When my son Leo brought home the game Spice Navigator from his classroom a few years ago, I was excited. On a board printed with an antiquated map of Europe, Asia and Africa, we would race our merchant ships in and out of key ports, identifying and earning required spices by smell alone. Leo was big on strategy but I had a culinary-school advantage – this was a game I could finally win. Um, not quite. Once we started sniffing, I was stunned to find I couldn't tell the cardamom from the coriander. My foodie background didn't help a bit – Leo was victorious and I was left wondering if I needed to head back to chef school.
According to Philippe de Vienne, owner of Montreal's Épices de Cru in Jean Talon Market, I shouldn't feel too badly. Spices produced in bulk quantities are often distant cousins to what he considers the real thing, lacking intensity, freshness and even purity. Spices contain volatile oils that begin to dissipate as soon as they're ground but that's not the only problem. "Ground spices can be stretched and falsified in various ways. For example, the oil of a spice like pepper may be extracted and used commercially, and the meal that's left was once seen fit only for animal feed or mulch," de Vienne explains. "But now that flavourless meal may be blended back into ground pepper for bulk." Other cheats involve cutting spices with rice, flour or corn, blending an expensive spice with a cheap one, or mixing herbs like oregano with chopped olive leaves (not toxic but flavourless). Needless to say, none of these shortcuts is noted on the label.
Because of the risk of sketchy quality in mass-produced spices, the options for high-end, carefully sourced and traceable product have become numerous – and more interesting. Like good coffee or wine, good spices have intense, layered aromas and complex flavours that speak to their origin. Whether it's vanilla from Madagascar or turmeric from Mumbai, when the spice is right, it can change the character of an entire dish, which is why serious home cooks are seeking out the highest quality.
Ethnic markets used to be one of the few places to find such spices, says Calgary's Colin Leach, who co-owns The Silk Road Spice Merchant with his wife, Kelci Hind. Appreciating the quality but craving a broader selection, Leach left a career in marketing to open Silk Road three years ago. "We did our research and started by bringing in a pound of every single spice we could find," he says. He's noticed both an increase in demand and level of awareness in his customers. "I don't consider it a niche market at all. Good cinnamon is for everyone," he says. Similar boutiques are popping up in Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax, where a few bucks more buy a different level of product and, often, blends created in-house with a keen sense of flavour and geography.
In Montreal, de Vienne and his partner Ethné sell spices and herbs they've sourced personally from growers and small companies. "We were caterers and we used to bring back spices from our travels in Mexico, India, Morocco," says de Vienne. "We once brought home 25 kilograms of oregano from Greece in our suitcase. We'd gone to the island of Chios and realized the terroir there was exceptional." With friends and chefs buying up whatever they sold, the couple realized they could turn their passion into a full-time business that focuses mainly on whole spices and authentic blends. "One of our best came into being in the Kashgar market in central Asia, where Marco Polo himself traded goods." A mix of Indian, Chinese and Persian spices, the aptly named Silk Road blend is a chunky mix de Vienne recommends you grind yourself in an electric coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
While some blends are created with extreme attention to authenticity, other are dreamed up with an almost artistic sense of mystery and possibility. Lior Lev Sercarz toasts, grinds and mixes over 120 different spices to create his heady combinations. Anyone can walk into La Boîte, his shop in midtown Manhattan, and pick up a jar of Mishmish Spice Blend N.33 (honey, lemon and saffron) or Ana N.36 (sumac, rose petals and toasted sesame seeds), but Lev Sercarz also creates private concoctions for chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud. The first 20 years of his career were spent cooking in Israel, France and New York, but now Lev Sercarz considers himself a spice therapist, using fragrance and flavour to evoke a sense of place, a memory or even an emotion.
If it all sounds a bit highfalutin, consider Lev Sercarz's dead-simple instructions: "Play around and see what happens when you add spices to foods you're used to eating every day; snacks, raw vegetables, sliced fruit." Well, okay. The sun is coming up as I sit here writing, and it's time for breakfast. I slice a fresh peach and sprinkle half with Mishmish, the other with Ana. The Mishmish peach is yummy, with the lemon and honey flavours bringing out its sweetness, and the saffron adding exotic complexity. But tasting the Ana peach is a different experience altogether. One bite and something more transportive and ephemeral takes place: I'm in a souk in Jerusalem, the last place I tasted tart, earthy sumac, floral rose and nutty sesame all together.
Not sure what to do with a spice blend? "We have a trick," says Philippe de Vienne of Épices de Cru in Montreal. "Smell the spices with your eyes closed. If you think it smells like a dish or flavour you like, it will be good in that dish. Trust your nose. It will never lie to you." Here are seven intriguing blends to try this summer.
- Key Ingredients: Szechuan pepper, cardamom, rose petals, Indian spices
- Tasting notes: floral, sweet, hot and pungent
- Try it on: seared duck or chicken
- Épices de Cru, 7070 Henri-Julien, C-6, Montreal, 514-739-7071, spicetrekkers.com
- Key ingredients: cumin, cardamom, chili, lemongrass
- Tasting notes: earthy, hot, savoury, piquant
- Try it on: Indonesian kebabs (satay) or in curries
- Épices de Cru
- Key ingredients: Yunnan chili, black cardamom, Sichuan peppercorns
- Tasting notes: aromatic and very hot
- Try it in: salad, dips and sauces
- Épices de Cru
- Key ingredients: fleur de sel, fennel, orange
- Tasting notes: salty, citrusy and herbal
- Try it on: grilled or oven-roasted fish or grilled eggplant
- La Boîte, 724 11th Ave, New York, 212-247-4407; laboiteny.com
- Key ingredients: lemon, honey, saffron
- Tasting notes: sweet, citric and herbal
- Try it on: sliced fruit, dessert or in a cocktail
- La Boîte
- Key ingredients: urfa biber, fenugreek, smoked paprika
- Tasting notes: smoky, earthy and acidic, with a touch of heat
- Try it on: grilled steaks or lamb chops with Greek yogurt sauce
- La Boîte
West African Citrus Spice
- Key ingredients: mustard, paprika, nutmeg, ginger, chili and orange peel
- Tasting notes: medium hot, citrusy, sweet and slightly sharp
- Try it on: roasted potatoes, pork chops or in stews
- The Silk Road Spice Merchant, 1403A 9th Ave. S.E. Calgary, 403-261-1955; silkroadspices.ca