“A crocodile lurks on an antique Chinese cabinet, perfuming the air with the sultry scent of vanilla. He’s half hidden among glass vials of supple Bourbon vanilla beans, lightly frosted with crystals of pure vanillin. The croc wears a beatific smile—woven of fragrant vanilla pods, he’s an unlikely guardian of this temple of spices.
“In Madagascar crocodiles are considered good luck, so the artists always make them look happy,” explains Jean Marie Thiercelin. I’m chatting with this sixth-generation saffron merchant at his Paris spice boutique, Goumanyat et Son Royaume. Behind steel-rimmed spectacles his blue-green eyes crinkle with laughter. “At night it’s not the crocodile who comes up from the river. It’s thieves who steal the vanilla crop.”
When I was in Paris last March, I spent an enchanting afternoon at Goumanyat, breathing in the spicy scents of vanilla, rose water and the Tasmanian peppercorns. Saffron, though, is the shop’s signature spice: In the current issue of Saveur (December 2007, p. 17), you can capture a few of the highlights in “Nice Threads,” a piece that began with my visit to this remarkable musee des epices. But the totality is ever so much more addictive:
“Somewhere in this inner sanctum, a Persian oud plays softly. Thiercelin lifts the lid of an apothecary jar brimming with brilliant red threads. ‘Smell this,’ he says. I plunge my face into the jar and inhale a wild earthy fragrance so alive that the aroma molecules must be ricocheting off each other. It’s pushal, a vividly aromatic saffron that comes from Iran. More than a merchant, Thiercelin has secured his own crop in the purple crocus field of South Khorasan near the border of Afghanistan.
“Pure unadulterated saffron has been the Thiercelin family’s signature product since 1809. First founded to sell French saffron grown near Pithiviers, Maison Thiercelin is now a 3.5 million Euro supplier of “natural flavorings from the vegetable kingdom” to leading chefs as well as to the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. But Goumanyat sprang from Jean Marie Thiercelin’s desire to take his passion for spices directly to home cooks.
“In case you were wondering, Goumanyat is the name of an imaginary king who presides over a domain where les plaisirs du gout et le gout de plaisir—the pleasures of taste and the taste of pleasures—are paramount. A wave of the royal scepter and this 200 year old building near La Place de la Republique—once a rundown atelier for wedding clothes—has become a magnet for Michelin-starred chefs. Guy Martin, Pierre Gagnaire, Helene Darroze, Eric Briffard and others come here for that heady Iranian saffron, the new crop of Sarawak black peppercorns, and Rose Aphrodite, a mix of damask rose petals, ginger and saffron.
“There are three floors to explore, but my favorite spot is “le sniffing bar” on the rez de chaussee. Arrayed on an antique Chinese apothecary chest are 30 or more jars of spices. The scent of huge green cardamom seeds is so vibrant that it makes my eyes water. Whole orange mace exudes an irresistibly warm, sweet fragrance, making me wonder why it ever fell out of favor. Wrinkly reddish-brown Pondicherry peppercorns, hard to find even in India, have a subtle toasty aroma, while crushed poivre de Selim from tropical Africa has the fresh clean smell of eucalyptus.
“A 56-year-old shopkeeper with a gently receding hairline might seem an unlikely Marco Polo, but Thiercelin’s passion for exquisite spices regularly takes him to some of the more dangerous corners of the world. Twice a year, despite death threats, he travels to the crocus fields of eastern Iran where a farmer’s cooperative grows and processes saffron to his rigorous specifications. (In the same vein, he has formed an alliance with vanilla growers in northeastern Madagascar who are willing to throw away half the immature pods in a hand of vanilla so that the remaining beans can grow 22 centimeters long. If you look closely, you can see the growers’ brand—a starburst of pinpricks—on each fragrant bean.)
“ ‘Saffron is very old, very expensive, almost mythical. It has always been adulterated by any means possible,’ Thiercelin explains. Tricks of the trade include mixing powdered saffron with turmeric or paprika, adding weight by cutting it with salt, sugar, oil or dried meat, and deliberately mislabeling the country of origin. Chicanery is endemic since it takes 150,000 saffron crocuses to produce a single kilo of the pure spice. Flavor and aroma are concentrated in the red stigmas—each flower has just three—and they must be hand-plucked and dried on the same day to preserve quality. Even in Iran, which produces 95 percent of the world’s supply, only a few people process these precious threads in the style of pushal, comprising the entire stigma, but the result is a stunningly fragrant spice.
“Naturally Thiercelin is writing a book about saffron. For chefs looking for inspiration, he has created riffs on the shop’s signature spice: saffron-infused syrup, vinegar, mustard, liqueur, chocolate, even fresh foie gras de canard. One drawer of an old hardware cabinet holds packets of the au safran, a lovely blend of black, oolong and green teas scented with saffron and fruit.
“This is Jean Marie Thiercelin’s real passion: showing chefs and all the rest of us inventive ways to use his amazing spices. As I leave with shopping bags stuffed with bottles of Persian rosewater, vials of saffron and a crocodile woven of vanilla beans, he’s giving me a recipe for the 23-ingredient ras el hanout I’ve just bought: ‘Next time you make a jambon sandwich, mix a little ras el hanout with good olive oil instead of mustard. It’s wonderful.’
“So back at home, I try it: a combo of smoky country ham on sourdough with Provencal olive oil and Moroccan spices. It is mysterious, redolent of the souk—or is it Paris?— Marco Polo would approve.”
For more, see Foraging: Paris: Goumanyat et Son Royaume by Elaine Sciolino in The New York Times, Travel, November 18, 2007.
Goumanyat & Son Royaume
3, rue Dupuis 3rd Arrondissement
tel: +(01)- 44 78 96 74
fax: +(01)- 44 78 96 75