Since we’re too early for check-in at Milliken Creek, we decide to stop at the Oxbow Public Market in downtown’s Oxbow District, very near the Napa River Trail.
This is where we meet Shuli and Ronit Madmone, an Israeli couple who own Whole Spice, which markets a wide variety of spices.
Their small shop greets customers with over 500 jars of fresh spices, spice blends and herbs of every conceivable kind – and a welcome note announcing: “Please feel free to open and smell the spices.”
Some of the store’s most popular items, like zhug and za’atar, are mixed with olive oil and sampled on fresh bread.
Most Whole Spice products are certified kosher.
Above one shelf, I spot two tajines – a sure sign of a Moroccan connection. The Madmones greet us this Sunday afternoon with their three young sons and, sure enough, there is a clear Moroccan connection: Ronit’s parents moved to Israel from Casablanca in 1956, settling in Netanya.
Shuli’s parents made aliya from Yemen in 1948 and helped start Moshav Peduyim in the Negev, where Shuli learned the art of growing and preparing spices at a very young age. Whole Spice clearly draws heavily on family tradition.
As Ronit recalls, her mother’s Moroccan spices gave her a “love for food and culture, and that is our inspiration.”
“When I was a young girl,” she writes on her blog, “I remember how we all looked forward to enjoying some of the most awesome desserts that my mother used to make… Sometimes she would make simple Moroccan cookies out of nuts, rose water and sugar that tasted out of this world.”
But there’s much more to the Madmones’ spice partnership than meets the eye.
“Shuli introduced me to the basic spices and a lot of medicinal spices I didn’t know before,” says Ronit, a former art student, “and I think my part was to bring the art into it.”
“So I just gave up painting,” she says, “and I started using the spices as art.”
This art manifests itself in a plethora of blendsfrom Cajun Seasoning and Couscous Mix to Chinese Five Spice (North China Style) and Pica Pica Black Bean seasoning and many more.
The Madmones also take customer suggestions for spice blends. “It keeps going,” says Ronit, “and you never stop creating.”
Whole Spice prides itself on freshness. Shuli explains, “If you come to our warehouse, you won’t see packed spices. We have an order and we fulfill it on the spot… so it’s always super fresh.”
“The goal really is to educate home cooks how to use spices,” he adds, “and to really make… customers understand that you need to check the quality of the spices the same as you check the quality of fruit every week.”
The Madmones also do a “Cooking with Spices” program at their Oxbow shop, including demonstrations of Yemenite, Moroccan and Indian cuisines. One of Shuli’s favorite demos is a Yemenite lentil bean soup, into which he adds Yemenite hawaj and Moroccan harissa, finishing it with zhug powder.
“I remember I was in high school,” he says, “in the Mikve Israel school, and we used to cross the street and go to a gas station where a Yemenite guy used to sell us soup – a lentil bean soup. It was delicious, so I try to imitate it.”