The Spice Scout

Curio Spice CoPhoto by Chattman Photography.

Curio Spice Co. Owner Claire Cheney Travels the World In Search of Spices

When you walk into Curio Spice Co., there’s the sensation that you’ve stepped inside a remarkably well-stocked kitchen cabinet. The delicate aroma of spices makes it clear off the bat that this is an olfactory heaven for cooks.

The shop stocks pure spices, spice blends, and spice-related paraphernalia from all over the world—think tabasco chilies, turmeric latte milk, and a handy mortar and pestle. Once immersed in the bright hues and heady aromas of products with names like Kandy Spice, Aegean Salt, or Herbes de Romance, even a timid home cook could start dreaming up kitchen adventures.

Curio Spice Co

Claire Cheney. Photo by Ashley O’Dell.

Owner Claire Cheney has traveled to close to a dozen countries to bring quality spices and herbs back to Curio Spice Co. A former barista, she saw that people believed in fair trade and were willing pay for good quality, single-origin coffee. She wants to see spices celebrated in a similar fashion—to be moved out of the commodity market and into the specialty market.

“I want to change the conversation around spices,” she says.

By directly sourcing sustainably produced spices from around the world, her goal is to help reverse exploitative practices that have driven the commodity spice market.

In Madagascar, where she went looking for a supplier of vanilla beans, she learned that, typically, managers of vanilla-processing facilities frisk female workers to make sure they aren’t stealing pods, which are as precious as silver.

She searched for, and found, the exception: a supplier who pays his workers a fair wage and doesn’t frisk them. “There is a culture of trust at the facility that is different from other companies,” says Cheney.

Purchases at Curio Spice Co. help support the organic farmers Cheney works with from all over the world. While erratic changes in weather patterns around the globe have skewed the harvest cycles of many crops, supplementary income from premium spices provides these farmers some much-needed respite.

Cheney also helps spice growers get organic certification or certification to sell in the United States.

The Art and Science of Spice

When she isn’t off traveling, Cheney educates her clientele on how to use her high-quality ingredients to enhance their cooking. In the Spice 101 class that she holds at the store, she offers lessons on the science of aromas. As part of their olfactory training, beginners are encouraged to sniff spices. They savor spices in food and drink. They learn to toast, grind, and store spices. Once they understand the basics, they can try their hand at creating spice blends.

Making signature blends involves three key elements, Cheney says: flavor, visual appeal, and storytelling. Because the history of the world was, in part, shaped by the western quest for eastern spices, some blends tend to be heavily redolent of the past. Take Vadouvan, her signature curry blend. The blend harks back to colonial times, originating from Pondicherry, a tiny French stronghold in British India, which served as a haven for revolutionary thinkers.

Spice blends are not always this steeped in history, but each has its own story. Consider the signature blend Herbes de Romance, which Cheney, a New Englander, created as a favor for her brother’s wedding. It features Massachusetts-grown rosemary and wild oregano from Maine.

There’s also the spice blend Supeq, which means “ocean” in the language of the Passamaquoddy, a Native American people from Maine. This blend, which incorporates locally sourced seaweed, mushroom, and ginger, conjures beach vacations on the Cape and endless days of summer.

Blending spices can be an exercise in creativity. Just as an artistic person returns home from a stimulating trip and tries to capture that experience through writing, painting, or music, Cheney uses spices as her medium, she explains.

A recent trip to Japan resulted in the Edo Spice, a blend featuring sansho pepper, which packs a tongue-numbing tingle along with subtle heat. Cherry blossoms, a quintessential part of Japanese culture, are also an element of this blend.

For this holiday season, Cheney is working on a curry blend featuring saffron, an old favorite of hers. Back in 2006, while an undergraduate at Oberlin College, she came upon the photograph of a Bronze Age Greek fresco featuring female saffron gatherers. As a child, she had picked the stamen of saffron flowers when her family vacationed in Greece. “I felt an instant connection with these women,” she says. Intrigued, she dove into the literature. She learned that modern Greeks cultivate this valuable vermillion spice, “vegetable gold,” mainly for export.

In 2010, Cheney, who worked in a gourmet coffee shop in Boston, visited a Greek village which grew saffron. This unplanned detour, while she was on a holiday, was her first foray into spice-seeking in faraway places.

Cheney launched Curio Spice Co. in 2015 after years of blending spices under the tutelage of experts at Oleana and Sofra. In addition to serving retailers and the individuals who wander into her shop, Cheney has formed relationships with local businesses—Juliet in Somerville uses and retails two of her custom blends, “La Pluie” and “Cinnamon Bird,” and Honeycomb Creamery flavors some ice creams with her fresh spices.

As the company grows, Cheney looks forward to making a bigger impact on the way that spices are produced, traded, and used in home cooking.

“I love hearing about a delicious dish that someone made using our spices, because it means that the product has been celebrated every step of the way,” she says.

Curio Spice Co. is located at 2265 Massachusetts Ave.

This story originally appeared in the Celebrating the Season issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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