Over the past year, Passable has posted all kinds of stories and interviews, from farmers to chefs to purveyors and more. We wanted to catch up with a few of them and find out what they’ve been up to.
Last winter, Costas Halavrezos became The Spiceman. Starting with a small stand at the Historic Halifax Farmer’s Market, Costas became Halifax’s de-facto distributor for Montréal-based company Épices De Cru. In the months since, Halavrezos has been busy diversifying his stock and gaining an ever increasing customer base. He took a few minutes out of his day to update us at Passable with what he’s been up to.
What have you noticed sells best ?
I’ll admit I wasn’t certain how people would respond when I started The Spiceman in December, but I had a hunch. Local consumers have become more knowledgeable, demanding and curious about everything related to food – from ingredients and international cuisines to cookware. So the arrival of all these visually attractive, aromatic and flavourful spice blends from Épices de Cru turned out to be very timely.
The Sri Lankan Roasted Black Curry is a good example of something that’s selling well which – aside from in a few kitchens like Fid Resto’s – wasn’t exactly a pantry staple in the Maritimes. It has no “heat” but its complex nut-like flavours transform something as traditional as a baked ham into something entirely new. Now that BBQ season is here, our customers trying things like the Tlatelolco Rub – a fascinating Mexican-style blend with chipotle & arbol chilis and Mexican oregano and epazote – two herbs quite unlike the Mediterranean herbs we’re used to.
Another key factor is the material developed by my friend and co-worker at The Spiceman, Ruth Rintoul. She’s created dozens of information sheets and recipes which we give out at our table. She’s great at bridging any knowledge gaps and customers really appreciate it. Ruth and her husband Guy have also been helping test the recipes before we print them up for market or send them out in the weekly newsletter.
So in general, my customers have found that trying new spices is a rather paradoxical thing : a safe adventure.
What do people come looking for ?
People who’d heard about the spices started coming out of the woodwork and asking me to bring in an amazing variety of products (I’m currently up to about about 90). For instance, a young mother who makes her own ice cream asked if I could bring in vanilla. I did and ended up selling a kilogram of Vanilla Pods from Papua New Guinea (that’s a lot of vanilla pods – they’re light).
Some people who got tajine pots for Christmas were experimenting with North African cuisine and called to see what I had, so I brought in a Tajine Blend and Couscous Spices.
A chili pepper enthusiast asked me if I could get him some Bhut Jolokia, or “Ghost” peppers – the hottest on the planet. It was obvious he knew how carefully you need to handle these, so I did.
And my former colleague Liz Logan asked about Dukkha – a great Egyptian blend she’d tried years ago. You grind it up with a few almonds or whatever nuts you have in the fridge, you dip bread into olive oil and then into the Dukkha. It’s addictive.
I should also mention how influential local food bloggers like you, Renée Lavallée, Ruth Daniels and Aaron Legge have been in spreading the word. Customers who share their discoveries and cooking enthusiasms on Twitter have been responsible for directing their friends to The Spiceman, too. I also send out a weekly newsletter with updates and recipes, and people have been forwarding that to foodie pals. So all of those forms of communication have brought people to my table at the market on Saturdays in search of spices and herbs.
What are some of the strangest requests you’ve gotten so far ?
Tonka Beans would rank near the top. Philippe & Ethné deVienne – the spice hunters behind Épices de Cru – are closing in on a consistent supplier and the prospects are looking good. Custards will never be the same once I get them. Anything that contains a hint of chocolate, almond and nutmeg has got to be good.
Also, I stock Philippe’s version of the legendary Ras-el-hanout which allows the spice blender to show his stuff. It has 24 spices, from cardamom & cinnamon to exotics like Moroccan rosebuds, cubeb & iris root. One of my customers knew I had it and asked whether it included hashish and Spanish Fly. Alas, she’ll have to find another merchant…
To subscribe to Costas’ newsletter, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming days