We had a visit recently from Helen Best-Shaw of FussFreeFlavours, who is a lovely lady – other bloggers welcome. She asked many interesting questions and one of them got me thinking and that was why are we so interested in spices. It certainly is not the money as I think we are successfully proving that there are no fortunes to be made in spices anymore.
But what it is, I think, is the sheer complexity of them. Spices, herbs and salts are the essence of cuisine that takes food away from being the source of the raw materials of life into cooking, i.e. something that is human, cultural, social and learned rather than just a bunch of proteins, carbohydrates and fats etc.
Spices, herbs and salt have the key things that make food truly great and tickle the senses:
- Aroma – smell
- Flavour – taste
- Heat – temperature
- Colour – sight
- Texture – touch
- Context – knowledge
For me, context is one of the key things that our spices can give you. They create a story of where the cuisine has come from – Britain, Thailand, Japan or India, for example – and a sense of our life story and what we have learnt through our travels and experiences, from other people (whether in cookbooks, websites, from mum or the TV) and through experimentation. They offer a leitmotif to our world. Context tells us whether they are organic or not, whether the people who grew them have been fairly treated or exploited, creating a depth and connection back to farmers who have toiled to bring us these gems of flavour.
When I blend a spice, all these things get wrapped up into the experience. For example, today I made some ras al-hanut. It takes an age to weigh out all the ingredients and then mix them up, all of which we do all by hand. I use a unique recipe that includes 22 ingredients and took about 3 weeks and many years to perfect. It harks back to when we started Steenbergs in 2004, so has context for me as I remember really struggling with the blend, but it also has context as it is based on the Moroccan blend – ras el hanout - which is the master blend of the spice merchants in traditional bazaars across North Africa and into the Levant. It connects Steenbergs back to other spice merchants and we have been indulgent, like you should, as this is not a blend to scrape and pinch like an accountant for bits of profit here and there, it is a thing of character and blend of excellence designed to show off our prowess and balances the flavours, aromas and colours of a stupidly wide selection of spices from a ridiculously wide geographic range of countries.
So we have - galangal from Vietnam; cassia and cubeb pepper from Indonesia; ginger and turmeric from India; cardamom from Sri Lanka; orris root from Italy; paprika and saffron from Spain; black cardamom from Pakistan; dill seed from Turkey; roses from Iran; bay, caraway and fennel from Turkey; and allspice from Guatemala – all of which are blended by hand in rural North Yorkshire. We can travel the world with our flavours and ingredients. Then there are the chromatics of the smells, flavours and colours that are carefully balanced to sing together in harmony and create something that has a bottomless depth of gorgeous sensation that is deliciously exotic – much better than each individually and full of pure intensity. For a little flair, we add some texture by including whole dill seeds and deep purple rose petals that add an extra dimension to a blend of powders. Then there are the colours from the exuberant deep purple of the damask roses, the mute yellow of turmeric, the blacks and browns of black cardamom, cassia, galangal, cubebs, the greens of cardamom and bay and the reds of paprika and saffron. All these heats and flavours and colours meld seamlessly into a flavour bomb of depth and intensity that I just love to blend up.
Or we can enjoy something perhaps more mundane like our garam masala, where you can enjoy the flavour mix as well as its context. The recipe is based on a Punjabi recipe that has been tweaked here in North Yorkshire, then has the context of being organic and Fairtrade, so you get kit that tastes fantastic, is good for the environment and has great social welfare attributes.
And it is not just about blends of spices and herbs, but we also go that extra mile for customers, searching out variety within individual spices. There is a vast range of peppers, from the basic black peppercorns and white peppercorns through to speciality black pepper like the TGSEB we get from friends in Northern Kerala, the Wayanad Social Service Society and the more unusual peppers like cubeb pepper, long pepper and Madagascan wild pepper. Or you could try some of the ersatz peppers, such as grains of paradise (Melagueta pepper), allspice (Jamaican pepper), Moor pepper or our vast range of chillies, that includes the mega-hot Naga Jolokia.
But I am particularly proud of Steenbergs vanilla. As a standard, we have delicious, fragrant, succulent and sensual Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar. It is organic and Fairtrade, and we use these for the base of our organic Fairtrade vanilla extract as well. Then there is variety with vanilla from Congo that has tobacco notes to it, from Tahiti that is more floral and succulent than that of Madagascar. I just love the vanilla. Then there is the context of these that are grown with so much patience and effort by lovely rural communities in Northern Madagascar, for example around Mananara.
For me, what becomes more amazing as time goes by is the sense of community effort that goes into these small gems that are spices and herbs. I am not really meaning the work that we do at Steenbergs, but rather the culture, the social structures, the economies and the people that go into growing that extra special vanilla or that amazing peppercorn. It is they that are the true heroes and heroines and we should salute them by indulging ourselves to enjoy what they have spent time and effort creating, yet they have so little. That for me is what I mean by context and that community effort gives Steenbergs that little bit more to it than just a rigid focus on the mechanics and standards of quality and value as demanded by those faceless high street and big brand corporations.