North Bay couple brings fresh, high-quality spices from all over the world to creative Wine Country foodies by Diane Peterson
The spice trade has become a long way since 2000 B.C., when pepper India was carried along the Silk Road to the Middle East or across the ocean on ships. Because these spices traveled for so long, and changed hands so many times, prices could soar to 40 times what they cost at the source. It's no wonder the precious peppercorn became a symbol of wealth and powder in ancient Rome.
East-forward to 21st-century Wine Country, where Shuli and Ronit Madmone have launched a small but growing business, Whole Spice, out of a small warehouse on Petaluma's east side
Unlike the ancient of the trade, technology has made it much easier-and more affordable-for these modern merchants to deliver aromatic spices to savvy foodies across the land.
Through importers, the couple source high-quality spices from all over the world, then grind them fresh and send them out almost immediately. The spices arrive at a local kitchen the same day or reach the East Coast in just a few days.
"We only grind a little at a time. That way it's always fresh," Shuli explained. "Spices have their own languange...They have a story to tell." Step inside the Whole Spice warehouse, and your nostrils will be flooded with the intoxicating aromas of some 300 spices, 50 spice blends, herbs and teas, piled high in burlap bags and boxes against the walls.
It's a veritable "Arabian Nights" of spice - cinnamon and allspice, cumin and coriander, feunugreek and paprika-waiting to reach the peak of flavor in the savory stocks and stews, dips and desserts of some of Wine Country's finest resturants, from Meadowood in St. Helena to Cuvee in Napa.
A large, chrome grinder powered by a 40-horsepower motor sits at the back of the warehouse, next to a row of smaller grinders used exclusively for peppercorns and small seeds. The Madmones specialize in custom spice blends that reflect the authentic flavors of world cuisines.
"If we need to create a curry, we get the recipe directly from a Japanese chef or an Indian family, and we test it with a local chef," Shuli said. "So we totally respect every culture."
Spice has always been in Shuli's blood. His mother, a native of Yemen on the Arabian Pennisula, has been in the spice business 40 years.
After his parents settled in the Negev desert in southern Israel, his mother started growing her own herbs and vegetables on 30-acre farm and launched her own spice business, The Spice House.
"My mom was fed up with the quality of spices in Israel," he said. "And she felt there was a market for it."
After his serving obligatory three years in the Israeli military, Shuli came to the United States and worked in the landscaping and computer industries. But he always had a dream of starting his own business, based on his mother's formula of high-quality, fresh ground spices.
Meanwhile, he met his future wife, Ronit, seven years ago in San Rafael. Her parents came from Morocco; she grew up outside of Tel Aviv.
"Spices are a world that I was familiar with," Ronit said. "In Morocco, we cook with cumin, cinnamon, paprika and saffron.
In 2000, the couple launched Whole Spice, selling direct to customers at farmers markets throughout the North Bay.
" We bought a small grinder, " Ronit said. "Then we started going door to door, to grocery stores and resturants, from Healdsburg to Santa Cruz." About a year ago, Oxbow Public Market founder and CEO Steve Carlin invited the company to join the new artisan marketplace in downtown Napa.
At their Oxbow store-open for three months now-the spice merchants are able to educate the public through hands-on demonstrations.
"One sniff, and they get it," said Shuli. "We are teaching a lot, but we're also learning from people as much as we teach." Ronit develops recipes for some of the more exotic spice blends, such as the African curry, the garam masala and ras el hanout, a mixture used in couscous and other Moroccan dishes.
Some of the blends hail from Yemen: zahtar, a mixture of thyme, sesame seeds and salt; hawaj, a curry-like blend of turmeric, black pepper, onion, cumin, cardamon and clove; and zhug, a mix of chile, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt, cardamon, clove and cilantro.
Tony Najiola, chef/owner of Central Market in Petaluma, is an avid Whole Spice customer, starting with the black peppercorns, coriander seed, fennel seed, and chiles that serve as the backbone of his cooking.
"If you make stock with bones, vegetables and meat, it's nice," he said. "But as soon as you add all those aromatic spices to it, it gives it all these different nuances."
Najiola also experiments with more obscure spices, such as the black nigella seeds he uses on his cornmeal crackers.
"Nigella is a black caraway...The black caraways are not as pungent," he said. "It makes a very nice garnish."
Recently Najiola has been playing around with smoked paprika, made from grounded sweet red pepper pods that have been ground. The Spanish spice adds a kick to a simple but delicious soup he marks with onions, potato and water.
At the Santa Rosa Junior College culinary arts program, director Michael Salinger has started ordering all his spices and herbs from Whole Spice because he appreciates the optimum freshness and flavor.
"Spices have a very short shelf life," he said. "All the volatile oils go away and sometimes they can go rancid."
A bonus for homecooks is that Whole Spice sells small quantities, which are hard to find elsewhere. "Spices can be very expensive, especially when you buy a whole jar and you only need a little bit," Salinger said. "I would rather buy just what I need."
In their spare time, the Madmones enjoy developing new dishes and serving them to friends at their Novato home.
"At the end of the day, we bring people together, singing and dancing," Shuli said. "You spread the love."
Like the spices themselves, these recipes are available on their Web site and through Oxbow Market, eventually migrating to adventurous kitchens across the globe.