“I’M sure it’s here somewhere,” said my friend, gazing hopelessly at a dog-eared map. We were looking for the pepper shop, a shop my friend had told me about so often, and now here we were, or rather, weren’t. “It must have closed down,” she said resignedly. We are all resigned to our favourite small shops closing these days – here for years, gone in the blink of an eye, to be replaced by yet another shop selling inessential knick-knacks.
“Let’s just ask in here.” Luckily she picked the fishmonger’s. We had quartered St Malo, fuelled by coffee and a lust for spices, and the fishmonger, sympathetically aware of our dwindling energy, almost led us to it, and there it was, its narrow doorway emitting a heady fragrance of every spice you could think of. Epices Roellinger, 12 rue St Vincent.
I was expecting an old establishment, cobwebbed and shabby. Instead the smart orange colour scheme revealed that this is a chic boutique for designer spices. Apart from the huge range of peppercorns, Roellinger stock a wardrobe of vanilla pods,16 of them, from Mexican Chinantla (pour parfumer les fruit pochés – imagine what this can do for stewed rhubarb), to that from Ile de Tahaa in Tahiti (reine des parfums). There are flavoured oils, of course, and chutneys (but we can do better). This being salt country, there was the local fleur de sel de Guérande (which I bought more cheaply and in much larger bags from the supermarket), plus flavoured versions. However, it was for the pepper I had come. We had stood by patiently while the husbands had loaded the car with wine, now it was our turn; we pointed out smugly that our cargo was going to take up far less room but half an hour into our pepper tutorial I realised that weight for weight, they were going to get the better part of the bargain.
Roellinger’s range of rare peppers includes those from Malabar and Karimunda, Panniyoor (specially for red meat and lamb), Cambodia (red pepper from here is particularly recommended for desserts as it smells of caramel and vanilla), Sri Lanka. By the time I had equipped myself with their special offer of 40g of each of six different peppers for the price of what felt like 12, plus two types of white pepper for my son-in-law, I had parted with a considerable amount of money.
Back home, I arranged the small (very small) jars in my spice cupboard. These were going to have to last a long time, so they must be stored in the dark. I bought a new smart acrylic pepper mill so that I could see just how many peppercorns I would need for each expensive application. A grind or two over a trio of scallops of the Karimunda (mango fragrance, especially for fresh cheeses and fish), or even less of the very rare Neelamundi for my cream of cauliflower soup, and try to concentrate so that you don’t get the elegant Cambodian black muddled up with the Vietnam black (for sun-dried tomatoes and mayonnaise to serve with lobster).
Two months from this momentous brush with the spice routes of the French colonies I am still trying to convince myself that I can tell my Malabar from my Madagascar.
But it did open my taste buds to a very much more interesting series of flavour sensations than that given by the ubiquitous chilli. I decided that that isn’t a spice, merely a ferocious vegetable, that dulls your palate to everything else. The small black peppercorns, drawn along the spice routes of the world, are as precious and individual as they were when wars were fought over them. You don’t have to go to them, just a quick trip across the Channel will take you on a magic carpet of exoticism. You can even enrol on a course of Cuisine Corsaire – pirate cookery? I might give it a go.
Check out the website: www.epices-roellinger.com