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

Mar 28, 2018

An Age Old Question ~ 3 Key Tips on Storing Spices

How long should I keep my spices?

We get asked this a lot in the shop and always have a couple ready answers. But the longer answer is something I've thought about a lot, and especially now, as spring knocks at the door, and my body and mind beg for freshness.

As some of you readers may know, I'm expecting a baby. This little one is exactly one week late now. I thought it'd be fun to have a baby on the "official" first day of spring, which is also Persian New Year (we did birth a new spice called Mazeh for Nowruz). But no baby. Now it's nearly Passover and Easter, and there are just so many holidays celebrating re-birth, liberation, spring and the like that it seems a darn well good time to celebrate a baby, too. If only he or she would budge from my womb.

Here's the short answer for how long you should keep your spices:

- Ground spices: 6 months is best. After 1 year, replace.
- Whole spices: 1-2 years.
- Dried herbs: 6 months.

If there isn't an obvious "best by" date on the package, mark your spices as soon as you buy them with the date. It will be easier to rotate them!

I collect antique spice packaging, but not antique spices.
But what's the longer answer?

Spices can and often do get forgotten. They are dried things from far away that are tucked away in a cabinet or drawer and brought out on occasion for a recipe for mapo tofu or gingerbread cake. There are a few favorites that stay out on the countertop for constant use, but my impression is that most homes contain a whole cast of spices that are ghosts of their former selves, lurking in a sort of shadowed, passive state.

I like this section from a Jorie Graham poem "To Mark Rothko" where she's writing about an intense color of red (here expressed through a description of a cardinal). I like it both because Rothko is a painter whose work speaks to me with its intense, emotional color (I went through a phase once of trying to express scent through color) but also because spices are often literally pigments themselves and are used in painting. Graham's poem captures the feeling of an intensity of color that I believe can be translated to spice:

He could fly now
into a moment of sunlight
that fell from the sun's edge
ten thousand years ago,
mixed in with sunlight
absolutely new.

The tradition of using spices in our food is ancient—traditions stemming from ritual and medicine dating back more than ten thousand years. But the flavors should be absolutely new; they should be the best dry-form expression that the plant has to offer, mixed in with sunlight. How intense are your spices? Are they Rothko intense? Sunlight is pretty intense, and it is something we eat, in a way, in that plants translate sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. 

Here are 3 key ways to eat sunlight (and keep your spice cupboard fresh):

1) Relocate: Figure out which are your absolute desert-island favorite spices, and move those to a convenient spot in your kitchen - such as where you keep your salt and pepper or olive oil. It may be that you have just two (besides salt and pepper) or maybe ten. Figure it out. Your food will taste better because you'll use these more often.

2) Refresh: Spring cleaning isn't just for rugs and floors: go into your spice cupboard at least once a year and pull out the stale spices. How do you know they're stale?
- Open the jar and smell it. Does it spark inspiration? (a la Marie Kondo's 'spark joy') I know it's vague, but the smell of your spices should excite you. If not, they're not going to add anything to your food.
- Feel it. Is it very dry, almost sandy? Or rock hard? The aromatic oils are gone, and there is no life left in this spice. Say so long.
- Does the packaging look pretty outdated? Yes, you know you have a few of these. There are also expiration dates to check.
- Has the color vanished? Especially for herbs and dried chilies - if it's gone more brown or gray, there isn't much left of this spice. Compost away.

Dried Maras chile pepper: 2+ years old (on left) versus fresh.

Ground cardamom (vaguely fragrant, looks like floor sweepings) vs. vibrant whole pods. 

3) Replace: Notice if most of your spices are ground. If yes, consider replacing all of the pure ground spices with whole versions. Exceptions are ginger and cinnamon, although grating your own cinnamon is definitely worth it! (See below for a note on turmeric). Also good to keep fresh ginger root around.

Here are whole spices that you should always keep on hand in lieu of ground:

- Nutmeg. Pre-ground nutmeg is only good for 1-2 months due to very volatile oil content. Just get used to grating it - you'll love it!
- Cardamom. Pods or seeds.
- Fennel seeds.
- Coriander seeds.
- Cumin seeds (unless you happen to buy our freshly toasted & ground!)
- Cloves.
- Star Anise.
- Peppercorns (all types).

Grate your own nutmeg. 
Grind your whole spices quickly and easily in a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee grinder. The flavor will be astoundingly different.

What about turmeric?

While turmeric can be found fresh in the grocery store these days, it's not entirely practical to buy it this way. If you are excited about discovering turmeric and its health-promoting properties, it's worth it to seek out a freshly ground turmeric. We have one from Sri Lanka that we grind in house that's phenomenal. We also just started offering local ground turmeric from a farm in Amherst, MA. How cool is that?!

What about blends?

Since I am a spice blender, of course I must advocate for the use of blends, which may seem contrary to my whole argument about fresh spices. But if you are using freshly-made blends (from small purveyors!) you are doing great. Blends from big-chain grocery stores, or that come in giant bottles ("but it was SO CHEAP!") or that are basically commodity spices, aren't worth using. I can assure you that they've been sitting in their 'ground state' for at least one year if not three, so you are already buying expired, stale spices.

Good blends (made by small purveyors, freshly ground) offer the chance to elevate a dish more easily than you might be able to with just pure spices. They are to be used liberally and often, not just for the pie you make once a year. Blends are rooted in cultural traditions, a sense of place, a culinary concept - they are there to make your job easier in the kitchen, to stretch your imagination and to make you feel like a pro.

Concerns over money and spices:

One thing that I think demotivates us from getting rid of spices is that they cost us money, and the possibility that they *might* still be good so "maybe I'll save money by keeping them around." But think of your spices like a bunch of fresh roses - you spent $12 on that bunch of roses, and enjoyed their scent and beauty in a vase on your table. Then they began to droop, lose some petals, turn brown, dry out. Does this bouquet still bring you joy? Not the way the fresh ones did. You throw them out, but you don't think about the fact that you wasted $12. They served their purpose and you are glad for that.

Of course fresh flowers are shorter-lived than spices, but I think it's a good analogy. And besides, a jar of spice is usually half the price of a bunch of flowers.

Spices that are a bit more expensive - like saffron and vanilla - are still not that expensive relative to other foods or household items. A jar of saffron might cost you $10 but shouldn't then cause you anxiety about using too much. Again, think of a bunch of flowers that costs at least that much. Spices are valuable but not precious - enjoy the value they bring to your meals by adding incredible scent, color and flavor.
Bay leaves. Six months old on left. Fresh on right.

Happy spring spicing! May you fly now / into a moment of sunlight —