Inside the paprika-colored kitchen cupboards in Shuli and Ronit Madmone's Novato home are the secret weapons of cooks without borders: porcini mushroom powder, chipotle honey rub, Turkish baharat, Yemeni zhug, Moroccan ras el hanout, even Tex-Mex taco seasoning. A nosy visitor can only marvel at the culinary adventure this stash represents.
More exotic spices jostle for space on a wall-mounted rack near the stove, and an enormous bag of cayenne pepper sits in the hallway, en route to a chef.
"I hate when Ronit brings spices home," Shuli complains. "We need separation."The Madmones, who are husband and wife, run Whole Spice, a wholesale and retail purveyor of seasonings from around the globe. At their Petaluma warehouse, they grind whole spices to order and create blends for restaurants such as San Francisco's Aziza and Napa's Ubuntu and package private-label seasonings for Williams-Sonoma. Their shop in Napa's Oxbow Public Market caters to the Wine Country's adventurous home cooks. With an inventory that includes rarely seen blends like vadouvan and Egyptian mecalef, they are rapidly expanding the Bay Area's spice vocabulary.
"Everything we have - the kids' lunch boxes, our car, our clothes - is contaminated with spice," admits Shuli, who began the business a decade ago. "People tend to sneeze around me."
An ideal combination
Shuli grew up in a haze of scent, the son of paprika growers and spice merchants in Israel. His parents, born in Yemen, helped establish an Israeli moshav - a cooperative agricultural settlement. That's where they grew sweet peppers for paprika, and later opened a spice shop to supply the immigrant Moroccan, Indian, Russian and Ethiopian Jews who had settled in the area. Shuli worked in the shop from an early age, helping grind and blend the wares.
Twenty years ago, he followed an American girlfriend to Marin County. The relationship soured, but he stayed, eventually opening a landscaping business. He and Ronit, an Israeli of Moroccan heritage, met more than a decade ago, in the early stages of Whole Spice. She was working as an au pair in Fairfax and had the marketing instincts he lacked.
"She's a go-getter kind of woman, and she thought, 'Why is he not doing this, or that?' " Shuli recalls. "She made it take off."
Ronit signed them up for stalls at Bay Area farmers' markets, where the couple learned more about how Americans cook. They discovered that their packages were far too big - few Americans use spices as lavishly as Shuli's and Ronit's mothers do - and that customers wanted ready-made blends.
"We didn't understand that in the beginning," Ronit says, "because back home they don't use blends. My mom and his mom would just put all the spices out on the counter and throw them in in the proportion they liked." The couple also knew little about American regional cooking and had no clue how to fill requests for items like jerk seasoning or Cajun spice rub.
But they read, researched and sought input from experts and natives. From a farmers' market customer, a former soldier who had done a long tour in Afghanistan, they learned how to blend black pepper, cumin, turmeric, cardamom and coriander for a savory Afghan-style meat rub. An elderly Egyptian woman who thought their mecalef - a fragrant blend of sweet spices and dried rosebuds - wasn't right gave them her recipe, which they now use instead.
Today they purchase spices from 60 to 70 suppliers, including specialists who may sell only one item. Ronit creates some of the blends, Shuli devises others, but the final recipe requires mutual consent.
"If one of us objects, it means we can do better," Shuli says.
Influence of world events
Demand can spike when a TV chef or an acclaimed restaurant popularizes a seasoning, as Ubuntu did for vadouvan, an Indian-inspired blend that includes dried shallots, fenugreek and cumin. The Madmones, who have three young sons and a budget that rarely permits fine dining, went with friends to Ubuntu, ordered the signature cauliflower with vadouvan, and announced to their tablemates, "Nobody touch it. This is for us."
After scrutinizing the seasoning, they created their own version and "sold a ton of it," Shuli says.
While chef whims can put a spice in the spotlight, world events and natural disasters can quickly push it off the stage.
A single storm in Guatemala can ruin a large share of the global cardamom crop, sending prices soaring overnight. Several years ago, bad weather in Madagascar caused vanilla bean prices to spike from $20 to $400 a pound. The Madmones' supply of a fiercely hot Indian chile dried up when the Indian government decided to use the capsicum in tear gas.
"We always know something has happened when the phone starts ringing and it's the big companies wanting to buy whatever stock we have," Shuli says. "The market can flip in a day."
At home, Shuli commands the kitchen, and his multicourse Friday night dinners routinely draw crowds. "For Shabbat, you have to treat yourself like a king," says the merchant, a trim, olive-skinned man with dimples and a nearly perpetual grin. Shuli engages strangers easily, and anyone interesting who crosses his path during the week will probably get a Friday-night invitation.
"Shuli will say, 'You won't believe the great guy I met at the fish market today,' and he'll invite him, his wife and three kids for dinner," Ronit says. "One time we had the UPS guy and the FedEx guy."
Sherry Stolar, a wine marketer in Napa, recently attended her second Sabbath dinner at the Madmones'.
"The day I met him, he invited me to dinner," recalls Stolar, who first encountered Shuli in his Napa shop. She was preparing dinner for her boyfriend that night and had picked up some groceries at the neighboring produce market. When she showed the spice merchant her purchases and asked his advice about the meal, he concocted some custom spice blends for her on the spot. Then he learned she was Jewish, had visited Israel, and had no plans for the upcoming Sabbath.
Relinquishing the fish
Stolar brought her boyfriend, Napa winemaker Ryan Moreland, to the second dinner. Longtime friends of the Madmones from San Francisco showed up, too, with their three youngsters.
Ronit made couscous topped with yogurt for the kids while Shuli, oblivious to the shrieks of the young playmates all around him, made Yemeni-style flatbread with flax seeds and nigella seeds, roasted eggplant salad with tahini, fattoush (a chopped vegetable salad) seasoned with sumac and za'atar, a dried fava bean puree seasoned with a Yemeni spice mixture called hawaj, and Persian rice pilaf with dried dill and a potato crust.
A self-confident cook with a competitive streak, Shuli did eventually relinquish one part of the menu.
"I have come to the conclusion that you will do a better job on the fish," he announced to his wife, who did not protest. Her Moroccan-style fish, a popular Sabbath recipe in Israel involving sweet peppers, cilantro and harissa, was a highlight of the meal.
"This is what pisses me off," says Shuli, watching Ronit stir tomato paste into the skillet. "By my theory, you should not use tomato paste, yet her fish is better."
'Spices make us feel at home'
Adults and youngsters squeezed around the Madmones' extended dining table for a meal that began with Hebrew songs and the ritual blessing of the bread and the wine. This hospitable couple could probably create a community around any enterprise, but their Napa spice shop seems to prompt strangers to let down their guard. He and Ronit have puzzled over it.
"Spices make us feel at home," Shuli theorizes. "You never forget a smell. In the store sometimes, customers tell us pretty intimate stories, and I think, 'Why are you telling me that?' "
Anecdotal evidence abounds that spices can heal wounds (Shuli swears by turmeric), cure ailments and invigorate one's love life. But as the Madmones are discovering, spices have a rarely mentioned magnetism - a power to stir emotions and bridge differences. The culinary value of spices is beyond dispute, but their other merits await more research.
Whole Spice, 610 First St., No. 13 (in Oxbow Public Market), Napa; (707) 256-0700 or www.wholespice.com. Open daily.
-- Recipes and tips on H5-H6
Some seasonings worth a sample
Shuli and Ronit Madmone believe these seasonings deserve a wider audience:
Harissa: Use in rubs for meat, poultry or fish; in egg salad, hummus, tomato sauce or vegetable stews.
Hawaj: Resembling pumpkin pie spice, this sweet blend (there's also a savory version) is added to brewed coffee and tea in Yemen. Use also as a baking spice.
Lavender sugar: Sprinkle on butter cookies before baking.
Matcha: Powdered green tea. Flavor panna cotta with it (Shuli makes a soy-milk flan) or sprinkle matcha salt on eggs.
Mecalef: A blend of black pepper, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, rosebuds and clove. Add to tomato sauce for braising chicken, lamb or vegetables.
Methi: Fenugreek leaves. Add to warm coconut-milk sauces or yogurt sauces at the end of cooking.
Shichimi togarashi: Japanese spice blend (sometimes called "seven spice") includes two kinds of chiles, roasted sesame seeds, roasted seaweed, orange peel, brown sugar and salt. Sprinkle on stir-fried tofu, spinach or asparagus.
Turmeric: Used often in curries and always in Indian lentil dal to make the legumes more digestible. Frying the turmeric in oil until it turns golden brown minimizes its bitterness, Ronit says.
Zhug: A Yemeni spice blend that includes chiles, garlic, coriander, cumin, cardamom, clove and cilantro. Sprinkle on eggplant salad, flatbread, soup or feta.