Mar 29, 2023

Colombia Field Report, Part 1

I open up my journal to the page where I pressed a butterfly pea flower. The flower is so thin and delicate it is stuck to the opposite page. I pry the petals with my fingers as carefully as I can, and it flutters down to where I had pressed it. I feel that ping of sadness and joy seeing it there, and remembering the garden where I plucked it, a smiling woman named Adamaris who has been growing the flowers to earn money, and also to make a tea for her husband who suffers from depression. We stood inside their small house briefly making introductions, a tv on in the corner, a bit of light filtering in onto a wooden couch. 

These strange purple flowers are endemic to SE Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand, where they are often steeped into rice, turning it an eerie blue that is meant to engage the spirits, or else made into a beverage with a squeeze of lemon, turning it a brilliant violet. But recently, in tropical Colombia, on the outskirts of downtown Cartagena, there is a small community growing the vines in their small yards, the green pea-relatives crawling all over cement blocks, covering the scraggy plot divisions with lush vegetation. My friends Luis and Alejandra at the Colombian spice business Spicarium spearheaded the project, working together with a local powerhouse non-profit called Grains of Peace or Granitos de Paz. For the past 16 years, Granitos has worked to uplift a low-income neighborhood that struggles with violence. The neighborhood, called Rafael Nunez, is home to 13,000 people, mostly of Afro-Caribbean descent and the butterfly pea program creates supplemental income for its participants, 80% of whom are women. The average income in this neighborhood is roughly equivalent to $50 - $150 per month. The production of the butterfly pea flowers adds another $8-10 per month to this income. When I see the jar of the flowers sitting in my own kitchen, I think about how powerful a purchase it is, to help support this community, even in this small fashion.

Another day we journey out into the countryside, down roads my friend tells me you couldn't drive down five years ago, as you might be kidnapped or your car set on fire. I think of my eldest daughter, about to turn five. Five years ago? I try to imagine all that this country has been through and it makes me dizzy. It's all so raw, still ever present despite being intangible and unseeable as we rumble down the road towards a spice farm. It is safe to travel in Colombia now despite its recent and darker days (at least in most areas), and there is so much vivid beauty to celebrate. 

How can I be a small part of sharing this beauty with the world and shifting the light towards a more positive future? I don't know yet, but I keep asking.

We stop to look at the sunrise along a tributary of the Rio Magdalena. Elegant white birds flutter by as if in slow motion - I call them egrets, wanting to use a word other than 'bird' but know I am probably far off. I am not a birder, but maybe someday I'll learn. I try to change lenses and fling one accidentally into the trash alongside the road; I think about how my dad used to take us to the dump to search for toys. A few motorbikes whiz by. We bask in the pink.

Arriving to the farm felt like a familiar homecoming I've never had. Like a passage in a Garcia Marquez book I read in high school and am transported to in real time through some magical realism time-machine.

“But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food.” 
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of SolitudeCien Anos de Soledad
We had to park the car along the dirt road about a quarter mile from the homestead, as the bridge was out, and there were some gentleman digging a hole. We hiked the short distance, passing by a tree that lazily dropped giant white flowers that looked like the poof for a lady's face powder. Or else an anemone, tendrils waving. A green field lay fallow alongside the road, and blue green mountains rose peacefully in the distance. The group that welcomed us were all farm hands or managers, gathered around a long table covered in banana leaves and the produce from the land - fruits, beans, nuts, seed pods and spices. A mind boggling array of edible biodiversity. I gawk in awe for a while, as they serve us a drink made of corn, cocoa and cinnamon - mild and a little thick. Served in a cup made from the husk of a fruit here.

After an awkward round of introductions that felt a bit like a church service, we have breakfast - cassava, squash, fresh cheese, green papaya shredded and cooked with achiote oil, and the key condiment that is called suero - aka sour cream - which everyone raved about but I found to taste a bit too much like barnyard. Maybe it was the heat?

At high noon, the most illogical time to go out into the field, we go out into the field to learn about the achiote harvest. Achiote, also called 'annatto' is a seed from Bixa orellana, a deep burgundy red, with an aroma at once earthy and vegetal, reminiscent of wet earth and nutmeg. The spice is most valued for the golden color it brings to food, especially soups and rice dishes. It's known across Latin America and the Caribbean and is produced in varying qualities. But my friends say the organic achiote from here in the Montes de Maria is the most vibrant and intense. 

The sun is blazing and the air is thick but we ride a series of motorbikes to the far field. I am glad my hat doesn't blow off. The spice grows on trees that are pruned to be as tall as humans. Average 6 feet or so. The pods are spiky and bizarre - who figured out this was a useful spice? We all stand around and take photos as the busyness of the harvest takes place. A few men cut the spiky pods from the trees and they fall onto a tarp. The tarp gets carried to a pile in the sun where the spice will dry. Then someone puts the dried pods in a sack and beats it with a stick. Then Maria shows us how to sift the seeds, a type of winnowing process, from the chaff. I make the following notes in my notebook:

Are we getting into it?
She seems tired, but proud.
We are all tired and hot. 
The men are laughing as they carry the tarp.


The heat doesn't assist me in taking good notes. 

Back at the homestead, we drink cold water out of plastic bags and I sit under a sapote tree. I try to adjust my shoes as my feet are so swollen from the heat. The rooster is loud. There is a turkey, who walks around slowly unfurling its tail feathers. There's a shed full of piglets, and a grove of banana trees. We walk by a neat field planted with roselle, a relative of hibiscus. Raphael urges me to buy some. "I want to plant more and more!" he tells me. The women make lunch, a traditional chicken soup, from one of the chickens slaughtered that morning. They show me an old water bottle filled with oil and a handful of achiote seeds. Shake the bottle, and the oil turns gold - this is used as the spiced cooking oil. No need to crush the seeds or mix them into anything - just this infused oil system. How brilliant. Part of the roof of the homestead is used to dry rice, I thought at first it was just the roof thatching. A roof made of food. 

How do I make sense of this? 

I ask Raphael what growing the spice means to him, what future it has. He thinks a bit, furrowing his brow under his baseball hat. He tells me in Spanish: "This spice, it's the scent of the people." 


Special thanks to Fernan, Operations Manager at Fundacian Granitos de Paz
Luis & Alejandra, Spicarium Co., Cartagena

Nov 14, 2022

Vietnam Field Report

SEPTEMBER 2022    The first smell of Hanoi was this: fish sauce, pineapple, wet pavement, rubber. The streets of the Hanoi old quarter have a specific aroma, a particular tropical smokiness – dozens of food stands with focused chefs making soups and grilled delicacies like bún chà and Bún bò huế at the height of a milk-crate, while inches away mopeds whiz by in a braided dance with cars and busses and pedestrians. To enter the flow you have to trust the dance – assess the speed and density of traffic and rest assured that it’s not in anyone’s interest to run you over. A construction site squeezed between two old building boasts a gaggle of workers wearing flip flops while they build scaffolding and guide a dump truck filled with sand. Everything about this inner-city experience reveals vulnerability, ambition and an effort to live fully. 

The last time I was in Vietnam was the spring of 2014, about a year before I founded Curio. Being back here, post-covid, was an odd paradox – it felt at once nostalgic, and at once like a different world. When I first set out to understand the artisan spice trade (in comparison to the commodity industry), I visited restaurants and obscure botanical experts, trying to make connections and establish an understanding for what I now appreciate as an immense and complex web of spice. I was carefree then, filled with ideas and plans and seemingly endless amounts of time. There were no masks and vaccine cards, either.

Nine-ish years later, with a seven year old spice company and two young children, the context has changed. The pang of being away from my family is intense – as a mother I now had this more urgent sense of distance – if anything went wrong in either place, I was a full 30 hours away from being able to hold them in my arms.

But it was time to get going, and with a dazed sense of urgency my colleague Josh (Curio's Marketing Manager) and I visited a handful of farms, fighting jet lag and language barriers. En route to the spice farms, we passed rice paddies dotted with tomb stones. I ask my interpreter about it. She says “Sometime we cut into a fish and find gold, because of the tombs under the water.” I smile and nod, this being a typical explanation for things I won’t ever fully understand. I think of my own tooth fillings, and how they are not made of gold.


Star Anise from Lang Son

After three or four hours we reach the mountainous region of Lang Son, where the hills look like they were crafted by my four year old out of sand and then covered in moss.

The farmer we met here is named Hai (seen below with the white hair), and he’s been growing star anise for forty years. He has three kids – two daughters and one son. At the time we visited, his wife Mao was in the forest with one of their daughters (Yen) but we stayed and ate a lunch he'd prepared himself (he says his mother taught him to cook), including homemade sausage from a pig he raised, as well as chicken and livers, cucumbers with lime and salt, pickled bamboo, sautéed greens, tinned fish. We drank tiny cups of corn wine he brews himself, and sat on a bamboo mat over which he had laid newspapers and the myriad of dishes. It was a feast, and I felt at home despite it all being so foreign. 

The star anise pods are fleshy and green when ripe – such strange stars to appear amidst the dense green leaf cover of trees. We find Yen twenty feet up a tree harvesting the last of the autumn stars for the season, and her mother Mao organizing the bags. The flowers are dainty but somehow robust - thick white petals with a pink center no larger than a nickel - and when you eat one you get the sweet, anise-like flavor but with a hint of flowers, like jasmine tea. I want to gather these up and decorate a cake.

A cow grazes nearby in the shade, her bell clanking peacefully. Hills roll gently in the distance, and the air is warm but not hot, humid and full of forest scents, soothing such that I could almost lay down and take a nap if it weren't for the fact that I was so energized by the site of raw star anise. 


Cinnamon from Yen Bai

The cinnamon from Vietnam is a specific species Cinnamomum loureirii that produces higher aromatic oils than any other type of cinnamon – resulting in a sweetness and intensity that is unforgettable. When visiting the cinnamon forests of Yen Bai, crunching across the forest floor littered with cinnamon leaves created an aroma like baking cookies, which felt odd given the tropical environment, the sound of a waterfall in the background, and a spider to my left the size of my hand. Cinnamon is harvested from trees that are eight to ten years old, and after the outer rough bark is scraped off, the next layer of the tree is the highest grade of cinnamon, pale and green-ish yellow when fresh, and then sliced into thin pieces that curl up as they dry and turn a deep reddish-brown. 

My contact here in Yen Bai is a woman founder who sources from smallholder farmers, most of whom are part of minority ethnic groups. She seems ageless to me, but has four kids, and I am humbled by all she has accomplished in her efforts to start a new wave of organic cinnamon farming in this region. She told me about how she is specifically interested in assisting women, many of whom didn’t have financial security prior to working with her company, which processes the cinnamon grown by the small farmers. She is working to improve the value chain by teaching small farmers about organic agriculture, protecting biodiversity and reducing deforestation. Her company is certified by the Union for Ethical Biotrade.

For lunch they hosted me with a colorful array of gorgeous offerings that left me wishing I could come back here every day. We ate crispy beef with pepper, chicken with herbs, some type of ‘apple’ that tasted more like watermelon, steamed mushrooms, corn on the cob and tiny glasses of homemade cinnamon wine. I tried my hand at peeling cinnamon, using a huge curved blade that you hold with both hands while straddling the tree trunk. I was reminded of my visit to Sri Lanka ten years ago now, where I learned to peel Cinnamomum zeylancium - a citrusy, delicate variety that is so different than this Vietnamese cinnamon. 


On the flight home, somewhere in the airspace over the North West territories of Canada, an intricate pattern of snow and rock - I keep thinking of my daughters, and my heart feels like it might burst. I'd only been away eight days and yet it felt like an eternity. And yet I feel so full of gratitude for the stories and meals shared with the spice farmers, the generosity they offered by welcoming me and my colleague Josh into their homes, dedicating countless hours to preparation and forest treks - that I think my heart might burst from this, too. Like my journal held together with an old rubber band, a bit battered by rain and dust, I hold it together, but just barely.

photos by Claire Cheney and Josh Mamaclay, 2022

Feb 9, 2021

Spice and Empathy; looking back at 2020

Last summer I visited my parents in Maine in the midst of the pandemic. We got tested beforehand and stayed out in what's called "the little house" which is a 2 room tiny house built in the 1970's by a man named Everett, after he'd had a fire in the big house but couldn't fix it up, even with the insurance money. (My dad came along and bought the big house, burned but still standing, and Everett stayed in the little house till he died. At least, I think that's the story.)

It's a great place to stay in the summer, the curtains billowing, and my mom set us up with freshly baked bread and homemade jam and a coffee maker. Linden slept in a crib but mostly in the small bed with us, all of us waking up at dawn to eat bread and jam. We barely went into the big house, except wearing masks to walk to the shower, and it was strange, but there were plenty of bubbles and wildflowers and blueberries to go around.

I helped harvest some of the wild oregano flowers that we gather every year for Curio's blend Herbes de Romance. It's always a battle with the bees, since the field practically sings with their buzzing, and you have to touch the flowers to gather them and be careful not to simply grab a bee in the process. The flowers don't taste so much like oregano as they do of the fields - a combination of grassy herbal floral sun and raw apple. It's not a Mediterranean fragrance, it's distinctly New England - there's even something like a hint of flannel in the fragrance but I'm not sure what that means (does a fuzzy herb have different fragrance properties than a smooth one?). The rest of the harvest was managed by my parents, since, without a whole lot to do, they enjoyed the assignment, just as they did the balsam harvest earlier in May. 

I bought them a dehydrator and they churned out pounds of the dried flowers. We'll run out before this summer I'm sure, but it's a reminder that some cycles remain constant in this dreadful time.
I'm pregnant with our second, and feeling quite whale-like already at six months. After reading Linden a story the other night I felt I couldn't get up from the bed and said jokingly 'Help! I'm stuck' to which Linden replied 'Mama let me help you!' reaching out her tiny two almost three year old arms and I melted into a puddle on the floor next to her crib. She has a baby in her belly too sometimes, or backaches and tummy aches, in some kind of unconscious effort to understand and make sense of the world. 

Where do we learn empathy? And why did 2020 feel like the year of endeavoring to communicate empathy to friends and family when all ANY of us wanted to do was to give a hug? Sensory, non-verbal cues seem to play an important role – I’ve noticed this not only as a mom, but as a cook. It's not all that profound, but has taken on extra significance over the last year, like a long extension of sending food when a family has lost a loved one and you can’t be there.

At Curio we were touched by the hundreds of sweet messages written in the gift-memos. Words of support and encouragement to us as a business were so unexpected and appreciated, like a stranger offering you a seat on a crowded train. We were touched by the gifts customers gave each-other—not just pre-arranged gift sets, but long lists of spices, as though in lieu of being able to cook together or share a meal, a fresh pantry cupboard might bring cheer. It was an uplifting glimpse into the kindness culture that has developed in response to an otherwise deeply unkind set of circumstances and cultural reckoning that we’ve been experiencing. I’m honored that our spices played a small role in providing empathy during this pandemic – not just the expected role of making food less bland. 

The certain order of the natural world puts me at ease; watching the bees go from flower to flower, humming along doing the work that’s wired into their DNA. Each summer looks about the same, late July the field next to my dad’s lily garden turns a dusky purple with the oregano flowers, and that familiar scent fills the air. The bees collect the pollen and bring it back to their hive, located in the ground somewhere unknown to us; they feed their fellow bees, they continue their short bee lives in their ongoing insect community. The herbs and flowers thrive and spread, making new plans for a summer to come. 

Knowing those oregano flowers are in one of our spice blends that gets mixed here by hand, packaged into jars and then shipped all over the country to make meals a bit tastier creates another sort of community, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Nov 12, 2019

Ethiopian Women in Spice

Traveling to Ethiopia this past October was incredible, and it's hard to put it all here down on this digital page. But one moment has stayed in my mind every day since coming home.

On our last day in the Kafa region of south western Ethiopia we were invited to one of the women's spice cooperative meetings. I was a bit surprised when Rahel, my new contact, asked me to speak in front of the forty some-odd women that had gathered in the co-op. She told me someone would interpret for me and it was important to tell them why I was here. The women had gathered from all over the area (this was just one section of the co-op that includes 250 women), carrying thermoses of home-roasted coffee and wearing beautiful patterns of head scarves in a rainbow of colors. 

They were all looking at me, and I became overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment. There was so much I wanted to say—how coming here and having the chance to source directly from this women's cooperative was a huge reason why I started Curio Spice—how I am passionate about plants and farming and felt a connection with their work—how traveling has always humbled me but even more so now that I was traveling with my daughter, juggling work with her needs to eat and nurse and play—how being a woman is hard, dammit! and of course some of those things I didn't say but some I did and who knows how it was translated into Amharic. But I am grateful I was there at that meeting, sharing Curio's mission and our spice mixes that reflect each place we source.

The energy of that room has stayed with me - I keep coming back to it each day I head into our shop, or as I head home in the semi-dark of a fast-approaching New England winter. I look forward to sharing that wonderful spicy energy with you soon through a new Curio blend.

To back up a bit, I had travelled here to Ethiopia with my husband and daughter - all of us for the first time. We spent a few days in Addis Ababa before traveling out to Bonga, this village in the middle of the Kafa Biosphere, a richly diverse botanical region believed to be the birthplace of coffee. Ethiopia grows and exports huge quantities of coffee, and the Bonga region is no exception. But Ethiopia also grows a huge quantity of spices, from coriander (seen below) to nigella seed, chilies, African cardamom and others, and few people outside of Ethiopia have tried them or known Ethiopia as a spice producer. 

I'm excited to change that.

As African nations go, Ethiopia has one of the richest culinary traditions (and is why it's been on my bucket list forever). With the exception of some North African countries, Ethiopia is one of the few places on the continent that has a recognizable spice blend. "Berbere" spice is a mixture of chilies, herbs and aromatic spices that give Ethiopian food its depth. 

One herb, called Koseret (seen below with the purple flowers), is unique to Ethiopia and has a lemony-green flavor that is used to spice the clarified butter they use to cook many dishes. More on that to come, I promise, because I'm a bit obsessed with butter of all kinds.

Over several days we visited five different small holder farms to learn about what the different women were growing and the various challenges they faced. We hiked down slippery mud paths where we encountered hunters wandering the forest with spears, or children chasing lost cows back to the homestead. We saw trucks filled with coffee workers, taxi vans shuttling women to and from town, kids in matching school uniforms running in packs, police pulling us over to give our driver a hard time, baboons yakking and hopping along in the ditch. It was quite different from the bustling, gray-brown streets of the capital city, to say the least, but I've always been more inclined to the countryside over the city.

Injera with shiro wat (chickpea sauce spiced with berbere) and tibs
Tari Kua (below), whose name means 'her story' in Amharic, grows rue and besobela, two herbs used to flavor the traditional berbere seasoning. Besobela is a type of Ethiopian basil, related to holy basil but with a different flavor, and they use the top of the plant, the flower buds, as the spice. Tari Kua had an infectious smile, and when it began to pour suddenly as we looked at the spices, she took off the scarf tied around her waist and wrapped it around Linden.

Below are the pods of Ethiopian cardamom called Korerima. They turn red when ripe, and are about the size of a fig, but dry to a dark gray pod filled with richly aromatic seeds.

We were treated to many cups of coffee, including a very special ceremony that involved starting with freshly harvested coffee cherries all the way through roasting, grinding and brewing the perfect cup - served with a pinch of salt and a sprig of aromatic rue.


Linden loved every minute, and luckily never even suffered an upset tummy - she was a little joy-magnet who put us all at ease, since making conversation with a language barrier is hard enough as it is. She loved eating the fresh coffee cherries and spitting out the beans. 

Below, a plot of turmeric and rosemary. Worke, whose named means "my gold" in Amharic, is one of the turmeric and herb farmers (how appropriate!); she is now a proud grandmother, and has expanded her plot to three times the size that it was last year. Her turmeric leaves practically glowed in the sunlight, and I could have curled up among them and gone to sleep, if it weren't for the ankle biting ants. 

The strength and peacefulness of these women inspires me. Thinking back on that meeting in the co-op, sharing cups of rich black coffee out of a delicate handleless cups, I felt filled with a renewed sense of purpose, and a hope that my daughter, as young as she is, might remember the feeling of the room and carry it with her into the future.


May 11, 2019

Field Notes from Sicily; Family & Wild Fennel

Sicily has a beautiful color palette - at once soft and faded by the bright sun and the willful passage of time, contrasted against the searing blues of the Ionian sea and the bright pops of color from gelato, tomatoes, pistachio.
Last August we traveled abroad as a family for the first time. While we were nervous about traveling with an infant—how would we eat dinner? How would we adjust to a different rhythm?—Italy turned out to be the perfect choice, as the very culture is built around food and family. For one of our first meals in Tuscany we were greeted by a young man who was so thrilled we brought our tiny daughter to his family's restaurant that he told us to wait a moment and five minutes later came back pushing a baby carriage to introduce us to his infant son, Tiego, only 3 months old. We toasted the babies and enjoyed an incredible meal of wild boar, saffron infused applesauce and buttery Tuscan beans with rosemary.

When we arrived to Sicily we met up with our friends Chiara and Giovanni, whom we'd met five years prior on the side of a volcano in Bali. It just so happened that Mark, my boyfriend at the time, had planned a sunrise hike up the side of Mt. Batur, thinking it would be a very romantic place to ask a special question. While he thought we'd be alone, our guide introduced us to another couple whom we'd be hiking with in the dark - Chiara and Giovanni from Sicily. Needless to say we had a blast hiking up the basalt-covered mountainside, chattering away with these two (Mark with one hand in his pocket making sure not to misplace a certain round metal thing). When we got to the top and the sun began to peek over the horizon, Mark handed the camera to Chiara and asked her to take our photo. As she snapped a few shots, he pulled the ring out of his pocket and proposed. I burst into tears, and Giovanni, watching nearby, let out a string of American curse words and snapped some photos of his own, yelling excitedly ‘Cry! Cry!’

We stayed in touch and I promised we'd visit them in Sicily. While some promises made on trips fade into oblivion, this one didn’t. Chiara and I stayed in touch and after five years we finally made it, complete with our new +1, baby Linden. Chiara gave us a whirlwind tour of the villages at the base of Catania, where she grew up, followed by a tour of Giovanni's orange groves, where Linden inspected the ripening fruit of the red and blood orange trees twinkling in the August sun. December is harvest time - oh how I wish we could have slipped back there to enjoy the fruit! Giovanni plucked a few blossoms for us to mount in the air vents of our rental, and we enjoyed a late lunch of fried vegetables and pasta with local fennel sausage in a quiet village.

Our purpose for visiting Sicily was not only to reunite with our friends but to investigate some potential partnerships for Curio. I had been in touch with a farm in Ferla, SE Sicily, not far from Siracusa, where wild fennel grows in abundance. We arrived to the base of the farm, a beautiful compound run by a brother and sister complete with a fountain in the shape of a dolphin. They showed us their operation, which, while mostly centered on their award-winning olive oil, also featured an incredible array of aromatics that they harvest from the surrounding countryside. Their laboratory featured a giant photo of one of their children as a baby, like a mascot for the business. After a tour of the facility we piled into cars and headed out into the landscape so they could show us where they gathered the herbs and spices. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to dip over a dramatic landscape carved with limestone canyons - as we drove along I stared out the window and inhaled the sweet air and felt my body fill with peace.

We stopped along the edge of one of the canyons to get out and see the fennel transitioning from blossom to seed – it wasn’t ready to harvest just yet – and the earth seemed to be glowing chartreuse from the shoulder-high fennel plants. Katia explained how they were allowed to harvest from the park (the land is government protected), so long as they didn’t disturb the other plants and the overall eco-system. The fennel was everywhere, the air steeped in it. She explained how the limestone cliffs were historically significant for being made into an ancient cemetery: the Necropolis of Pantalica. We explored the edges of the park where the wild thyme grew on small spiky shrubs - so unlike the creeping thyme here in New England. And finally the sun sank too low and the baby began to cry and it was time to head to Giovanni’s mother’s house because she’d made us a pasta dinner.

Maurizio & Katia Marino