The (abbreviated) History of Spice
Today we might not think much of the tri-colour peppercorns languishing in our peppermills, but they were once highly valued. Known in the spice world as the “king of spices,” pepper dominated the history of the spice trade for centuries. According to Padma Lakshi’s Spice and Herbs, at one time pepper was even worth its weight in gold.
While its origins are hazy, pepper is most likely native to India, dating all the way back to 1000 BC. Pepper and other spices like cinnamon and cassia were traded on the Silk Road, a large network of trade routes connecting China and east Asia with the Middle East and Europe. By the time they reached medieval Europe, spices had become a commodity of the wealthy. Peppercorns, in particular, was used to pay taxes and some landlords even accepted “peppercorn rent.”
Spices, of course, weren’t only used for cooking. In Egypt, spices like caraway, coriander and peppermint were used as medical treatments. In China, cloves were used to freshen breath and ginger to prevent scurvy.
And while we no longer pay taxes in peppercorns (although that might be fun for a change), spices remain a valuable window into the world.
Local Spice Merchants
We’re lucky to have a number of outstanding locally-owned spice shops here in Calgary. We spoke with three of them to get a better understanding of their passion for spice.
The Spice Merchant
After visiting over 120 countries and collecting a wealth of spices along the way, Stephen Gollan, founder of The Spice Merchant and author of the popular travel blog Uncharted Backpacker, knows one thing for sure: every spice comes with a story. Thirteen years ago, in search of ways to fund his passion for travel, Stephen began selling some of the spice blends he had learned to make in India. Now, with a growing business as a spice merchant and a parallel career as a travel photographer, Stephen has made it his goal to bring back the flavour of each area he visits.
“Spice connects us to the world around us,” says Stephen. “And I pride myself on personally getting to know every single farmer that produces my spice. On my most recent trip in September of this year, I visited six countries: Georgia, Greece, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. In Georgia, as we headed up to the town of Ushguli via a remote mountain road, I noticed a baba mixing a blend of spice right on her front porch. I could smell it before we even turned the corner. I asked her if she would teach me how to make her blend, a spice mix passed down to her from four generations. We agreed to name it Ushguli to represent her village.”
Stephen grinds all his blends in Calgary. And if you’re lucky enough to catch him between trips, be sure to ask about the stories behind these spices. You won’t regret it.
Purchase in-store at the Crossroads Market (1235 26th Ave. S.E., Fri-Sun 9-5 p.m.) or online at thespicemerchant.ca. And you can follow Stephen’s global adventures on Instagram @unchartedbackpacker.
The Silk Road Spice Merchant
In 2008, after the birth of their daughter and a lot of home cooking, husband-and-wife duo Colin Leach and Kelci Hind were surprised to find a lack of speciality shops nearby that treated spices with the same care and respect as coffee and tea. So, they decided to start their own.
“We converted our garage to a workspace and spent evenings and weekends planning our business, developing blends and building our website,” says Colin. “In 2009, we opened online and followed that up a few months later with a stall at the Calgary Farmers’ Market.” It wasn’t long before they expanded with stand-alone shops in Calgary and Edmonton.
Whether it’s long pepper from Indonesia or fennel pollen from California, the team at Silk Road knows their product. In addition to a wide range of single spices, they also feature a variety of blends.
Purchase in person at their Inglewood shop (1403A 9th Ave. S.E.) or online at silkroadspices.ca.
Cold Grind Organic
Hot off the set of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Calgarians Kushan and Princey Bharthi are set to take the spice industry by storm. Their company sells 100 per cent organic spices that are grown, harvested, sun-dried and blended in India and then cold-ground, a rare process that helps retain the essential oils in the spices, resulting in an elevated spice experience.
“Our turmerics are brighter, our cinnamon smells cleaner and our curry is out of this world,” says Kushan. “We wanted to bring something creative to the spice space.” They source all their spices from India and are constantly seeking farmers with a high level of care for their product.
In addition to their popular Indian spice blends, Cold Grind Organic also carries a variety of other options including a steak spice and an everything bagel seasoning. If you’re wondering if they landed a deal with one of the Dragons, the answer is yes.
Purchase in Sobeys, Safeway and Superstore locations.
- Store your spices away from air, light, heat and moisture
- Buy whole and grind fresh when you can
- Experiment! Don’t be afraid to play with spice and combine flavours
- Don’t buy your spice with one use in mind. Be adventurous!
- Grind spices together and experiment with new combinations
- Use spice blends often – this simplifies cooking without compromising on taste