04 Jun A Brief History Of The Spice Trade And 9 Direct To Consumer Spice Companies
By far the buzziest food trend of the past two decades has been farm to table. Restaurant chefs and home cooks alike have placed a greater emphasis on where their food comes from. People want to know exactly what they’re eating.
They want to know the diet of their grass fed beef, the labor that toiled over their coffee and chocolate, the name of the farmers who deliver the peppers to market every Saturday. All of this becomes important information, a social responsibility, a hallmark of their health and wellness. Preservatives are out. Ugly produce is in.
OK, maybe we know about the chicken that laid our eggs and the pig that became our bacon but did you ever think about the bottles in your spice rack the same way? The tiny pepper flakes that you sprinkle on your eggs and the rub that is all over your pork, where did they come from?
There’s beauty in a transparent food system and that hasn’t happened with spices.
But that’s all starting to change….and fast. A number of direct-trade, single-origin spice companies have emerged across the country over the past few years prioritizing flavor and equity over profits. These companies are travelling to spice farms throughout the world finding ambitious farmers growing a superior product and paying them as much as 10X more than the commodity market. They’re creating a fitting extension of farm to table.
HISTORY OF THE SPICE TRADE
The spice trade began thousands of years ago and relied on a system of opacity to retain its value. Global monopolies arose around secrecy. Arabian traders supplied the Roman Empire with cassia (a type of cinnamon) but told them fanciful myths to suppress their questions: to find cinnamon you must steal it from the nest of a giant bird….that sort of thing.
The 15th century saw two critical European voyages: Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas and Vasca de Gama sailed around the tip of Africa. Both were headed for India, but only de Gama made it, arriving in what is now the coastal Indian state of Kerala. At the time it was a major trading hub for India’s abundant pepper crop.
The exchange of spices from Asia and India into Europe had flourished since Roman times and paved the way for important trade routes, but da Gama’s arrival in India marked the start of European powers’ mission to gain a direct foothold in the lucrative spice trade. This ultimately led to conquests and colonization.
The world’s major powers converged on areas that grew spices, where they struggled (often violently) over harvests, trade routes, and taxing authority. The people who lived in spice growing areas experienced exploitation and even genocide. For instance, in 1621, the Dutch East India Trading Company forced its virtual monopoly on the Indonesia spice trade by killing or deporting almost the entire native population of the Banda Islands and seizing their nutmeg.
The passion for spices spurred the beginning of the European colonial enterprise, a thrust that remade the demography, politics, culture, and economy of the world. And that’s how, from this problematic past, the global spice industry came to be worth over 20 billion dollars today.
The spice trade has changed since the imperialist days of Dutch ships crossing the globe, though it’s not as bloody anymore.
Brutality and inequality in the spice trade are still very prevalent. The spices you’re buying from the supermarket aren’t from one farm or even one region. Most likely these spices are the result of the work of hundreds, even thousands, of farmers from around the globe. Big manufacturers will collect and consolidate spices from many small farms and export a spice mixture to big countries in the west. Once imported there’s an additional, complicated process. A big importer sells to big distributors (or several) from which they will either repackage or break down the spices to sell to small distributors.
Spices can take up to three years to just get into a supermarket. And every time they change hands prices go up and quality goes down. Good and bad quality spices get mixed together and there’s a lot of opportunity for adulteration, which is frequently found in supermarket spices.
The origins of venture capital can be traced to the spice trade. Coalitions of Dutch merchants invested into a ship that was going to sail to Indonesia, fill up with spices, and sail back. Very literally, a venture. And then everybody would get a payout based on the profitability of that ship when it returned. In other words, the system was not built for the farmers who grew the spices, nor for the people who would consume them. Like any business, it was built for the people who would profit from that system, and the hierarchy of power kept their practices from becoming common knowledge.
The spice trade has always been dominated by those in power. Yet, the people in power are not the primary consumers of the spices, and usually not the people who really understand the culture and ancient legacy of spice. Chefs and food enthusiasts recognize that many commodity food products are harvested unsustainably and perhaps unethically. Spices are no different. Large corporations have the resources to pay many different farmers far more than a small company, but the profits placed in those farmers’ hands are lower. Plus, the taste of the commodity spice leaves much to be desired.
By the time spices become the common bottles you pick up at the supermarket, their origins have become so hard to decipher that few people bother. That ‘shadow’ over the supply chain casts a similar form over the taste of spices, so that many consumers have no idea they could be eating something that tastes so much better.
If you want the best in spices you need to buy from a company with the shortest supply chain possible. What single-origin spice companies are trying to do has already happened with coffee, tea, chocolate, produce, and meat….you know where all the stuff comes from. Part of the quality is knowing that it came straight from a farmer and knowing how it got to you. New companies are trying to do the same thing with spices. They will tell you where the spices come from: plants and seeds and nuts and fruits. They can tell you that cinnamon is tree bark and peppercorns grow on vines in bunches like grapes. They will also tell you the farmer that grew them and where they were grown. You will know where it came from, when it was harvested, and the entire path that it took from the farmer’s field all the way into your kitchen.
So if you want flavorful, fresh, high-quality spices, but also spices where the suppliers are being paid fairly, then look no further. Here are our favorite players in the spice world, all available online.
Founded in 2017, Loisa is named for the Spanglish moniker for the Lower East Side (NYC). Its two signature products are both organic. They are sazon (a classic mix of cumin, coriander, garlic, oregano, and black pepper) and adobe (garlic, turmeric, black pepper, and oregano). Other offerings include Spanish saffron, cinnamon, smoked paprika, and tumeric.
New York, New York
Besides bringing fresh spices to customers, Diaspora Co. states an intention to redistribute power away solely from the trader and instead empower its farmers, laborers, and the earth according to its website. They source more than a dozen spices from twelve farmers across six Indian states and Sri Lanka.
Our favorites include the Sannam Chillies, hand pounded with cold pressed sesame oil and rock salt to bring out a smoky, tomatoey flavor. They add so much to dishes, just experiment.
The Kandyan Cloves with undertones of pine, butterscotch, hanna, and allspice are the best cloves we have ever used.
CULINARY CULTURE CONNECTIONS
Culinary Culture Connections focuses on spices, spice mixes, and sauces produced by indigenous collectives in the Amazon. Their most popular product is Pimenta Baniwa, an intensely spicy chili and salt mix (also called Jiquitaia) made by the Baniwa indiginous community in Brazil’s Icana River Basin.
The Pimenta Baniwa is a blend of varieties of Capsicum pepper that women cultivate in remote parts of the rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco River Basins. Real heat and smokiness.
Culinary Culture Connections
The company offers a range of Nigerian and African spices, spice mixes, and flours, from tapioca to tigernut.
The most popular products include Piri Piri seasoning (a classic Portuguese-African spice mix made of three kinds of peppers, ginger, garlic, African nutmeg, and paprika), Jollof Rice Seasoning, and African Pepper Soup Mix.
Tip: Mix the Piri Piri with butter and tuck under the skin of a chicken before you roast.
North Aurora, Illinois
CINNAMON TREE ORGANICS
Cinnamon Tree offers single origin spices including Ceylon cinnamon and black peppercorns. Their cinnamon is the real stuff and is totally different from what is sold as cinnamon in U.S. supermarkets. It’s much milder, but the flavor is more complex. Their freshly dried peppercorns have a much more vivid flavor than what most U.S. consumers are used to, the natural result of single origin sourcing.
Cinnamon Tree Organics
BURLAP & BARREL
Spices from Afghanistan, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Spain, Tanzania, Turkey, Indonesia, Iceland, Nicaragua, Palestine, and Vietnam make up their roster. The standouts include a spicy, lemony black pepper from Zanzibar and a wild mountain cumin from Afghanistan. The cumin has a fruitiness, minerality, and saltiness that you’d never know you could find in cumin. Then there’s a Black Urfa chili from Turkey that’s made from peppers dried in the sun during the day and wrapped in fabric at night. The peppers oxidize, turn black, and develop incredible savory, salty flavors. They have a taste of raisins, coffee, and chocolate.
Burlap & Barrel
San Francisco, California
CURIO SPICE CO.
Curio Spice is a woman owned company with a brick and mortar store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that sells directly sourced, small batch spices. Their Japanese sansho pepper is a lemon-lime flavored pepper with a really subtle spiciness to it. It works well as a rub. It is so fresh and robust that you don’t need to use a lot. The Ethiopian beso bela (holy basil) is a fragrant, purple basil cultivated in Ethiopia, harvested by hand, sun-dried, and pulverized. Works as a marinade or rub and is a wonderful addition to stews adding a distinct delicate flavor.
Curio Spice Co.
Founded by U.S. military veterans with on the ground experience in Afghanistan, Rumi Spice’s goal is to increase the economic opportunities for Afghan farmers and agricultural workers, many of whom are women. Rumi’s premier saffron is sourced directly from Afghan farmers and will add deep flavor and beautiful color to any dish. Their wild harvested Black Cumin’s nutty flavor brings richness and earthiness to dishes. It is an intricate and aromatic spice, nothing at all like supermarket cumin.
Mala Market is a mother and daughter owned company that sources key ingredients for Sichuan cooking. The Sichuan Tribute Pepper has intense fragrance, taste, and numbing power. The Sichuan Dipping Chilies is a versatile, ready-to-eat spice blend that goes well on grilled meat, cured meats, and fried snacks.
The Mala Market
The short answer is, absolutely. Single origin spices are more complex, more intense, and more flavorful. They have been harvested at peak ripeness, are shipped swiftly and directly, and aren’t mixed with poorer quality spices.
Yes, some slightly more than supermarket brands and some substantially more. That price difference (understandably) may deter some, but remember, in that price tag the farmers will receive a living wage which incentivizes the quality of their harvest.
You can always grab a supermarket spice and it will do a job. Supermarket saffron, for example, is far better than no saffron at all. The spice industry depends on commodity markets to keep it going. If that’s what you can afford, then that’s what you should buy and it will help commodity farmers make a living.
A suggestion: Buying a few single origin spices can make an impact on overall trade and can make an impact on your overall cooking. Perhaps you’d like to splurge on the one or two spices that you use the most? Perhaps you do a lot of baking and exquisite cinnamon will take it to the next level. Remember that spices make up a small portion of your annual food budget. Splurging on a few of the most important to you may not break the bank and can have a big impact on the farmers and the industry.
These spices are so much fresher and brighter with aromas so intense that home cooks should start with half of what a recipe calls for. Look at it this way, these spices are more potent than their supermarket counterparts; they will last longer and you use less. So do they really cost more?
The spice bug is contagious. Once you try these spices you will find it hard to go back.