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Not all spices are created equal. the challenge is finding them. PHOTO BY GENTL + HYERS

‘When we tried to cook the spices that we got at grocery stores, things were off, the flavour, the aroma, the colour, and we thought we were doing something off’

By Natalie JesionkaFor 35 years, Ethné and Phillipe de Vienne have travelled the world as spice traders, visiting farmers and rural communities to seek out rich and exotic flavourings, sampling iguana mole in Mexico or melons along the Silk Road in western China.The pair own Épices de Cru, a 300-variety spice shop in Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market. “We are students of good spices, of travel and geography and history,” says Ethné de Vienne.

They are also pioneers of independent spice sourcing, a new generation of spice traders who work directly with farms, pay the farmers fairly, and cut out traditional middlemen. And it is disrupting the $11 billion global spice business.

For the de Vienne’s, independent spice sourcing is a business, but it’s also about acknowledging the people and communities that grow spices, and the knowledge and traditions behind them. The five-time authors say spices should be understood at the same level of detail as vintage wines, with factors such as geography, soil and micro-climates contributing to quality and variation.

The de Viennes dismiss most supermarket spice offerings, noting a 2018 Canadian Food Inspection Agency report that found one-third of spices in Canada are spiked with fillers such as sawdust in ground pepper, and flour in turmeric.“Canadians would do well to use their noses in an effort to recognize and determine the good, or too often the downright godawful spices that are made available to them,” said Ethné de Vienne.

Ethné and Phillipe De Vienne. PHOTO BY COURTESY OF ÉPICES DE CRU

Võ Ngọc Dũng, 25, is a pepper farmer in Da Lak, Vietnam, who harvests organic Ea Sar Black Pepper, a local species that has tasting notes of dried fruit. Along with his co-op partner, Vuong Huu Thanh, Dũng also grows coffee, avocado, and banana on their eight acres. He says black pepper is prone to disease and growing it organically is especially difficult. He and Thanh uses nitrogen-reducing plants and trees to support the pepper vines.

Black peppercorns grow like grapes, bunched on climbing vines, and harvest requires hand collection from ladders.

Dũng is partnering with Ethan Frisch, co-founder of Burlap and Barrel, a New York fair-trade importer. Frisch is transparent with his farmers about the premium prices paid for spices in North America. Burlap and Barrel sells 60 grams of Dũng’s Ea Sa Pepper for $9, and Purple Peppercorns are $13.

Globally, pepper prices are at some of their lowest in a decade, as Southeast Asian pepper saturates the pepper market. Dũng hopes to differentiate his organic crop from others in Vietnam, who use chemicals and pesticides for maximum yield. This year, Frisch purchased his entire Purple Peppercorn harvest from Dũng.

Frisch pays farmers up to six times the fair trade price for spices. He says from harvest to jar, his spices can arrive in as little as six weeks to three months, meaning maximum freshness. A study of spice supply chains in India found some commercial spices can take as long as 10 years from harvest to reach the consumer.

It’s increasingly rare for people across the world to be full-time farmers anymore

The commercial spice supply chain is broken, Frisch contends, with stockpiling and large corporations taking advantage of price fluctuations.

“If you’re trying to figure out whether you can trust that a spice company is actually sourcing directly from farmers, ask them to tell you the names of some of their partner-farmers. If they can’t name them, they probably don’t know who they are,” says Frisch. Since 2016, Frisch and his co-founder Ori Zohar have paid over $1 million direct to family farmers.

Mohammad Salehi was a farmer once, and a military linguist before he became the CEO of Heray Spice, an organic saffron company in Chicago encouraging Afghan farmers to raise saffron instead of opium poppies. Afghanistan is the third-largest producer of saffron and has some of the best quality in the world.

Saffron commands some of the highest spices for any spice, with average global prices ranging from $5,000 to $8,000 a kilogram. Salehi’s family farmed saffron for generations, so when he encountered the poor quality of saffron in North America after his move to Chicago, he started selling his family’s product to restaurant chefs.

Heray Spice contracts 28 Afghan farmers who clean and process the saffron, which must be meticulously plucked from blossoms. He pays the farmers around $4,500 per kilo, triple their average prices. Because of its value, saffron is especially prone to adulteration – the addition of other substances which lower its quality. Salehi says buyers should beware since a lot of saffron sold in North America is mixed with dyed corn silk.“The cornsilk or fake saffron is hued with food coloring, and has a chemical-type smell,” he says. “To find out, you need to put the fake saffron in boiled water and wait for a few minutes. The fake saffron will dissolve and lose its colour.” Corn silk turns white, and other adulterants run orange and taste like tobacco, while the real stuff will stay red, have a golden hue and smell woody and sweet.

Sana Javeri Kadri on a turmeric farm. PHOTO BY GENTL + HYERS

Spices are a forgotten category and don’t get the same scrutiny that other supply-chain industries, like clothing, seafood, and produce receive, says

Shawn Mcdonald, executive director of Verite, an Amherst, Mass., non-profit that works to eliminate labour abuses in corporate supply chains.

He says that an expectation for transparency should be higher than simple feel-good imagery when it comes to analyzing agricultural supply chains.

“It’s increasingly rare for people across the world to be full-time farmers anymore, and so arrangements for meeting labour needs are getting even more complicated,” says McDonald. The challenges are made worse by the reliance of farmers worldwide on piece-rate and quota production and payments systems, which facilitate and conceal abuses.

Sana Javeri Kadri says seasonal farmworkers are the vulnerable link in the spice supply chain. She is CEO of Diaspora and Co, a single-origin California spice company that sources turmeric, peppercorns and cardamom from small farms across India. Around 90 per cent of the farm labourers are women, and receive around 300 rupees ($5.19) per day.She ensures her partner farmers pay 500 ($8.65) to their workers, and that they get paid immediately. Kadri offers loans to build spice processing facilities on their farms so they can keep workers employed, and this year she is making sure 350 workers on her partner farms get quality health care. Many of them have never been to a doctor.“We give them health care to build a long-term, deeply invested relationship,” says Kadri. She has partnered with the Lona Project, an organization that issues small grants and access to capital for women, to pilot a health-care model that offers comprehensive health check ups, preventative care, and immediate care for those that need it.

Women of Diaspora and Co. PHOTO BY GENTL + HYERS

The Mumbai native prints harvest and mill dates on her spices. Five ounces of Pragati turmeric from Prabhu Kasaraneni’s third-generation organic farm in Andhra Pradesh retails for $13. “We know spices are freshest for the first 18 months,” said Kadri. Although her supply was disrupted the first five months of the pandemic, business has grown five-fold, and she will be doubling her spice selection in the coming year.

For Nadee Bandaranayake cooking red lentils and pol sambola, a Sri Lankan chili-coconut relish, with spices purchased in Canada just wasn’t the same as at home.

“When we tried to cook the spices that we got at grocery stores, things were off, the flavour, the aroma, the colour, and we thought we were doing something off. Our immigrant friends talk of many experiences like this. They talk of forgoing a crucial spice for a particular dish because what they found in the store was just really bad.”

Bandaranayake launched Cinnamon Tree Organics with her husband when she moved from Calgary to Maryland. She now imports cinnamon, moringa, and roasted and unroasted curry powders. “When we visited Sri Lanka, and we were introduced to these spice farmers and bought spices from them and started cooking, we noticed the difference right away.”

Bandaranayake wants North Americans to be fearless in their use of spices. She encourages creative ideas such as using turmeric in macaroni and cheese. She hopes that sourcing from small farmers, and sharing spices from her home country with consumers inspires people to understand Sri Lankan food and culture.

Natalie Jesionka is Fellow in Global Journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

Source: Spices of life: A new breed of spice traders are bringing exotic, authentic flavours to North American palates | National Post