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Spicetrekkers.com - On the hunt for the world's best spices and blends

On the hunt for the world's best spices and blends

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Loose Leaf Teas vs. Tea Bags

loose leaf tea vs tea bags

Which one would you rather drink?

 Let’s start with some honesty : I prefer loose leaf teas. I find them vastly superior to tea bags in almost every way. However, tea bags almost consistently outsell loose leaf teas in North America, so the subject must be adressed.

First you may be asking yourself what the differences between loose leaf teas and tea bags may be, beyond the simple fact that they represent two differing infusion methods. Well, put simply, loose leaf teas are as close in form and taste to the original plant as one can get. Tea bags are those same leaves, crushed into fragments, sometimes even powder, then put into bags. Loose leaf teas release a full bodied flavor when infused whereas tea bags offer only strong and abrupt flavors. Continue reading →

Uzbek Jack

One of the most wonderful spice discoveries we made in years did not involve us crossing any time zones but came to us while we were at our spice shop Olives & Épices in the Jean-Talon market in Montreal. Philippe and I enjoy nothing better than spending our Saturdays in the market when we’re in town as we find the intimate contact with our customers and staff incredibly invigorating. We listen, we learn, we teach, we share and we grow, what could be better?

On one such Saturday a man walked into the store, introduced himself as Jack and told us that he had a sample of something to show us. He was quite tall and no light weight but Jack seemed harmless enough so when he reached into his pocket to take something out, we were not alarmed but rather intrigued by the little plastic bag that he held out to us in his outstretched hand.

Jack explained that he had previously come to our store looking for black cumin, certain that he would find it. We did not disappoint him as we did in fact have black cumin, but from all appearances he was underwhelmed by what we offered. We are not used to disappointing customers, so Philippe and I were doubly interested by what he went on to say.

It turned out that he was from Uzbekistan and not surprisingly, was fond of cooking Uzbek food. The “crowning glory” of Uzbek national cuisine he explained, is the plov which closely resembles the rice pilafs of the Middle East. It would appear that plovs were once cooked exclusively by men, so much so that a Soviet Communist Party official is reported to have said that as far as he was concerned “one of the most significant achievements of the 1917 Revolution was that it finally gave Uzbek women the right to make plov”. There are reputed to be over 400 plov recipes in Uzbekistan and here was poor Jack just wanting to make one and couldn’t because he was robbed of one of the pillars of plov – good, fragrant Uzbek black cumin (see Jack’s recipe). Continue reading →

New Playground

I recently heard about a recently identified affliction called Back to School Syndrome or Back to School Blues. It apparently affects youngsters after extended periods of absence from their schools or when they enter new academic environments.  I wondered if the syndrome was exclusive to students or if it might also have an impact on entrepreneurs.

According to Dr. Lin Chen-he, the anxieties that some kids face when going back to the rigors of academia can easily be soothed if parents and guardians make sure that they are well prepared for a change of environment, a new routine and the renewed demands that they will encounter.

But what is it that so concerns kids and their parents most about returning to school after an extended absence from the scholastic and social roles that school plays in their lives?

Some of the concerns expressed are; “Will I still fit in with the “old crowd” or am I going to have to make new friends”?

“Deep down inside I really want to be popular but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a show off!”

“How will I fit in without being seen as pushy?”

And the ever popular; “I so want to be cool, but I don’t want to be a fool”.

It would be refreshing if some among them were at least mildly concerned about their grades which could eventually indicate just how well or not they applied themselves to the tasks at hand. Continue reading →


In a few days Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving and this is the holiday that’s supposed to make us reap the bountiful harvest, stop, smell the produce – as the roses have long been dormant – and be grateful for all that we have- supposedly.

In Canada, Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday of October, and once it’s over we don’t hear much about, or eat turkey until a couple of months later at Christmas.

In the U.S. however, this annual bird binge takes on a whole new meaning, as American Thanksgiving is celebrated just one short month before Christmas. I mean with just a few weeks between these two notoriously, big family get-together days, home cooks either delight in or panic at the thought of serving exactly the same main course to the same guests within such a relatively short period of time. Continue reading →

Cooking Lessons

 Julia Child once said, “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a “what the hell?” attitude”.  

Last August 15th would have been the 100th birthday of the great American culinary icon; Julia Child who is credited with singlehandedly revolutionizing the way Americans cook. Her first book Mastering the Art of French Cooking – on which she collaborated with two other authors – was published in 1961, and remained on the best-seller list for five years. This impressive volume has been reprinted numerous times and has been reissued with revisions on two occasions.

Julia loved great food, appreciated fine wine and insisted on having fun.  She definitely embodied a “what the hell” vibe that was comforting especially to those of us who did not attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking academy in Paris as she had.  “You must have discipline to have fun” she famously declared, and the rigor that was evident in her writing, her cooking and the production of her television shows, illustrate her belief and application of her pronouncement.

Where has the fun gone in cooking? Most times when I see someone demonstrating a recipe or a cooking technique, there is an air of superiority and drama that usually accompany the exercise. So much so, that I fully expect to be sent to my room or expelled should the “teacher” ever find out that I didn’t grasp or properly execute the lesson that was taught. Continue reading →

The Best Tea in the World

Being the tea fanatic/importer that I am, I am frequently asked many, many questions about tea. Most questions I more than happy to answer, as I am always in the mood to discuss tea, the best ways to chose them, store them, infuse them and taste them. There are thousands of different ways of appreciating a good cup of tea, and I love exploring all the different infusion and tasting methods the wonderful world of tea has to offer. However, there is one question, my most frequently asked, that I have a very difficult time answering: “What is the best tea in the world?”

The best tea? Out of all of them? 39 tea producing countries in the world, 5000 varieties on the planet (conservative estimate), all picked and rolled and dried and cooked and fragranced in different ways… it’s a tall order to find the best one.

What is the best tea in the world? - Spicetrekkers.com

When I was first asked this question in our store, La Dépense, I was truly and utterly stumped. I had a customer who was a coffee drinker who wanted to give his daughter, more of a tea drinker, “the best tea in the world” for her birthday. I had no idea what to say. I tried asking him what kind of tea she usually drank. Was she a fan of scented teas or natural teas, did she have a teapot or preferred the convenience of teabags… to no avail. He was rushed for time, and simply wanted to get the best tea in the world for his little girl, and didn’t care about the price. Continue reading →


It’s impossible to forget the first time we went to Oaxaca because it was just a couple of days before the Guelaguetza. The Guelaguetza is an annual celebration held in the month of July that brings together the seven mountainous regions of the Oaxacan valley in an outpouring of colorful and exuberant demonstrations of dancing, singing, eating and all-round sharing.

Oaxacan culture happily dictates that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to their communities. Exchanges of goods or deeds between individuals or groups should however be repaid, if not immediately then at some time in the future. For example if a carpenter helps a baker build his house, then the carpenter’s daughters could expect that all of the baked goods needed for their eventual weddings would be supplied, free of charge of course.  It’s a truly spectacular event that genuinely represents the spirit and culture of one of the most beautiful indigenous regions of Mexico.

We experienced our own Guelaguetza of sorts upon meeting the wonderful family that owns Divina Tradicion, one of the last artisanal chocolate makers left in Mexico. We filmed an episode of our television documentary series Chasseurs d’épices (Spice Hunters) in Oaxaca and were bowled over by the really authentic and delicious mole negro  we ate in Azucena Zapoteca. When we asked chef Israel where he got the chocolate to make the mole negro he directed us to Divina Tradicion where third generation owners Lorena and Misael graciously allowed us to film a segment of our show.  Their generosity was of course greatly appreciated and that particular segment of the show proved to be one of the highlights of the Oaxaca episode. Continue reading →

New York, New York

Posted on by Ethne

We always hear about the “bigness” that is New York. Of course there are the sky scrapers, the traffic, the noise and the notoriously big, bad attitudes of New Yorkers themselves, which be they true or not are legendary.  The city also has everything we could apparently ever imagine; it’s the most densely populated in the Unites States, it has one of the world’s largest natural harbours and it has long been a center for fashion, trade, finance, diplomacy, entertainment, art and culture.

We rarely hear about the politeness of New Yorkers, the intimacy of their neighbourhoods or the “How you guys doin’ ?” folksiness of some retailers, servers and taxi cab drivers.

Fortunately for us Manhattan is not the only reference for all that is wonderful, and wondrous about this world renowned metropolis also nicknamed Gotham. Long ignored Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn are regaining some of the ground they lost over the past half century or so to the hipsters and brokers, as well as to the rising and sometimes even falling stars who made and maintained Manhattan. Continue reading →

Chios Tears

A few  of our memorable spice trekking destinations continue to make headlines, for reasons totally unconnected to the wonderful spices that we source and subsequently import for our company Epices de cru®.

Last summer Chios joined other newsmakers like: Assam, Aleppo, Kashgar, Sri Lanka and Grenada and as a consequence has surely become yet another very popular search topic on Google.

Forest fires last summer destroyed approximately half the mastic trees which are indigenous to the southern part of the island. Chios’ strategic location in the Aegean Sea is considered one of the main reasons for the superior quality of mastic that has been harvested there for centuries. Mastic trees produce a resin which is extracted by cutting the bark of the larger branches and allowing the sap to drip on to a blanket of calcium carbonate scattered under the trees. “Chios tears”, as the mastic is called, are then washed, sun dried, further processed and used in preparations such as chewing gum, candies, spirits, liquors, desserts, medications and cosmetics.

Compared with other destinations in Greece, Chios is an incredibly serene and laid-back island which is also believed to be the birthplace of Homer and Christopher Columbus.  It was in the idyllic, fortified village Mesta, one of the better preserved medieval towns that dot the island, that we met Mrs. & Mr. Dionysios. The couple had lived in the village for most of their lives and were restaurateurs prior to their retirement.  Their culinary experience and generosity, coupled with their conviction that “all things Greek are great”, allowed us to learn a lot about the local food culture, and to thoroughly enjoy their hospitality whenever we visited Mesta. Continue reading →

Mortar and pestle

Posted on by Ethne

I had an old boyfriend once who was a university student, he eventually graduated, but I think it was a distinction that had been bestowed on him for time served and not much else. Not that he lacked intelligence, he just had a higher regard for himself and his abilities than others did. By the time he became an entrepreneur our relationship had already come to an amicable end.  I remember however, that he was always – “Busy, very, very busy”. It didn’t matter the time of year or the day of the week, this guy was always “VERY busy”.  I never understood what made his life so hectic or why he never found the time to do all that he claimed he wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no slacker myself, but people who say that they’re too busy to slow down, too busy to cook, too busy to eat well, or too busy to play, really puzzle me.  I mean if you think about it, where’s the fun, and when are they planning on having some?

Even before becoming spice hunters, Philippe and I were avid travelers.  Our exploits allowed us to sample a variety of cuisines from all over the world and to develop a lasting respect for people of different cultures who embrace the art of cooking with spices.  It is always heart warming to see those who take the time to prepare and share meals.  It’s never just about the food; it’s truly also about the legacy.  It’s about passing on the knowledge and encouraging the next generation to follow suit.  It’s also about doing what it takes to eat tasty, nutritious, simple, shared, home-made food.  We all know that some – thank God not all – of our habits – will in time be emulated by our kids. The pleasure, good sense and totally self indulgent practice of eating well are therefore all wonderful pretexts on which to hedge our bets, hoping that the “little ones” will copy some of those as well. Continue reading →

Let’s talk about spices

I never realized what a hard time some people have when it comes to describing taste. They seem however, to have less difficulty with flavours, as more colourful and less precise language is tolerated.  Firstly, taste is determined exclusively by the tongue and we all remember the famous four; sweet, bitter, sour and salty.  Flavor however is a combination of taste, smell, texture and temperature which is where the “flowery”, “lemony”, “woodsy” and the ever popular “grassy” terminology flamboyantly enters conversations triggering lots of head bobbing and eyebrow lifting, depending on the tone and delivery of the speaker.  Our personal memories also play an important role when it comes to describing flavour, as past experiences often thought to be forgotten rear their submerged heads and greatly influence our opinions. How many times have we said or heard “This reminds me of …”

We don’t seem to have too much trouble discerning between sweet, bitter, sour, and salty, which for so long stood alone as taste definers.  Then along came hot and umami as well as other deeply intense taste profiles which kick our taste buds into overdrive when we use chilies, herbs, peppers, and even soya sauce. Once we incorporate these other tastes, for some reason some among us are inclined to rage on about how “spicy” the food is.  A question that often arises when referring to spice blends is “Is it very spicy?”  That’s always a tough one to answer because any spice blend is made up of a variety of spices, each with their own taste, flavour and intensity, which by definition makes the blend – you guessed it – “spicy”.

Morocco’s most legendary contribution to the spice world is probably Ras el Hanout. This blend is also known as “the top of the shop” and can contain as many as thirty or more different spices. It is the blend that every spice merchant uses to showcase his or her mastery of the ancient art of spice blending.  This highly aromatic, most emblematic blend is by far the most famous to have ever crossed the thresholds of kitchens anywhere in the world. Is it hot? No, even though there are more than five different kinds of peppers in its profile. Is it strong? Well, it’s not weak that’s for sure. We were being cautious, if not kind when we left out the hashish, Spanish fly and belladonna that were staples of the blend in the old days. Is it spicy? Most definitely, with almost thirty individual spices, that would be an apt description of this blend. Is it a masterpiece? In the world of spices, it’s a Rembrandt. Continue reading →

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