Scents from exotic lands [Exotic Tastes, Ecological Sensibility]

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My jar of pepper

Its that time of year again when we are bombarded with the message to buy, buy, buy every time we set foot near a store. I was going to write a slightly condescending post about the excesses of Christmas, filled with dodgy statistics like: if we cut back on wrapping three presents would save enough wrapping paper to cover 45,000 hockey rinks, or that if everyone saved half a metre of ribbon, combined we would have enough ribbon to tie a bow around the planet.

I started this post, but ran out of steam, besides I like wrapped presents with ribbons and can choose recyclable/reusable options. In addition to gifts, wrapped or not, the time of year is upon us when decadent treats come out. I assume everyone has traditional foods that with one whiff conjure up memories of celebrations with family and friends. For me spiced sweet baked goods do the trick, like: traditional fruit cake soaked in rum, buttery shortbread, gingerbread so dark one can almost see the molasses and steamed plum pudding (I have English roots). Each has flavours originating far from where the recipe was invented.

This is also the time of year people start planning escapes from our cold northern climate to warm, exotic lands. I regularly dream of traveling to exotic lands, but my student budget keeps me home, saving me from the conundrum of travel and a desire for ecological sustainability. As an alternative to travel to exotic lands, what about bringing bits of these worlds home? Spices – desiccated plant parts that provide a punch of flavour and scent that can dredge up memories of holidays past. They are light and long lasting, making them great candidates for long distance travel, the opposite of stuffing someone like me into a trans-oceanic flight where the experience of the holiday is fleeting. Instead of shipping myself to exotic lands, I bring exotic flavours to my house.

I love spicy food. My pantry is full of tastes my ancestors may have only heard of (I’m from a long line of ordinary folks) cumin, cardamon, star anise, fenugreek and more. In a corner, I have a jar containing enough peppercorns to make myself wealthy back in medieval times. Black pepper went from being a luxury item for kingly feasts and found in ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s tombs to being ubiquitous – found in paper packages along side its salty partner in fast food joints everywhere. I’ve progressed to fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate but I have no idea where my pepper (or the rest of my spices) came from, nor the human cost of its production.

Recently, I watched a documentary about black pepper from Cambodia. The documentary centred around pepper from Kampot, along the country’s southern coast, and this region has grown pepper since the 13th century. Kampot has the right combination of rich soil and climate for this tropical vine to thrive and produce a unique tasting spice. In the documentary, the gangly British chef/host and his pretty sidekick visited a family pepper farm. In the 1970’s, under Khmer Rouge policies, the pepper was ripped up because it was a luxury crop, and replaced by rice paddies with forced labour. After the human horrors ended, this family (and I assume others in the area) went back and replanted their pepper. The work on the pepper farm was manual, the vines needed tending and the green peppercorns needed to be plucked from the vines. The green pepper was spread out on large screened drying racks and stirred every few hours. Once, the green orbs turned black and wrinkly it was packaged and shipped away. The farming process looked equivalent to growing grapes for wine – seasonally physical work. Assuming, they could get a fair price for their pepper, this family operation looked like something I’m willing to support.

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