On the outside Whole Spice is one more unremarkable modern warehouse on a strip mall in Petaluma.
But inside the small room, the atmosphere evokes the mysterious world of an ancient caravansary: bins and barrels of exotic spices, dark red paprika, golden tumeric, green methi leaves (what are methi leaves?) and the mingled scents of cardamon, nutmeg and cumin. You almost expect to see camels laden with treasures from the East.
Whole Spice will have another setting soon. Since 2000, Ronit and Shuli Madmone have operated this online, mail-order business from their warehouse, selling hundreds of herbs and freshly ground spices, which they’ve sourced from around the world. Come fall, they’ll be opening a retail shop in the Oxbow Marketplace, which is under construction on First Street adjacent to Copia. The Marketplace will be home to a collection of vendors as well as a daily farmers markets. It’s scheduled to open at the beginning of December.
The couple, both natives of Israel, brings a world of experience to their endeavor. Shuli grew up in the Negev desert, in a village settled by 100 families who came from Yemen in 1946. They took on the challenge of farming in a desert, and in addition to growing vegetables and raising dairy cows, Shuli’s parents started growing and producing a high-quality paprika. It was so successful, they opened a spice shop, which today is run by Shuli’s older brother.
“It’s our dream to copy this,” said Ronit, who grew up in Netanya, a Israeli city on the coast. Her family had come from Morocco.
The couple met not in Israel, however, but in Marin County, where each had come after serving their required time in the Israeli army. “I wanted a little fun,” Ronit said.
She was looking for a roommate, preferably one who spoke Hebrew since she didn’t speak much English, and someone gave her the name of an Israeli man. “I contacted Shuli,” she said. “We didn’t become roommates, not right away, but we did start dating.”
Their spice business is a growing endeavor as they continue to find sources for the more than 300 herbs and spices they now sell online. Their goal is to provide the freshest quality at affordable prices, and to find as many organic products as possible. Right now their inventory includes everything from sage and saffron to hibiscus flower and Ajwan seeds. More unusual items like rosebuds, blue poppy seeds and pomegranate seeds are listed, along with traditional spices like oregano, thyme and vanilla bean pods pods. For each spice they carry, the Web site includes information and often recipes.
The Madmones draw on the rich heritage of their families for their blends and recipes. “I am always asking them for their recipes,” Ronit said.
A specialty is their custom blends. A glance over their Web site shows intriguing blends like the Afghan rib rub, Moroccan meatball mix, a soup base blend and an Ethiopian spice mix, with recipes for possible uses. One of the most fascinating is Zhug, a fiery hot blend from Yemen, made from chile tiagin, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt, cardamon, clove and cilantro. “It complements almost any dish, from salads to fish, meat or soups,” Ronit said. It also can be used sparingly as a garnish for hummus and other dips.
They also create blends for customers. Ronit laughed as she recounted the story of a Florida woman who contacted them because she had run out of her favorite fish seasoning and couldn’t find more of it. They set out to recreate it for her, based on the woman’s memory, and by the time they had gotten all the ingredients right, they had seven pounds of the spicy blend. “She was worried she’d have to buy it all,” Shuli said, but they didn’t require her to take it all. The blend is one of the items now on their Web site, the Key West blend.
The third member of this family enterprise is their 16-month-old son, Maor, which means “source of light,” in Hebrew. The toddler is growing up with spices, Ronit said. “He uses whole nutmeg as toys to roll around.”
To demonstrate some of their favorite family recipes, the couple hosted a dinner at their Novato home, where they prepared couscous from Ronit’s Moroccan recipe. Couscous, a form of pasta, is served throughout Middle Eastern countries in many variations. Vegetables, and meats are cooked separately to be served with the couscous. Ronit’s version was vegetarian, with a richly seasoned vegetable stew, served atop the couscous, which she prepared in the traditional way by rolling the grains of pasta between her hands, after sprinkling it with a mix of water, lemon juice and olive oil. By this method, the grains are steamed and rolled three times before they’re served. The result is a fluffy, light grain, entirely delicious, but couscous can also be prepared according to directions on a box (it’s sold at most supermarkets including Trader Joe’s and Vallerga’s) and fluffed with a fork.
While the vegetables were stewing separately, Shuli prepared another family dish, hummus, a dip made of garbanzo beans seasoned with cumin, lemon juice and garlic, and blended with tahini paste, which is also available in local groceries stores. Served with warm pita bread, the dip vanished in short order. Clearly a talented presence in the kitchen, he also produced a second appetizer, thin strips of peppers, seasoned with lemon, and another family specialty, a salad made from roasted peppers. They also served a grilled salmon seasoned with the Key West blend of spices inspired by the lady from Florida. For dessert? Watermelon. “You have to know how to choose them,” Shuli commented as the guests polished off the melon. With the meal, we drank a sauvignon blanc and a dry rosé.
The Madmones are hoping to relocate to Napa, but first they want launch their Napa shop. “One thing at a time,” Shuli said.
The Web site for Whole Spice is www.wholespice.com.