I was foraging for Maras pepper at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, when a pushy customer gave me the elbow. While she was huffing, “Can we share?” (presumably the cramped space next to the cheese counter), I suddenly found myself eyeing a row of small brown paper-wrapped tins from a company called Curio Spice. The illustrated labels were charming, embellished with whimsical petals and vines, and the names of the enclosed blends evoked tantalizingly far off places—Sri Lanka, Greece, Vietnam.
Naturally I was intrigued.
Though I usually avoid pre-mixed spices, I couldn’t resist buying two to try: Fleur Spice (“A Flower-filled Spice Blend”) and Kandy Spice (“Sri Lankan Cinnamon and Spice Blend”). Back in my room overlooking Boston’s Public Garden I ripped open the red seals and inhaled. Deeply. I was stunned by the intoxicatingly fresh layers of scent that seemed to open like bouquets of exotic flora. They were nothing like the copy cat turmeric- and cumin-heavy blends that clog the shelves of so many second-rate spice shops.
Fleur seemed to have sprung from a sensibility that imagines the damp morning scents of an English garden planted on the edge of a jungle. Tantalizing whiffs of hibiscus petals and sweet pink peppercorns mingled with the elusive aromas of rose and lavender and the heavier notes of spices like anise and cardamom.
Kandy Spice was equally arresting, but in a different way. It reminded me of the fragrant Sri Lankan spice mix I used when making Mystica’s Coconut Fish Curry (sans the dusting of turmeric to freshen the fish and add color). Curio’s blend was megawatts brighter, and deeply redolent of true cinnamon, a sweetly mellow spice with hints of citrus that is indigenous to Sri Lanka.
That afternoon I got in touch with Curio Spice’s owner and blender-in-chief, Claire Cheney. Claire turns out to be a girl after my own heart, a passionate traveler, lover of plants and avid collector of spices and other wonders of the natural world. Weirdly, we seem to know the same spice-obsessed people, have visited the same spice shops in Paris (notably Epices Roellinger), and have even taken the same introductory perfume class at Mandy Aftel’s studio in Berkeley, though not at the same time.
But Claire is also a watercolor artist and writer of a lovely blog called Aromatum. The name was likely inevitable, as she once described herself to me, with some embarrassment, as “a smeller.” Among her favorite aromas: phlox, pond water, Indian restaurants, crocus flowers. After a recent discouraging day she wrote “But then I can stick my head in a jar of cinnamon and disappear. The fragrance of spices is transportive: it’s one of the reasons I’m grateful I chose this line of work, when all else seems so full of rusted metal, gray clouds and lukewarm coffee.”
How Claire evolved from someone who toyed with the idea of a career in ethnobotany (her college thesis was on Maine’s wild blueberry industry) to an up-and-coming spice maven in Boston is a story that includes a spice-blending stint with Ana Sortun, chef and owner of Oleana, a Kickstarter project that sent her to Greece to harvest saffron, and slow journeys to Vietnam, Cambodia, India and other spicy places.
But as she herself said on her blog, maybe the real story is simply that “I like to collect tasty things and bring them home to share. Collecting spices makes me feel alive.” [Italics added.]
Here’s more, in her own words…
I founded my company in 2015. The name comes from “cabinet of curiosities”- a version of a natural history museum that became popular with collectors in the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally it was a room to display items that inspired wonder from the natural world. Spices inspire wonder (and curiosity) in me, so it seemed appropriate to name my business “Curio Spice.
I’ve always been a ‘smeller’. One of my early scent memories is of the orange blossoms near my aunt and uncle’s house in Winterhaven, Florida. I still have notes for a spice blend that tries to capture the experience of the aroma. Other things I like to smell: white pine needles in the sun, used books, low tide, home after being away, nasturtiums, the inside of my oboe case.
My first job out of college was for a small coffee roaster in Dorchester. I learned about origin and terroir—how the flavor and aroma of the beans are connected to the soil, the climate and the farmers who grew them. I got into the sommelier version of coffee. You can taste the body in coffee the same way you taste it in wine.
I did a lot of traveling in my twenties. Spices were always my favorite souvenir and I always went right to the local market or spice bazaar. I loved visiting Mattancherry, India – part of Kochi. It was traditionally a big trading hub, especially for black pepper. Now it’s a little run down and unglamorous, but there are a series of spice markets with an incredible array of spices. I got a free bar of turmeric soap when I bought a pound of black pepper.
My first foray into spices was a non-fiction book project on saffron. I raised $5,481 through a Kickstarter project to travel to the Kozani region of Macedonia in northern Greece where there is a saffron cooperative. Scholars believe that Greece is the botanical origin of saffron. There’s a fresco dating from 3,500 BC that depicts women harvesting saffron and offering it to a goddess attended by a blue monkey. I spent 10 days learning to harvest saffron and researching recipes. Interestingly it’s not used that much in Greek cooking, though it has a deep history there.
Greek saffron is sweet, with notes of fresh hay and dried figs, compared to the drier, spicier notes of Iranian saffron. Kozani Spice, my first blend, was a way of imagining a Greek blend that would fit naturally with the northern Greek palate. Besides saffron, it includes fennel seed and herbs like oregano, sage and lemon verbena. Bee pollen was a whimsical addition—it elevates the floral, honey and hay-like notes of saffron, but I also watched and painted a lot of honey bees while I was there.
Blending spices is a meditative act. It’s a layering process which can be a challenge since I also try to honor the integrity of each spice. I definitely spend a lot of time revising blends. It’s sort of analogous to the writing process. I start with an initial concept and keep working on it until the idea I have in my head is expressed.
I took a class with Mandy Aftel, a natural perfumer in Berkeley. She introduced me to the profound idea that “certain scents bury other scents.” The rough idea is that you can cancel out certain scents or flavors if they aren’t layered properly. For example if I added peppermint to the Kozani spice, it would bury the saffron. You’d only taste the mint which has a rather loud, sweet flavor, and you’d be wasting the saffron.
I have a little water color kit that I take with me on my travels. It’s a way of slowing down and absorbing experiences differently. While I was harvesting saffron in Greece, I was also painting the scene. The process of making a painting is more meditative than using a camera. You might see a beautiful garden but later you realize that the photo didn’t capture it.
Certain pigments are dominant when you paint with water color. Phthalo blue soaks into the paper and you can’t get other colors to go over or under it. My aunt, who was an artist, always said certain colors “push” other colors. It’s the same with spices.
Kandy Spice was inspired by a trip to central Sri Lanka and the farm where I learned to peel cinnamon. When you remove the bark, the inner cambium layer [the part that turns into the familiar cinnamon stick when dry] is still wet, and the smell is floral and super-intoxicating. It’s an incredible experience, like walking into a garden at peak bloom.
The blend is named after Kandy, an enchanting town where I found the cinnamon. There’s a temple that houses the Buddha’s tooth and the Royal Botanical Garden is also there. I tried to capture some of that charm in my spice blend which is basically a Sri Lankan-style garam masala with clove and ginger. They use a lot of what we would call “baking spices” in their savory curries. I love the spice with roasted or fried red onions because they’re a little sweet, and also with fresh fruit or sprinkled over French toast.
My most popular blend is Kampot & Salt. The primary ingredients are Maine sea salt and Kampot peppercorns which were rediscovered in the forests of Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge genocide destroyed the pepper industry. I added ginger because it seems to bring out the fresh, lung-cleansing, eucalyptus notes of the peppercorns. It makes an awesome rim for Margaritas, but it’s also great on grilled steak or vegetables.
Ninety percent of my inventory is organic. I try to find farms and producers who care about the environment. In the case of Kampot pepper from Cambodia, the cooperative I purchase from is certified organic by a European agency called Eco-Cert. Third party standards are often the only way to ensure a foreign product has sustainable integrity.
Closer to home, I buy from an organic farm in Vermont that grows herbs predominantly for the medicinal herb industry. In general experienced medicinal herb farmers tend to put a lot more care into the environment. I wish there were more of a focus on “food as medicine” in our culture.
I am most inspired by a self-taught florist named Sarah Ryhanen. She sees the world according to flowers, and I see mine according to spice. I first discovered her blog, Saipua Journal, about six or seven years ago. I actually didn’t think to start my spice business until I began my own blog, Aromatum, which was partly inspired by Sarah’s and also by a non-fiction writing class I took.
Supeq is a new blend that came out of challenge I set for myself. While I was researching it, I really got into seaweed. It’s very cool, but can also be a difficult, unwieldy flavor—sometimes too fishy, or metallic, or just funky. Dulse is the most approachable and it also has a gorgeous dark purple color. Then I got to know some ginger farmers in the Pioneer Valley, then mushrooms joined the party, and I began to create a fun, earthy, umami blend that celebrates the familiar land (and sea) where I grew up. Supeq comes from the word for ocean in Passamaquoddy, a First Nation tribe from the Northeast.
I plan to open a Curio Spice store in Cambridge this fall. I’m envisioning a space that is a spice shop-cum-apothecary-cum-natural history museum. I will sell pure spices as well as mortars and pestles, grinders, spoons and perhaps some copies of Art of the Harvest and other spice books. I collect old saffron tins, so they’ll be on display along with aspects of natural history such as seed pods, rocks and skulls, old maps and botanical prints.