As you may remember, I recently returned from a ‘fact-finding’ visit to Cambodia and Vietnam, which was one of the most enjoyable and fascinating trips I have made in recent years. However I was so busy when I got back that for the last month I have barely had time to turn round, never mind reflect on my adventure! In the last week or so things have calmed down and I have been able to think about what I saw and learned, so this month’s newsletter is heavily focussed on sharing this with you. I brought back the spices required to make two of the most popular recipes of Cambodia, Amok and Lok Lak, which are included here along with possibly the most popular Vietnamese dish today, Pho. Spice of the month is Kampot Peppercorns, which have an interesting history behind them and are very much the ‘New Kid on the Block’ in the world of pepper. I visited a couple of plantations while in the area, and was thrilled to see just how organic and natural the production process is! And this month’s main feature is a perfect day’s worth of special memories I thought would be nice to share.

Also this month (next week actually) we have Easter to celebrate – I don’t know about you, but I always look forward to a nice Hot Cross bun, liberally dosed with mixed spice, or even better the Greek Easter bread Tsoureki, which is flavoured with mastic and mahlab. Whatever you enjoy to eat at Easter, I hope yours is happy and peaceful, and that after the dreadful weather we’ve been having is at least blessed with some sunshine!

Finally, Spice Mountain is about to get bigger and better – we will soon be moving into our new premises at Borough Market, literally just around the corner from our present site (which we will remember fondly but have just outgrown). I’m really excited about this, as it will allow me to offer you even more exotic and tasty spice treats. By the next time I write, we should be there – until then, take care!

Magali

Spice of the Month

Kampot Peppercorns
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Kampot is an area on the southern coast of Cambodia, and it is here that some of the world’s most delicious pepper is cultivated. Kampot pepper was first grown in the 13thcentury and became popular during French rule, so much so that during the 19th century it was known as the King of Pepper, and was used in classic French cookery. However the terrible events of the 1970s wiped out pretty much all production of the fruit. Happily though, as the country has recovered from its
troubles, so the cultivation of pepper has increased again. It is now the favourite way for Cambodians to add heat to their food, which tends not to be so chilli-hot as for example Thai.

Kampot pepper was the first Cambodian product to receive Protected Geographical Indication (the process whereby a product has to come from a certain region, such as Champagne or Stilton cheese), and its cultivation is totally organic, with no manufactured insecticides or pesticides used anywhere. In fact, the pest control method used in its production is totally natural – barriers or hedges of lemon grass are grown around the plantations, and lemon grass and neem are used as pesticides (along with guano harvested from nearby caves which have many bats living there). As the vines are very sensitive to strong sunlight, ‘canopies’ of dried palm fronds are built over them for protection against the sun’s rays. The care and attention paid to the growing of this pepper produces a rare product, with strong floral notes and a slightly sweet flavour. One of Kampot pepper’s most notable features is how the taste lingers on the palate for much longer than most pepper. These factors ensure that Kampot pepper has a position on pepper’s ‘top table’ along with Wynad from India and Penja from Cameroon, and it is perfect for use in most dishes or as a luxurious table condiment.

Recipies

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Amok

Amok is a traditional Khmer dish, not a million miles away from a Thai red curry but with its own unique and distinctive character.

Read Recipe

Click here to buy Cambodian Amok Spice

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Lok Lak

One of the most popular dishes in Cambodia is this delicious stir fry, spicy and vibrant, which is easy to make and always a winner!

Read Recipe

Click here to buy Cambodian Lok Lak

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Pho

Pho is ubiquitous in Vietnam, and this tasty, aromatic and fortifying soup now is as popular in Sydney, Paris and London!

Read Recipe

Click here to buy Vietnamese Pho

What I Did On My Holidays

ss58sWhen I’ve had fifteen minutes or so to spare lately (which hasn’t been often!) I like to flick through my memories of Cambodia and construct the perfect day. This is what it would look like..

I wake before dawn to go to Angkor Wat and watch the sun rise over that ancient place, the first rays searching over the surrounding jungle and then illuminating the ruins which are impossible really to describe in words.. suffice to say it was one of the most spiritually rewarding things I have ever done, and really made me think about our place in the great scheme of things. And still every time I remember it, I count myself so lucky to have had the chance to experience it!
While spices are prized for both their flavour and health-giving properties, another aspect which has been recognised for centuries is that many have further qualities which are aphrodisiac! This knowledge goes right back into history as part of the Ayurvedic way of life, and certain spices are noted in many of literature’s most passionate tomes. With Valentine’s Day falling this month, here we focus on a Sexy Sextet of spices which will help give that perfect lift to your love life, both on the special day and throughout the year.

Later in the morning a visit to a local market, where I spend a couple of hours wandering around exploring. It always amazes me how intrinsically similar markets are, wherever they are in the world. Having said that, this one is full of things that even I have never seen before. What particularly delights me is the variety of herbs used in this part of the world – a few are familiar, such as mint, Thai basil, coriander, lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves, but there are many which are so local they don’t even have English names! Spices include turmeric, galangal, ginger and of course Kampot peppercorns. All of the produce here is so fresh, and I spend a moment just breathing in the wonderful aromas. Possibly the strongest is that of prahok (shrimp paste), which is used very widely in Cambodian cooking.

Lunch is one of the best meals I have ever had – crab, cooked with young garlic and with lots of fresh green Kampot pepper. It is one of those things that tastes totally of where it is from, and is something it would be impossible to recreate at home, as fresh Kampot is not exported. Sticky fingers all round, and so delicious!
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The afternoon is spent taking a tour of one of the Kampot pepper plantations. It is great to see how ‘artisan’ the production methods are, how genuinely organic, ensuring the pepper is of the finest quality. A great deal of love and attention is given to these vines, and it shows. I’m particularly taken by how the vines are protected from the hot sun, by a canopy of dried palm fronds. That’s thinking ahead! Also the hedges of lemon grass which are natural pest barriers.

In the evening, a boat trip along the mighty Mekong River, the stretch of water which is the lifeblood of Cambodia, where freshwater fish is the most commonly eaten protein. The sun I watched rise over the isolation of Angkor Wat sets over a river bustling with traffic at the day’s end.

And for the end to my perfect day, another market, this time a night-time street food one. I wander along and see what’s on offer – satay sizzling away, its peanut sauce ready to be poured over; woks with lok lak frying, that lovely fresh Kampot pepper smell again; fried rice cooked with Chinese sausage and plenty of garlic; numb ban chok, noodles in a fish-based green curry soup, one of Cambodia’s favourite dishes; it’s so difficult to choose! In the end I’m greedy and have both the satay and the lok lak, one as tasty as the other. A real Cambodian supper to end a dreamy Cambodian day..

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did! Now, I must get on, these spices aren’t going to pack themselves…

SPICE MOUNTAIN A-Z

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India -Famous as the birthplace of curry, but is actually home to a myriad of cooking styles and flavours, all of which feature spices to some degree.

Ikan Bilis – One of Indonesia’s most popular dishes, fish cooked in a spicy, fragrant marinade including fish sauce and plenty of chillis.

Idli – A type of pancake similar to a dosa, but made with rice flour rather than gram. Very popular in South India and Sri Lanka, usually served with a sambar (lentil soup) to dip it in.

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Jalfrezi – One of the most popular restaurant curries today, Jalfrezi is a wonderful blend of hot, sour and sweet which is cooked more quickly than most curries so has a fresh, vibrant character. Available online or instore.

Jollof – The most famous of West African dishes, Jollof is rice seasoned with a blend of spices including lots of Scotch Bonnet chilli.

Jerk – There can be few who do not love this hot, herby and zingy method of cooking from the Caribbean, best enjoyed at a sunny Summer BBQ. Available online or instore.