On a typical morning I wake up at around 6:15am and take our boisterous eleven-year-old vegetarian Dalmatian for a walk. Having been obsessed with herbs and spices and their aromas for most of my life, I am in constant wonder and envy about her ability to absorb information about the world via her sniffer! After our walk I boil the kettle for a morning cuppa and start a saucepan of porridge spiced with Sri Lankan cinnamon. Adding cinnamon negates the need for sugar and it tastes great with a dessert spoonful of unsweetened Greek yoghurt. My wife Liz has a bowl of toasted muesli that she makes every week using fragrant sweet spices and pure vanilla.
Our home is one hundred kilometres north of Sydney and the Spicery (our spice factory) takes about fifteen minutes to get to. The Spicery is where we grind, blend and pack the spices for distribution. A typical day begins by discussing the daily production schedule with Greg, our factory manager. Greg keeps me up to date with the status of inbound shipments, what issues may need to be addressed with respect to this day’s production and details of the staff he has rostered on for the day. As a HACCP certified business we have to maintain accurate production records, and have many food safety protocols in place. Greg keeps me up to date on how this is tracking as we always have to be able to handle an audit, or heaven forbid a product recall, in our stride. We are obsessed with quality, so rather than have machines packing our spices, our trained staff do all packing by hand, the ultimate quality control system.
When Liz and I started Herbie’s Spices 17 years ago, we wanted to have the largest range possible of culinary herbs and spices. Although a subjective issue, we wanted to only have the best quality available, something we were in a position to evaluate having been in the industry from the late 1960’s. As spice blends are convenient, we decided to only ever make our own spice blends from scratch, so we knew 100% what was in them. Finally, demystifying the world of spices was equally important, and to this end we run regular Spice Appreciation Classes and have written award-winning books on herbs and spices.
By now it is around 9am and I am talking to Debbie and Sue about the orders that have come in overnight by fax, e-mail and over the phone. Once again, these wonderful ladies and their assistants will have every order dispatched by 3pm.
By 10am I am going through a plethora of e-mails. Sadly 80% of these are junk unsolicited spam and get deleted immediately. The ones I enjoy are the curly spice-related questions which may be simply asking if we have a particular spice, or something more involved such as how to use dagar phool. Some of the most important communications are with our domestic and overseas suppliers. People often forget that herbs and spices are agricultural commodities, and are therefore subject to huge variations in quality form time to time, so every batch has to be inspected and evaluated before we use it.
Lunch most often is re-heated sambar, curry, chettinad or lentils and dhal from last night’s dinner. Eaten at the desk while going through accounts and doing all those mundane tasks we all have to do if our businesses are to be efficient and successful.
On a typical day I may be in communication with a supplier I will be visiting, such as the sumac farmers in eastern Turkey, or the mastic producers in Chios. Liz and I have had many trips to India, visiting plantations and spice processors, gathering information for our books and increasing our understanding of the growing, harvesting, post-harvest handling and transportation elements that all affect the final quality of spices.
Later in the day we will travel to our retail store in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle, taking stock for the store with us and talking to Karen our store manager, and her assistants about our customers and the questions they have been asking. On Saturdays Liz and I work in the shop all day so we are face to face with our customers at least one day a week. This is one of the most enjoyable days of the week for us as our customers are so interested in what we do and we have a lot of laughs. We also conduct spice appreciation classes, Liz cooks the tastings and I give people a two-hour talk on the history and use of spices.
In many respects this day has only scratched the surface, as many hours are spent on developing new spice blends (we now make over one hundred), testing recipes, writing for our books and managing the day to day operations of a business that started 17 years ago in a tiny garage, and now occupies a Spicery, a retail shop and on-line mail order business with 20 diligent and highly regarded employees who make all this possible.
By the end of the day we will make a simple meal like sambar, a stir-fry or a curry, always well flavoured with spices, although we do go a bit easy on the hot ones as we don’t want to overpower the subtle flavours.