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SWEET AND SAVORY SPICES

Stu and Michele Eddy, who own James Creek Sutlery, presented a program on spices. They import 100 spices from all over the world, grind them and mix them together in many ways to enhance the flavor of food. The spice regions of the world are tropical and sub-tropical with lots of rainfall and humidity. The only spice that can be grown in the United States is black peppercorn. Spices are fragrant and aromatic and come from the seeds, fruits, roots and dried bark of various plants.  Herbs come from the leafy parts of the plants and are used fresh or dried. Ground spices will stay fresh for about one year, but the shelf life of whole spices is much longer. Freezing actually shortens the shelf life.

Michele showed videos and photos of the time she spent in Beijing shopping in the market for spices. She ate a Chinese hot dog with Muslim spices. In China they use donkeys to grind the spices.

The king of spices is the peppercorn. It grows 13 feet tall on a perennial vine either on a big trellis or up trees in a forest. It takes 8 years to mature and produce the drupe which contains the peppercorns.  Green peppercorns are picked unripe and freeze dried; black peppercorns are produced by sun-drying green ones. White peppercorns are picked when the drupe is fully ripe and red. Pink pepper berry tree is an unrelated species. Peruvian peppercorn has a fruity flavor and is used in syrups, vinegar and beverages. We think of peppercorns as being little round balls but piper longum  is a long rod with sweet, earthy overtones of chocolate, licorice, coffee and floral flavors. There are savory pepper blends including one with a mix of different peppers and roasted garlic – delicious as a dip with olive oil and bread.

Salt is the only mineral we eat, and there are many varieties. From Hawaii we get Hawaiian black lava with a bit of lava mixed in and red alaea which contains red clay. From Oregon comes smoked Pacific Alderwood, and from the Himalayan Mountains we get hand mined pink salt. Up in the Andes of Peru spring water salt which contains 80 minerals is dried in the sun. The salt we buy in the store is mined, then washed and bleached.

The most expensive spice in the world is saffron which is made from the stigmas of saffron crocus flowers. There is a 24 hour annual harvest period, and it takes 20,000 flowers to produce 4 ounces of saffron. The price is $5000 per pound depending on the quality. Saffron crocuses grow in hot climates in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Spain.

The second most expensive spice is vanilla which originated in Mexico. It flowers for one day and is hand-pollinated by growers. It takes ten months to form the pod and then goes through a process of drying and conditioning. Grade A pods are long and plump; grade B pods are used for extracts.

There is one true cinnamon, which comes from Sri Lanka, and has a citrusy aroma and taste. The tree is cut down four times to harvest the bark and then regrows. There are about 150 false cinnamons which are actually cassia trees. Cinnamon is produced from the inside layer under the bark and is harvested very carefully to maintain the health of the tree.

Cardamom is the third most expensive spice and is sometimes blended with cinnamon.

Processing quality spices is labor-intensive and involves cool grinding and hand sifting. Stu and Michele maintain their business out of a commercial kitchen in Lapeer where people can “uncork and smell the purity within.” They also have a booth at the Farmington Farmers’ Market on the first and third Saturdays of the month. They also sell at the Henry Ford Fall Market.  They were one of the vendors at the MGSOC conference.