The history of the spice trade is a tale overflowing with adventure, violence, and greed. Once the world's largest industry, the hunger for spices spurred global exploration, and the urge to control those valuable commodities sparked wars.
Today, with salt and pepper ubiquitous on every table, and bottles of affordable seasonings stocked 10 deep on the shelves of every grocery, you might think that the spice business has been drained of intrigue — but you'd be wrong.
We spoke with three modern-day spice traders who prove that not only is the field far from extinct, but it's also still driven by passion, plus a dash of kismet.
The Accidental Pepper Trader
James Turley, owner of the IndoChine Spice Company in Saratoga, California, never planned on becoming a spice trader.
"It's a pretty simple story," he jokes. "I started selling pepper because I fell off a pyramid."
An adventurer hooked on exploring remote locales, Turley had traveled throughout Southeast Asia before arriving in Cambodia in 2006. Although he normally eschewed popular destinations, he couldn't resist seeing Angkor Wat, the 400-acre temple complex that's one of the largest religious monuments in the world.
He hired a Khmer guide who, he says, "knew where to go in the jungle without stepping on land mines," but despite the expert support, Turley fell and badly injured his knee one week into the tour, miles from anything approaching a modern medical facility. His guide sent a message to relatives who lived near the temple complex, and family members helped transport Turley to their home to recover.
"The local healer came," Turley remembers, "She put herbs on my knee and wrapped it up and it got better."
He spent 10 days at home with the family. Near the end of his stay, the guide's uncle arrived, eager to meet the American. He invited Turley to visit the family's pepper farm in Kep, a seaside district located about a day's journey away from Angkor Wat.
Most of Cambodia's long-cultivated Kampot pepper plants had been destroyed with the violence of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, the fields converted to rice paddies. Turley knew enough about the country's history to recognize the family's pepper crop as something rare and astonishing.
"This pepper was incredible," he says. "You could go a half-kilometer away and still smell it." And the taste of those hand-cultivated, hand-picked, hand-washed Kampot berries? Sweet yet hot.
Turley offered to buy the farmer's complete next crop on the spot, and paid in advance, becoming the first American to buy Kampot pepper directly from the grower.
"I was so lucky to get this farmer to do this with love and care. I was just humbled by it. And I felt good that I was giving money to the farmer and not to a middleman. That started my business in 2007."
Since then, IndoChine Spice Company has blossomed without relying on brick-and-mortar sales. Turley sells direct to consumers on Amazon, and also supplies product to executive chefs throughout Northern California. After importing that first crop, he furnished free samples to staff at The French Laundry, Chez Panisse, and every restaurant in the region with a Michelin star, gaining prestigious customers in the process. Although he'd like to expand his restaurant distribution beyond the Bay area, Kampot pepper is too rare. He simply can't import enough.
In 2010, the Cambodian government granted Kampot pepper a domestically issued geographic indication status, a designation certifying its origin as a regional food. This year the European Union also bestowed Protected Geographical Indication on Kampot pepper, which means that any spice sold in the EU labeled "Kampot pepper" must originate in Cambodia's Kampot or Kep provinces.
This protection has been good for Cambodian farmers, who can command more money for their crop, but it has brought Turley significant trading competition. To grow IndoChine Spice Company, Turley is investigating the import of Cambodian turmeric, and also encouraging the family farmers he works with to try cultivating vanilla plants in the shade of their pepper vines.
But despite efforts to branch out, Turley still refers to pepper as "the king of spice," and values his ongoing relationship with his original family farm contacts, personally maintained during the three trips he continues to make annually.
"My Khmer translator is now my country manager," he says. "Their family has prospered, and I feel good about that."
And, against all odds, Turley has found a way to increase his pepper imports, just a little. Starting next year, he'll be distributing the entire pepper crop grown to support "Our School," a community learning center serving children in the Kampot region. He plans to charge a premium price pepper sold under the "Our School" label to maximize profit both for himself and for the school.
"My business model," Turley says, "is sustainable, direct to farmer, 100 percent organic, rare, and very expensive."
The Herbalist Turned Spice Trader
Much like James Turley, Seattle trader Amanda Bevill stumbled upon her calling.
"I literally turned right instead of left on the sidewalk one day," she says, recalling the afternoon in 2001 that she wandered into a spice shop, enticed by the aromatic wares. As fate would have it, the owner of the store was looking to retire, and Bevill, who'd previously run an herbal medicine business, snatched the opportunity.
Bevill's store, World Spice Merchants, thrives at the heart of the Seattle food scene in a charming storefront behind Pike Place Market. She and her 12 employees provide fresh seasonings to 125 local restaurants, plus 300 more dining establishments nationwide, and ship spices to customers everywhere.
And even though World Spice counts James Beard award winners among its clientele, Bevill also relishes inspiring home cooks to get creative. "I love watching the light come on in people's eyes, as they go from intimidated to excited about using spices," she says.
Although World Spice vows to "go to the ends of the earth" to source the best and freshest seasonings, Bevill doesn't travel as much as she'd like. "Because of global connections, it's not a necessity," she explains.
Sometimes her loyal customers even help forge those connections. World Spice buys its saffron from a small, fair-trade cooperative in Morocco, thanks to an introduction made by a customer who'd served there in the Peace Corps.
But even though Bevill would like to grow her business in terms of spice offerings — like a new salt, launching soon, obtained from an 8th generation family business in Appalachia — she doesn't want to get any bigger.
"Our biggest aspiration is to stay small," Bevill says, promising to always keep company's focus on quality.
The Custom Spice Blender
Ben Walters had been mixing his own spice rubs for years, but after moving back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he felt frustrated by a lack of accessible, quality ingredients. Then, one afternoon in 2008, a newly vacant storefront caught his eye during lunch with friends at North Market, Columbus' foodie mecca.
Wouldn't it be great if a spice shop opened there? he mused. Eighteen months, a few permits, and one business plan later, Walters had launched North Market Spices. The store took off, allowing Walters to quit his day job running the Experience Columbus Visitor's Center after juggling both gigs for a year.
Today, North Market Spices provides custom blends for restaurants throughout Ohio, and fields orders for rubs and private label blends from customers far beyond the Midwest, thanks to his online presence. Locals recognize Walters as a "tastemaker" and a "culinary superhero."
"I love getting to interact with people," he says. "I get to expand their horizons on food, and I get to be a food nerd all day."
But still, he isn't fully satisfied.
"I would like to be a trader. I want to be the guy who travels. I'm not there yet," Walters says. "But I have a friend in Columbus who does international shipping. I'm putting my infrastructure in place for the future."
Ready to embark on your own spice adventure? We asked the experts to share their tips on buying, storing, and organizing.