“We travel the world looking for whole spices, authentic recipes and traditional spice blends. That’s really our mantra,” Marika de Vienne told me recently about her family’s spice business, Epices de Cru. “We go to different countries and start in the markets. We look at what everyday people are eating. Cultural gastronomy often happens through restaurants. But we look at what people are cooking at home.”
At Zingerman’s, we haven’t historically done a ton of work with retailing spices over the years, but, to be honest, the Epices de Cru shop in Montreal is everything I would imagine a Zingerman’s spice shop might be if we had one. Three years ago last summer I had the pleasure of visiting. The staff was engaged. The energy was excellent. The aromas were amazing. Everyone was talking spices, smelling spices, sharing stories of what one could cook with them; people were smiling, laughing but still taking their food very seriously.
Perhaps most exciting of all, was listening to the staff tell the story of where each spice came from, the region, the town, often the family that grew it.
“We know many of the growers personally,” Marika explained. “We buy directly from growers, local traditional traders, coops, and then we have trained, trusted, local agents to do the buying for us in some places. We select them all personally and we have NEVER, ever bought from brokers. Our vision is that one day we can pinpoint where all our spices are sourced.”
When customers asked a question, staffers would open a tin or jar so that their client could smell the spices. But they didn’t stop there—they would scoop a bit of whatever it was the customer was curious about into a mortar and pestle and grind it up right then and there. Which means that customers were experiencing the spices in their full potency—just ground, when all their essential and volatile oils were at their highest.
What about already ground spices?
When I asked if they sell any ground spices, Marika exclaimed, “No! It’s against our mission. A lot of ground spices are cut with flour, powdered brick, or ground up rice, etc. We want people to see what we haven’t really altered the product in any way. Spices are delicate things. As soon as you grind them the flavor will fly away. If we ground them they would only last 6 months, even in our containers which protect the spices from light and humidity. Because we’re buying really special crops we want them to be able to last as long as possible. What’s the point of traveling across the planet and then grinding it up and letting all those valuable oils get lost. It just seems like a crime.”
If you’re worried about grinding this at home let me assure you that there’s really nothing difficult about it in the least. The hardest thing is getting a mortar and pestle if you don’t have one. Marika recommends using a marble one. All you do is drop the seed into the mortar and do some quick wrist work with the pestle—it takes less than sixty seconds. The aroma will come up almost immediately when you start grinding. It really couldn’t be easier.