In February of last year, Montreal spice sellers Ethné and Philippe de Vienne sat down to dinner with their long-time suppliers in Colombo. They had just arrived from an industry congress in India; they were tired and looking for cinnamon. During the past few years, their trips to war-torn Sri Lanka had been a struggle to get in or out, and recently the country's political mood had heated up. Their hosts had their cook prepare something hot and comforting, a traditional mutton dish cooked in a type of coconut milk curry. The de Viennes had never tasted anything like it. Sweet and creamy, the curry had next to no colour - just a pale caramel tint.
"Everybody for some reason thinks curry is turmeric-coloured, orange, yellow or deep red," says Ms. de Vienne, co-owner of Épices de Cru, the beloved spice shop in the Jean-Talon Market of Montreal. "It has nothing to do with that. It's a blend of spices." They wooed the cook into revealing her secret blend. Last October, the de Viennes started selling Sri Lankan white curry ($9 for 35g tin), a mix that includes cinnamon, cardamom, pandan leaves and cloves.
It's a treasured find for the de Viennes, two spice hunters who have been tracking down rare and location-specific flavours for almost 30 years: the hottest of hot peppers, the rarest Chinese cardamom. Many of their finds come through tips from local sources, and have brought them to city centres and remote villages, from India to Mexico and all through the Caribbean. For imperial-grade pepper, they've braved landslides in the Sichuan province of China and have been interrogated by crooked cops in Indonesia. Compared with such escapades, their white curry is a more easygoing find, but no less dear to Ms. de Vienne, who believes that spices are overlooked in discussions about quality ingredients. Often, she says, they're the building blocks of great cuisines.
In the white curry, "we're using exceptional cinnamon as opposed to what most people would use: cassia," something often sold in North America as ruddy bark. Its fragrant, sharp sweetness works well with almost any meat. And if boiled into a syrup, it can be used in desserts such as cookies and ice cream. But, "if you're looking for heat," Ms. de Vienne points out, "you've got to add that yourself."
Épices de Cru, 7070 rue Henri-Julien, Units C-6 and C-11, Montreal, 514-739-7071, epicesdecru.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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