In the world of spices, there are four distinct trades.
First, of course, is the grower, not only a farmer but often a magician who coaxes pale green orchids into yielding the bean that becomes vanilla. There is the spice hunter, a throwback to intrepid 16th and 17th century explorers, who pokes into odd corners of the world seeking rare ingredients—wild rainforest pepper from Madagascar, perhaps—and delivers them to chefs avid for the next new thing. And there is the merchant: A weather-beaten vendor of sacred (and expensive) chilhuacles negros in Oaxaca’s Mercado de Abastos–or a multinational company that sends bottled peppercorns to your grocery shelves.
Then there is the mixologist—not of cocktails, but of spices—the maker of blends. The Marrakech merchant who creates his own take on traditional blends like m’rouzia and ras el hanout could be a kind of mixologist. But more often, contemporary types seem to churn out uninspired, all-purpose blends—“great on fish, chicken, beef, vegetables, rice…”—that can be tweaked with a few extra ingredients and labeled Turkish (just add sumac), Moroccan (more cinnamon) or Greek (lots of oregano).
But Lior Lev Sercarz is one of a rare breed, a modern mixologist of spices who has created 40 startlingly original blends that will lend almost anyone’s cooking—yes, even mine—a sense of mystery and the heady scent of faraway places.
For years he’s been the secret weapon in many a chef’s arsenal. Now the secret is out.
For the last week or two I’ve been experimenting with five blends, among them Apollonia [N. 29] a mixture of bitter cocoa powder and dried orange blossoms, and Ararat [N. 35], which features urfa pepper and smoked paprika. I’m discovering that you can use them to transform your cooking in simple ways. Apollonia makes a provocative hot chocolate, probably not be too dissimilar to the unsweetened, spiced beverage drunk by the Aztecs. It also gives a bitter floral edge to a rich dark chocolate tart and adds a note of intrigue to toasty chocolate-hazelnut biscotti.
But you can also stray off the beaten path: Larry Forgione uses the same chocolate blend on venison and duck breasts.
Each of Sercarz’s spice blends make you ask, “What are those flavors?” even as you are reveling in the deliciousness of whatever you are eating. I can attest that last weekend, Ararat turned simple grilled lamb patties so very nearly into the wonderfully smoky, peppery lahmacun served at Seymuz in Istanbul—that I thought I had time-traveled back to Turkey. And yet the flavor was so much more complex, so much more…elusive.
Ararat, Apollonia and 38 other blends can be found at La Boite a Epice, Sercarz’s minimalist gallery/shop, located in Hell’s Kitchen, and on the internet. I met him there a couple of months ago.
It was a vaguely surreal experience.
On a frigid evening, the luminous white space—on a gritty corner of 11th Avenue, next to a parking garage and across the street from a gas station patronized by off duty cabs—glowed like a pristine ice cube in a dark and crusty freezer. Inside it was very, very cold. We sat at a table, sipping a hot, subtly aromatic tea made of zuta, a wild mint grown in Israel, surrounded by the works of Columbian artist, Marcela Caldenas.
A slender 39-year-old with graying hair and an engaging smile, Sercarz behaved with a modest courtliness that is unusual in the spice trade. With the tea he offered a neatly arranged plate of biscuits, small square cookies, from his “winter collection” —he creates two a year—which was inspired by Caldenas’ art and is sold in metal boxes engraved with one of her paintings. Entitled Domestic Fabels, the collection includes blended flavors like curry and dark chocolate, and dates, almonds and ginger. The biscuits are surprisingly restrained, cookies to savor slowly rather than gobble by the handful.
Things changed when he opened a jar of Vadouvan (N. 28) for me to smell. The air around us was suddenly infused with the scent of curry, but with undertones of tropical fruit, more vibrant and exotic than the typical turmeric heavy blend, yet also more refined. I could see bits of fried onion in the coarsely textured mix. “It was inspired by the cooking of French colonists in the Indian Ocean. There are 16 or 17 spices,” he told me. I couldn’t begin to guess at half of them.
Soon it occurred to me that Sercarz had to have an exceptionally sensitive palate to conjure up subtle and complex blends like Vadouvan, Ararat and Apollonia. A few days ago we had a long conversation about the influences that led to his work at La Boite a Epice. (In addition to making spice blends, he continues his “day job” as chef for the CEO of a major financial institution.)
Here’s what he said:
Being born in a kibbutz in Israel is a good starting point. It’s a real melting pot and spices are used quite a lot. My grandmother was from Transylvania, and she married a man from Tunisia. You can just imagine the mix of cuisines.
One of the foods I was exposed to early on was harissa. It’s a Tunisian paste made of red chilies, caraway, cumin and garlic. We speak of “North African cooking” but there is no such thing. The cuisines of Tunisia and Morocco are very different. Moroccan cuisine is sweet and spicy. Tunisian cooking is all about the savory.
As a child I ate a lot of street food. It was fast, affordable, and always homemade. Women would cook soups and stews in big pots. I ate a lot of Yemini bean-and-marrow bone soup. It was very gelatinous and it was always served with fermented fenugreek mixed with lemon and garlic. Not everyone would like it.
I also ate a lot of zhoug. It’s one of the most basic seasonings in Yemeni cooking. It’s made of green chilies, parsley and coriander. People make it fresh every week. They eat it with everything.
In a funny way zhoug became one of my spice blends. Dan Silverman of the Standard Grill loves to eat hummus in Brooklyn. When he tasted zhoug for the first time, he said, “I would love for my chefs to use this on meats and fish, but I don’t want it to be a wet paste, and I don’t want them to make it twice a week. Can you make a dry blend with this flavor profile?” I took the challenge and Shabazi [N. 38] was the result. I named it after a Jewish poet who lived in Sana’a.
We lived in Rome and Brussels, traveled quite a lot, and I was exposed to different cuisines at an early age. By seven I had tasted chateaubriand with calvados and cream, and I’d also eaten horse meat in France. It sounds gross, but it was another experience that developed my palate.
My father is a very chic farmer [also a diamond dealer and jeweler]. He just sent me some olive oil from his farm. It’s made from the tzuri, a very old variety native to upper Galilee near the Syrian and Lebanese border. It’s a pointy olive with a peppery taste—not so much about the floral as grassy and herbal. He has 600 trees and harvests the olives by hand. He doesn’t even allow the workers to shake the trees. The key to great olive oil is as little time as possible between harvesting and pressing. An oil can be perfect five or six years later if the acidity is right.
After cooking school in Lyons [three years at the Institut Paul Bocuse], I apprenticed with Olivier Roellinger at Les Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany. At first I worked at the hors d’oeuvre station, putting salt bases on plates. Every guest was given an amuse-bouche consisting of three clam shells filled with different preparations. For two weeks I mixed salt and water to make a base to hold the shells. Seventy at lunch, 70 at dinner. It was a test of patience.
Olivier and his friend Pierre Gagnaire were members of the Group of Eight [avant garde chefs who rebelled against traditional French cooking]. They encouraged me to experiment, to look, to taste, to smell, to feel texture in order to create a dictionary in the brain. If you have 10 flavors in your head, you begin to understand how to pair them. It’s like painting. If you know your craft, you can blend two colors together to make a third.
Olivier always told me, “When you come up with a dish, try to think what not to put in it.” Restraint is a very hard thing in cooking. Pierre taught me that to cook well, you only need three things: salt, pepper and technique. He also told me that if you cannot describe the story behind a dish, it’s not worth making. If you can’t describe the inspiration or thought process behind it, there’s no point.
Cancale [N. 7] is my homage to Olivier. Brittany doesn’t have a cuisine of its own, but its people are great seafarers. I wanted to put the essence of Cancale into a jar. There’s fleur de sel, which comes from Brittany, of course, but also oranges which would have come into the port on boats—and fennel. [Here I asked Lior if Cancale also contained lavender.] It’s great if you’re tasting lavender. Sometimes you put two ingredients together and they make a third. But I promise you: There is absolutely no lavender in that blend.
I made the first group of La Boite a Epice blends for Laurent Tourondel. We thought it would be interesting to cover the world in six blends. Isphahan [N. 1] is Persian, Bombay [N. 3] is Indian and so on. I work from a palette of 120 spices and herbs, and at the moment there are 40 official blends. I start with whole spices and play with factors like texture. Some are powdered, some are more coarse. The number of ingredients ranges from 8 or 9 in blends like Breeze [N. 5] up to 19 in Tangier [N.23].
Some of the ingredients I use are rare. Orchid root, which is rich in starch and has floral notes when ground, can be found in Orchidea [N. 34] which I made after a visit to Istanbul. I also use Tasmanian peppercorns, dried orange blossoms which are crazy expensive, and raschad, wild Egyptian watercress seed. I haven’t made a blend with raschad, but it’s quite peppery and can be tossed in salads. Or you can boil it in a porridge. I’m always buying new things and trying to figure out how to use them.
Pierre Poivre [N. 7], made of eight peppers, is one of my most popular blends. It is 100 percent my homage to Pierre Poivre who in the 18th century was a missionary to China and an amazing botanist. Later he became administrator of Mauritius and Reunion. This man with a “predestined name” [it translates as Peter Pepper] smuggled clove and nutmeg plants, thus breaking the Dutch monopoly on those spices. When I returned to Lyon, I discovered that Poivre had also lived there. He had a beautiful botanical garden where he grew plants from all parts of the French empire.
Black, white, green and red peppercorns come from the same vine, but there are many other types of pepper as well. Some spices that are called “pepper” aren’t that at all. Monk’s pepper was so named because it came from a tree that grew around monasteries. Monks found that added to food, the berries could replace pepper. It also decreased sexual desire. Grains of paradise, which every chef had to have a few years ago, is hot like pepper but comes from a plant in the ginger family. Selim pepper, which is used in Algerian cuisine, is a pepper substitute that has a bitter taste.
My blends can be inspired by a place, a person or a moment in time. When I met Apollonia Poilaine [who, at age 22, took over her family’s baking empire when her father was killed in a plane crash], I was so impressed with her, and with her father Lionel whom I had the honor of meeting, that I was inspired to make a spice blend. A few weeks later I sent it to her. She said, “How did you know that I like to eat chocolate and that I wear orange blossom perfume?” I said, “Well, I didn’t know, but if you like it, we must be on the same wavelength.” I named the blend Apollonia and she uses it in one of her famous cuillieres [spoon-shaped cookies].
I spent four years in New York working for Daniel Boulud. I traveled with him, worked on his cookbooks, and we became good friends. I developed Vadouvan for one of his sous-chefs. It’s a curry blend, but not a typical Indian curry. There are sweeter notes, the taste of fruit which make it more Thai or Indonesian. It was inspired by the cooking of French colonists in the Indian Ocean. There are 16 or 17 ingredients, and it took three months of back and forth to get it right. You can use it to season cashews, and for fish, seafood, lamb and vegetable dishes.
If you want to make your own blend, first decide what you want to cook and how you want to do it. Think about a familiar dish that you make all the time. Ask yourself what flavors you like: Citrus, peppery flavors, smoky notes? What do you want to taste the most? Think about balance, and also quantity. Taste each herb or spice individually and experiment with adding different amounts. Don’t be afraid of trial and error. A good blend takes time to develop.
I have what I call “the baguette and olive theory.” Whatever rises fast, falls fast. What’s good immediately doesn’t last. Olive trees don’t bear for five years. My spice blends change and develop over time. So do my biscuits. It’s not good to eat them up all at once. The flavor evolves as they sit. So take your time.
If I could go to the restaurant of my choice tomorrow night, I’d go back to Olivier’s and eat whatever he was making. Maybe a half a dozen oysters from the bay, which wouldn’t need any seasoning at all. Or lamb pre-sale. The lamb grazes on the grassy marshes around Mont Saint Michel which gives the meat a naturally salty flavor. Olivier roasts it on his specially designed charcoal rotisserie. Once I had an amazing dessert of curry-poached pears with dark sugar ice cream.
But I’d go back just to have a piece of his bread.