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Crazy for cardamom: Israeli couple build business selling freshly ground spices

Shuli Madmone’s childhood memories are infused into every ounce of cardamom, coriander and cinnamon he grinds. Growing up in Israel’s Negev, he and his family “would grind spices in little quantities so we could use them within just two days, no more,” Madmone said. “People always wondered, ‘What are you doing? Why are you always doing this?’ ”

That practice is the foundation of Madmone’s Whole Spice, a retail website and store he founded in 2000.

“The philosophy of our company is to buy the freshest product possible and grind it on a weekly basis so it’s always fresh,” Madmone said.

Madmone, 45, started Whole Spice with his wife, Ronit. Their warehouse is in Petaluma, their retail store in Napa and their home in Novato.

(David H. Collier) Ronit Madmone

Together, the husband-and-wife team offer customers nearly 350 herbs, spices, spice blends, salts and teas from 20 countries worldwide, amounting to about 100,000 pounds of herbs and spices annually. All are kosher-certified.
“Most of our herbs come from California and Israel, which are known to be pretty much number one in quality,” Madmone said. “But you have to buy spices from where the climate and elevation makes them the best, so many of our spices come from Malaysia, India and South America.”

Madmone’s family still lives on Moshav Peduim, where they work on the farm where Madmone grew up caring for berry fields and citrus trees.

He moved to the Bay Area 23 years ago to improve his English and to explore a new country and culture. When he realized he wanted to stay, he started a landscaping and gardening company.

But still, he was “always dreaming about the spices,” Madmone said. “I just decided to go for it in 2000.”

Whole Spice has doubled its inventory since its founding. Every year, Madmone learns about a new spice and requests samples to ensure he’s offering the best and most flavorful options to customers, including several hundred restaurants in the Bay Area alone.

Ronit and Shuli Madmone grinding spices

“I would go to the end of the world to carry a spice,” he said. “It’s a passion … The culture of spices is fascinating, the vitality is just beautiful. I could go on forever.”
This passion motivates him to know as much as he can about herbs and spices.

For instance, he’s learned that “the amount of chilies in the world is endless,” he said. Whole Spice carries 35 kinds, “and we’re not even touching all of the options,” he added. His chilies are available dried in the pod and ground into powder. They come from Morocco, Thailand, China, Mexico and California, to name a few.

Through Whole Spice, he’s also learned that many of the herbs and spices he carries have medicinal properties that can prevent disease and heal illness. At Shabbat dinners in his Novato home, he loves sharing such knowledge with his guests.

“There are lots of different kinds of cinnamon, and one, Ceylon, can regulate your blood sugar and also has anti-inflammatory properties,” Madmone said.

He goes on: Turmeric can heal wounds, ginger has relaxing properties and fenugreek is a natural laxative and regulates the stomach’s acidity.

Fenugreek seeds also can help a woman through labor; since his wife is nine months pregnant, Madmone recently made capsules with freshly ground fenugreek seeds “so that before she goes into [full] labor I can give her some, and it should really make the labor way easier.”

The baby will be Ronit and Shuli’s third child. Though they’re working and raising a family in the United States, Madmone’s work still connects him to Israel.

“I remember myself on my dad’s lap on the tractor,” he said. “We worked on the farm and we always felt proud about it. The whole idea about Israel is that we built the country through study and work, and in that sense, it gave me the discipline of working.

“And because I also studied agriculture in school, I appreciate what it takes to bring good, quality products to the table. Fresh, fresh, fresh — more than anything else.”

Whole Spice is located at the Oxbow Public Market, 610 First St., Napa, (707) 256-0700. Online at http://www.wholespice.com.