If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
I said that so many times as a kid, and the only thing I remember was how proud I was that I could say it without getting my tongue in a knot. I certainly didn’t ever wonder who Peter Piper was, or where his peppers ended up. And I never imagined I’d be strolling through the garden where he planted them, but recently I did.
History of spice
But first, some history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, all spices were called pepper. And the Dutch had a stranglehold monopoly on the trade in cloves and – even more so – nutmeg, because they grew on only a few tiny islands in Indonesia. It’s a perfect business model – loot and murder your way to a monopoly of a scarce resource with a huge demand, and then rake in the bucks. But nutmeg is a seed so, to preserve their monopoly, the clever Dutch “pickled” them in lime before selling them as spices so the seeds would not germinate. And that’s where the tongue twister comes in.
Peter Piper is the anglicised name of the French rogue-pirate botanist Pierre Poivre, who stole nutmeg, cloves and quite a few other spices – including what we now call pepper – from Indonesia and Asia, and smuggled them to the French Indian Ocean islands. Yes, some of his “peppers” were “pickled,” but he managed to get some that weren’t – and that’s what brought him immortality. He took some to what is now Mauritius and Réunion, but also to the Seychelles, where he planted a huge garden – the Jardin du Roi.
It’s an awesome spot. Tucked away in the mountains near Anse Royale on the south-east of Mahe, it’s close to a series of beautiful beaches – some long and sandy, and some tiny, secluded and shaded by huge trees. And, bonus, a sheltering barrier reef encloses a huge coral lagoon that is reputed to offer the very best snorkelling on the island. Certainly some of the easiest and most accessible. A narrow road follows the coast, winding through miniature settlements, tiny shops, shady coves, little roadside markets and a plethora of lovely little guesthouses and self-catering spots (and a few larny hotels of course).
It’s a short walk of about 2km from the beach to Jardin du Roi, but it’s pretty darn steep. No problem, though because once there you can recover with an ice-cold Seybrew, home-made cinnamon ice cream, or even lunch. The restaurant serves typical creole-style food flavoured with their own spices. And, best, you can take a guided or unguided walk through the garden (and even further up the hill into the rain forest if you are energetic). There are over a hundred species of interesting tropical plants but it’s not just a botanical garden. It’s a working spice farm, where they grow nutmeg, cloves and a whole lot more including two other very special spices.
Spice farming at the Jardin du Roi
Vanilla is another of those things we take for granted, but it’s quite the most mysterious and marvellous substance. Native to Central America the vanilla orchid is a frightfully finicky plant that is pollinated by only one very specialised (Central American) bee. At least that was the case until, in 1841, a 12 year-old slave boy called Edmond Albius invented (or possibly reinvented) artificial pollination, and spawned a multi-million dollar industry. That was on Île Bourbon, now Réunion, from where it spread to the other Francophone Indian Ocean islands.
The other interesting spice is cinnamon – another one of those things we take for granted. But, contrary to popular belief, cinnamon is not born dead on milk tarts. It’s the bark of a tree – and here’s the bad news. The stuff you buy in the supermarkets (and find dead on milk tarts) is not cinnamon. It’s cassia, which is very closely related. For the botanically minded, it’s the same genus, different species. But the real thing, real cinnamon, is native to Sri Lanka, and will grow almost nowhere else in the world. But it really likes the Seychelles – in fact, it grows semi-wild all over the place. Almost everyone has a tree in their back yard or a few hundred metres away on the side of the road. So they just pop out and peel off a bit of bark when they need cinnamon, or pick a few leaves to add to a curry. It’s the same family as bay leaves, although the taste is quite different.
Creole food in the Seychelles
And, naturally, spices feature strongly in all Seychellois food. I had lunch at the legendary Marie Antoinette Restaurant in the capital Victoria. It’s one of those places that epitomises the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The restaurant opened its doors in 1972, since when the menu has not changed, and it’s changed ownership once – merely being handed down to the next generation. And even the building is over 100 years old, and has also not changed much. Hey – it certainly ain’t broke, so it’s a good thing no one is fixing it. And then I discovered an interesting thing about the Seychellois. Many of the people I chatted to said they don’t cook every day, and for most of the week they buy ready-made typically Creole food from a network of tiny, inexpensive take-away shops. That’s worth knowing if you’re planning on visiting and don’t want to spend a fortune.
Buying spice in the Seychelles
I had to stock up on some vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg before flying home, so I popped in to the hectic, fun and funky Victoria Market. It’s a real market where locals go to buy food, and its only concession to tourism is that some of the spices are packaged with little postcards or pretty ribbons. But, even better, I managed to talk an accommodating taxi driver into taking me to a wholesaler where I bought two kilos of cinnamon for about the same price as a bottle of Robertsons at Pick n Pay. No cassia for me and my friends, and only fresh-ground nutmeg and pod vanilla of course. Oh dear, since I’ve come back from the Seychelles I have become a spice snob.
I guess that’s just carrying on the tradition of spice having a certain cachet – an exotic exclusiveness. And, after all, it’s a part of our history. It’s only because of spice that Europeans ever bothered to come anywhere near the Cape, and it’s as a consequence of all that skulduggery, piracy and plunder that Peter Piper peppered my pre-pubescent play-dates with precocious parlay – and alliteration.
Essential travel info for Seychelles
Air Seychelles flies from Joburg three times a week, it’s a five-hour flight, you don’t need visas and the time difference is only two hours. So, hey, you could be there tomorrow.www.airseychelles.com.
Seychelles is best known as a luxury destination where people like the Middleton/Windsors honeymoon, but if you stay on the main island, choose your accommodation carefully, eat like the locals from small take-away spots, and limit your splurge indulgences to a few carefully chosen ones – like the odd meal in a good restaurant – you can get by on something close to R1000 a day. And some of the best activities – hiking and snorkelling – are free. Most hotels and guesthouses have snorkelling gear but it’s best to take your own – or at least take your mask, and gamble on getting fins that fit.www.seychelles.travel.