Gerard Vives, photographed in Paris last spring, sells 19 varieties of extraordinary
peppercorns to the top chefs of Paris--and to you, if you know where to shop.
In Paris last spring I finally had breakfast with Gerard Vives,
I’d been on his trail for over a year. Or maybe five. That’s when I first ran across his peppercorns at Maison Izrael. Izrael is Paris’s most venerable spice shop, stuffed to the rafters with dusty packets, jars and bottles, and that wintry Friday afternoon rue Francois-Miron was thronged with weekend chefs, stocking up on hard-to-get ingredients. (One kitten-heeled woman asked for Mazola as if it were the rarest huile d’argan.) The place was mobbed and how my eyes ever lighted upon the slim box inscribed Le Comptoir des Poivres I’ll never know.
I opened the lid. Inside were nine glass vials of Les Grandes Poivres D’Asie--black, white and green peppercorns, as well as cubebs and long pepper—from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Turning my back to the harried clerk, I broke the seal on a tube of Tellicherry peppercorns and inhaled. The dark, rich, pungent aroma was intoxicating, so fresh that I could smell the sun and the earth from half a world away.
Les Grandes Poivres D'Asie--the Great Peppers of Asia--include nine types of
vibrantly aromatic peppercorns from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
There was a booklet of recipes from a chef named Gerard Vives. I was so busy reading about fois gras with balsamic vinegar and freshly ground Sarawak creamy white peppercorns that I scarcely noticed that I was also handing over a big wad of pre-Euro 100-franc notes for this culinary treasure chest.
Flash forward a few years: One of SpiceLines’ first posts was a review of Parameswaran’s extraordinary white peppercorns, grown on India's Wynad plateau. Almost instantly I received a congratulatory email from Gerard Vives with links to his own websites: www.lescomptoirdespoivres.com and www.gerardvives.com. Both were a revelation: the first offered a tantalizing glimpse into the aromas and flavors of exotic peppercorns. The other revealed the soul of an articulate cook, passionate and opinionated about every nuance of his cuisine. For the second time, I was smitten.
This is how Vives writes about pepper: “Small, crumpled” Madagascar black peppercorns are “aromatic with notes of brioche, pine-nuts and marshmallow balanced by fresh notes of acid-green fruit….” Malabar mg1 from India is “the ancestor of all peppers…a very fine bouquet of woody and fruity aromas, warm on palate with musk, smoke and burnt wood… “
You could chalk such descriptions up to the pervasive creep of wine-speak, but I sensed that something else was going on—a sort of wild intoxication, a sensuous, almost delirious appreciation for pepper that is uncommon, perhaps even in France.
Vives is the renaissance man of the spice world. He describes himself equally as a gastronome and a chercheur des epices, or spice hunter. As I wrote in another post, he has thought long and hard about the differences between peppercorns from Sarawak, Muntok, Lampong and other ports of call, and how they might be used in recipes that coax their individual aromas and flavors to the fore. To find the most exquisite peppercorns and other spices for chefs like Pierre Herme, Michel Troisgros and Heston Blumenthal, he's spent much of the last decade traveling to Asia. Back in Fourcalquier in Haut Provence, he ran an atelier and part-time restaurant, Le Lapin Tant Pis, as much an experimental cooking laboratory and classroom as it was the venue for delicious meals.
Vives closed Le Lapin at the end of 2007 and is now planning his grand dream: a Spice Academy in Marseilles, which will teach everyone about the pleasures of taste. He has two books due out in 2008: Le Grand Livre des Poivres, which is all about pepper and how to cook with different varieties, and La Cuisine Chic Sans Fric, which he describes as a book of recipes “ludique et militant” [playful and vigilant], a reference to his belief that cooking should be fun but also utterly scrupulous about ingredients. Last month he was involved in a conference on spices and the wines of the Rhone. Then there are the TV appearances, lectures and consulting gigs across Europe.
The morning Vives came to my Paris hotel, he created a stir. Broad-beamed, clad in black, with a shaved head and a truculent brow, he has the look of a man you’d want watching your back if, say, you found yourself trapped in a back alley on the waterfront in Marseilles. His blond, long-legged wife, Karine, came along too. It would not be inaccurate to say that they were both sleepy-eyed and desperate for coffee.
Vives was in Paris to give a pepper presentation at the Salon d’Agriculture. When he handed me a thick manila envelope, I thought it held press releases. Instead it contained 19 vials of peppercorns in a rainbow of colors. There were genuine rarities: Voastsipifery or poivre sauvage from the rainforest in Madagascar, true red peppercorns or poivre rouge from Pondicherry, and the deeply perfumed maniguette or meleguetta pepper from Africa. But there were also seven types of black peppercorns, four of white and one green, each with a distinctively different aroma and vibrant flavor—testament to the fact that there is much more to pepper than the insipid supermarket product.
Among the 19 vials of peppercorns Vives brought to our meeting were true red
peppercorns, or poivre rouge from Pondicherry in India. They are so hard to dry
that they are almost unobtainable in Europe or America.
The following conversation took place that morning and in subsequent emails.
You say you are a self-taught cook. What drew you to the world of food?
It’s a question of passion. I started cooking to give pleasure and love to my friends…and later to my customers at Le Lapin Tant Pis…customers became friends and friends became customers.
What did you do before you started cooking?
No comment. I was without interests. My job was too serious.
Did your family influence you?
It was the biggest influence. I’m from an Italian family, born in Marseilles, and went straight from my mother’s breast to spaghetti.
What led you to spices?
Spice equal life in the kitchen plus exoticism and travel.
I was cooking and it was hard to find good spices in Europe. I left France for India and Indonesia. Vasco da Gama did the same in 1498--I’m sorry I’m too young to be the first. I didn’t want to be a spice trader, so I met people like a journalist and asked a lot of questions.
What happened on that first trip?
I found a lot of good pepper especially in Indonesia. Lampung black peppercorns, Muntok white peppercorns, long pepper. The quality of the spices was wonderful. I sent samples to chefs like Olivier Roellinger.
Later I started Le Comptoir des Poivres to bring the finest peppercorns from Asia back to France.
What makes you go so far to buy pepper?
It’s the only way to find the best. Most spices in Europe and the U.S. are too old. By the time they get to the customer they have been stored in warehouses, maybe for years. They have no taste, no flavor, no aroma. They are dead.
You will never find the best spices in the supermarket. It’s like wine. There are thousands and thousands of bottles of wine in the supermarket, but never the best. It’s the same for spices.
How do you assure the high quality of pepper and other spices you buy?
I buy small quantities direct from growers or from small wholesalers who have very fresh spices. I pay the price without bargaining and always look for the very best quality. They are shipped to France by air. There’s no middleman. They are not irradiated or treated with chemicals.
Terroir makes a big difference, and also the way it is processed. Pepper must be fresh, full of aroma, with the taste of the place it is grown. In Cambodia, it is hard to find good pepper. It is too dry, too old. It has strength, but no flowers. India has wonderful pepper—Tellicherry, Malabar, Pondicherry--but it is difficult to buy because it is grown by small farmers. I get it from a small wholesaler who has very high specifications. Vietnam is number one in terms of quantity. They harvest two or three times a year. Sometimes the pepper is very good, sometimes not. It’s like grapes. Sometimes there is good and bad pepper on the same vine.
In your search for pepper, have you found anything truly rare?
I was the first to sell wild pepper or Voastsiperifery, poivre sauvage or, as it’s sometimes called, poivre bourbonnaise. Three years ago a man in Madagascar told me about it, but he said, “We don’t sell it because it grows in the rain forest and we use it for medicine and for cooking.”
I tried it and it was fantastic. I wanted to sell it in Europe, but it was very difficult. In the rainforest people use it very fresh. It would be impossible to import. The first harvest was one ton. There was so much humidity that after we dried it, there were only 100 kilos.
All the famous chefs wanted this pepper as soon as they tasted it.
How do you use poivre sauvage?
It’s fantastic with fois gras, with different kinds of fish, chicken or pork. It smells like lemon. You can make a cocktail of mandarin orange sorbet with champagne and a touch of wild pepper.
Is it hard to be a small pepper specialist?
Of course. That’s why I’m the only one.
Why not get bigger?
You’re asking an artist why he is not a business man.
Who else do you work with?
I like to invent new ways to use pepper and other spices. I’ve been working with an ice cream maker in Pisa, developing new flavors. One spice, one fruit. Cherries and green cardamom, avocado and vanilla, lentils and tonka beans.
Fausto Giardini, the famous lardo maker in Colonnata is using my peppercorns to make two kinds of lardo.
[Here, Karine interjects: Tell her about Fausto. It’s a good story]
Ok, tell me.
I was visiting Fausto for the first time. We had a mutual friend. We went down to his cellar. There was a big marble box of fat with spices and herbs. It stayed there for one year. The quality was amazing. The fat was incredible-tasting.
In another room there were 200-year-old marble boxes of lardo. He makes it for a lot of famous chefs in Italy. One wants it with capers, others want different flavors.
He said to me,”I found a fantastic pepper.” We went into his office. There was a safe there with a lot of complicated locks. He opened it and took out some boxes of pepper. It was my pepper!
If you had a dream, what would it be?
To sleep, because I’m very tired. It’s a joke, of course.
I don’t know if this is a dream or a utopia: that people become less crazy and eat good food in the right season and that they would choose food of the best quality. That’s what I want.
Note: Gerard Vives shared several of his recipes with SpiceLines: One Perfect Egg with Herbs, White Peppercorns and Honey-Balsamic Vinegar Syrup, Vanilla Oil, and Lentil Salad with Vanilla and Orange Zest.
You can read more about his adventures and recipes on his blog.