98. profile: curio spice co.

adding unique spices when cooking is our favorite way to make recipes feel extra special. this is why we were so excited to spend some time in the kitchen with claire cheney of curio spice co. claire has combined her love of cooking, travel and history to create a diverse collection of beautiful spice blends. building on a model that values fair trade and sustainability, she has developed relationships with farmers all over the world while sourcing her ingredients. we met up with claire (and campari, her adorable cat) to explore her spice cabinet and and learn more about the unique creative process involved in making the perfect blend:

what are some unexpected everyday sources of inspiration? 
cookbooks, especially old and obscure ones. i have a great moroccan cookbook translated from french that i found in a used book store in nyc and it has such beautiful language. i've also been studying amari lately - basically drinkable bitters - and i find them quite inspiring, as they contain layers of botanical wonders. i like natural history museums, especially botanical exhibits, since they help boost my plant knowledge and give me a sense of our long relationship with plants. i also have been studying natural perfume which i find endlessly inspiring.

what is your favorite time of day to create? 
i don't really have a favorite time of day, just as long as i've had coffee. you don't want to meet me in the hallway at 6am when i haven't had coffee.

favorite or most inspirational place? 
truly, i love all the places i've traveled for different reasons. i love vietnam for the combination of rich, deep flavors that are used in grilled pork with noodles that you find in the street stall in every city and you sit on a tiny stool and just immerse yourself in the goodness. this dish - i think it's called bún thịt nướng, as well as the ever popular pho were part of the inspiration for my blend called "da lat" which is named after a city in central vietnam that's famous for it's coffee. i also love sri lanka but i could write ten pages about that place and i don't want to break your blog.

how did you get involved in working with spices? 
it was a cumulative effect. gardening, farming, cooking, eating, traveling. i went to ghana when i was 18 and met my first cinnamon tree (in a botanic garden outside accra) and that made a big impression on me. i also worked for a small coffee company and visited a coffee farm in el salvador and got really into the idea of direct sourcing. in a metaphysical sense, i got started with spices because of a poem i worked on in college about the saffron crocus (crocus sativus). during my research for the poem, i came across a book in the art library about a fresco in greece called "the saffron gatherers" depicting women harvesting saffron and offering it to a goddess. there was just this profound moment of connection that felt like it spanned time, as though i was looking at a painting of myself (i wasn't the goddess though). anyway, then a few years later i raised money on kickstarter so i could travel to greece and harvest saffron, and then my love of spices and history and agriculture just expanded.

you create such beautiful and unique spice blends, tell us a bit about your process in creating these combinations? 
thank you! the blends are an expression of memory and experience, not so different from i imagine how other artists create, it's just that my medium (spices) happens to communicate mostly through aroma, texture and taste. i get an idea, i write some notes, smell a lot of different ingredients and think about the sensation/emotional feeling i'm trying to capture, then i just play and cook and sometimes the combinations are terrible but sometimes they're delightful. i'm proud of each blend in my collection, as they each tell a story that's very personal to me.

you've had the opportunity to travel all over the world to meet suppliers while sourcing the spices for your blends. how important is it for you to have strong relationships with the farmers you work with? 
it's hugely important, but challenging. i wish i had a team to help me, but for now it's just me. however i will say that some of my sourcing has been made possible through a network of friends and colleagues and for that i am grateful. spices are usually thought of as a commodity, but my goal is to catalyze the same change that happened in the coffee industry. coffee went from being a commodity to being a specialty product, directly sourced from regions and farmers, both creating a higher quality product and driving a more socially responsible and environmentally sustainable economy.

do you have a favorite among your spice blends? how do you like to use it?
depends on the season or my mood! i've been pretty excited about the aegean salt lately as a fish seasoning, and i'm planning on making some dark chocolate brownies that i'll top with a touch of aegean salt. the mastiha that i blend into it just has this gorgeous, piney, ancient scent that i can't get enough of.

how do you see curio growing and evolving?
i'd like to sell to more small gourmet stores because i am a big fan of independently owned shops that each have their own unique story. but also down the road i'd like to open my own shop that doubles as a spice museum (or curiosity cabinet!) where folks can learn about the history of spices, aromatic plants and cuisine from around the world. the name of my business comes from the concept of a curiosity cabinet where, especially back in the day, you'd put "curiosities" you'd discovered from around the world. my spice cupboard at home is a bit like that.

what is the best piece of creative advice you've ever been given?
i don't know if it's advice so much as wisdom, but my dad always used to say this one phrase when my brothers and i were growing up, especially in unsavory conditions such as we'd just set up camp in a mosquito-infested swamp. "it's all part of the adventure," my dad would say. i used to hate that phrase, as it signified my dad trying to turn an awful scenario into a positive one. but now i love it because as i pursue this creative spice venture there are plenty of things that come alongside the wonderful creative bits that are disappointing, uncomfortable or frustrating. i've had to just make the best of it, because it's all part of the adventure.

what is the best piece of creative advice you have to give?
my advice is to write. even if you don't think of yourself as a "writer" or you hate writing, there's nothing more powerful than just putting stuff down on a page, getting it out of your head. i filled journal after journal before deciding to start my own business, and some pages were just lists of things, like places i wanted to go, or books to read, or foods to cook. some pages were just filled with plants i glued on. i never look back at any of those notebooks but they were instrumental in helping me develop my ideas.

you can find curio spice co.'s blends at several local retailers including cambridge naturals, sofra bakery & cafe and formaggio kitchen. all of claire's blends can also be purchased at curio's online store - be sure to take a look at her gift sets which are perfect for holiday shopping!

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