documented. And like Champagne, Kampot pepper benefits from a protected geographical indication to safeguard its special attributes.

We want to learn as much as we can about pepper and there’s no better place than Kochi to do that. We met with a man who is locally known as the “King of Spices” yesterday and learned about freeze drying the famed green Malabar peppercorn. The international spice conference will be held in Goa in a few weeks and we plan to attend. The experience is spicing up our trip and our lives.

We’ll have more to say about spices in later posts. Stay tuned.

KERALITE MISCELLANY

We moved to a three-bedroom flat in Ernakulam a week ago. We’re on the top floor of a building overlooking the Kochi naval yards. From our balcony in the morning we watch white breasted sea eagles (wingspan up to 2.2m) rising beside us on updrafts. Big navy ships head out to the Arabian Sea past the Chinese fishing nets and cargo ships unload their containers in the harbor. It’s amazing to watch.

We’ve befriended our host and a bunch of her peers. They’re smart, generous, cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial and fun. They’ve given us a glimpse into the opportunities and lifestyle of this exciting group.

Here are some random shots beginning with treatments for thump sucking and mouth breathing that are available around the corner from our place. Something for everyone here.

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Che’s iconic photo has made it to the back of rickshaws. Salamat, is Tagalog for thank you. It also means welcome in Arabic cultures. Not clear why it seems to be written in blood in this case.

 

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Beautiful colors here. These powders are available in the local market. Mix with water and start painting.

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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.