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Al Goetze, the Indiana Jones of spices
May 1, 2014 7:28 PM   Subscribe

If you hear the term "spice buyer," you might imagine someone trading goods on a hectic futures trading or arguing with farm managers on a phone, but for Al Goetze and his team, spice buying means meeting with farmers and local distributors in more than 40 countries, often in the developing world. Goetze has been likened to Indiana Jones, part scientific in his discussion of herbs and spices, but he also travels to see the spices in person. He recalls adventures in buying nutmeg in Indonesia and sage in Albania, and has talked to NPR about how pepper gets dirty and how it gets clean. But not all are fond of the spice hunter from McCormick, as buying direct from the farmers has greatly impacted the livelihood of spice-trading companies, whose practice has been recorded as far back as 2600 BC, when onions and garlic from Asia were fed to Egyptian slaves (PDF).
posted by filthy light thief (29 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
“We get to see the real country,” Al says, “which is really fascinating. Most of these places are absolutely gorgeous . . . absolutely incredible.”

I'll bet they are. Just wanted to get in before this place filled up with Dune jokes and say this looks interesting.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:00 PM on May 1 [6 favorites]


The spice, it must.... Aw shit.
posted by valkane at 8:02 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!
posted by lagomorphius at 8:03 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


"My name's Goetze, and don't google voice search for it. Ever."
posted by zippy at 8:18 PM on May 1 [9 favorites]


"Wherever there is spice, there are worms."

Well, maybe not worms. but....
The FDA found things like rodent hair and insect parts in the spices they tested.



McCormick: We may clean it first, and then it goes into a steam sterilization process. It's pasteurization. We do that with all of our spices.


No wonder their spices suck. I love my herb garden--just the basics: sage, oregano, thyme, parsley, chives, dill, rosemary, cilantro, anise, basil--what a difference fresh spices make.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:19 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


It turns out most of the flavor actually comes from the rodent and insect parts.
posted by clockzero at 8:26 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I agree, BlueHorse, growing herbs has been the most satisfying, hassle-free use for a small home garden. I'm growing tropical perennials: lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, kafir lime, curry leaf, torch ginger, galanga, black pepper.
posted by BinGregory at 8:41 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I think many/most foods being imported to the US have to go through some sort of quarantine treatments, which are most often cold or chemical treatments, because most countries have some sort of pest, somewhere, even if the particular farmer or grower did a good job keeping their crops pest-free. And then there's the fact that anything that travels to the US from anywhere other than Mexico or Canada comes here by boat, which means the crop is picked and possibly treated to preserve it, or kept in cold storage for the weeks-long journey by boat. In short, there's more to loss of flavor than the cleaning process that food goes when coming to the US from elsewhere.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:41 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


what a difference fresh spices make

Once you've had fresh, it does seem criminal what they charge in the shops for herbs with much less flavor.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:39 PM on May 1


We do not use any irradiation in our facilities.

Why not? Are they worried radiation is communicable or something?
posted by crapmatic at 10:57 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Spices in my market (Norway) are irradiated, AFAIK. I would imagine that the irradiation process preserves the flavours better than any heat-based process.

That being said, it seems like a very interesting line of work.
posted by Harald74 at 11:17 PM on May 1


Oh, and I'm just back from reading the history of the spice trade. Fascinating story, really.
posted by Harald74 at 11:31 PM on May 1


I never buy spices at the supermarket if I can help it. Growing your own herbs is the way to go, and as for the exotic or hard to grow stuff, Indian groceries are the way to get bang for your buck. I will buy spices at a few other places, like Penzey's, SF Herb Co., Oaktown Spice Shop, and maybe Lhasa Karnak. TJ's has a few good buys sometimes too. It's amazing to me how much difference in flavor we get grinding it by hand instead of buying pre-ground.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:57 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


I'm awfully confused that people are surprised, or are themselves confounded that things that grow outdoors are covered in bugs or bacteria. No shit, no pun intended. Your home garden is likely to attract all manner of critters who will probably pee on or around your garden while visiting. Just because it comes from your yard doesn't mean it doesn't contain all manner of nasty things.

That said, most chopped and dried spices do suck, and growing your own is of course optimal. When someone gifts me a house the first thing i'll do is start removing grass and planting spices, but until then it's the store for me.
posted by efalk at 3:39 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Spices are great! Just be mindful about coloring your life with too much of them.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:24 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Most store bought spices aren't great, true. But it's also something of a privilege for people (myself included) to boast, "Yeah, I totally grow my own. So MUCH better." Herbs are easy to grow, but a lot of people don't have or want to take the time to set up some pots on a sill. The same goes for gardening.

That said, the best spice shop for my money is in Montreal. There, you can find spices and herbs and all sorts of interesting stuff you can't find at your local supermarket.
posted by Kitteh at 4:24 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Cardamom is unlikely to be growing in my Zone 4 garden anytime soon.
posted by gimonca at 4:36 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


I'm sure McCormick puts a lot of effort into the quality of its herbs and spices, but here's a little secret: at the bulk foods department of your local coop or natural foods market you can scoop your own, buy as much or little as you want, at a small fraction of what McCormick charges for their little jars.
posted by beagle at 4:46 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


Those jars are awfully handy, though. Buy 'em once and then refill 'em yourself.
posted by ardgedee at 4:50 AM on May 2


something of a privilege for people (myself included) to boast

Well as long as I'm boasting, I harvested some green peppercorns off my vine today and my daughter whipped it up into a hot sauce for dinner. Here's her recipe:

Salihah's Sambal:
1 dollop fermented durian paste
1 cm hunk belacan (fermented shrimp paste), lightly roasted
1 sprinkle dried anchovies
1 spikelet green peppercorns
1 tsp salt.

Grind peppercorns and anchovies in a stone mortar. Add the pastes and salt. Mash a bit more until reasonably smooth.

Serve as condiment for steamed fish, grilled meats etc.
posted by BinGregory at 5:02 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]


Very nice post.
posted by jadepearl at 5:39 AM on May 2


I thought his eyes would be bluer.
posted by dr_dank at 5:56 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


For stuff that I can't steal out of my neighbor's garden, I always order from Penzey's. The catalog has a column by Bill Penzey, the founder's son, and it's always folksy or informative or telling about their process for getting spices -- but worth reading, regardless.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:58 AM on May 2


Whatever Al wants, Al Goetz.

I'm amazed no one went there yet.
posted by Billiken at 6:40 AM on May 2


I thought posting goetze on the front page gets you banned
posted by klangklangston at 8:29 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


there's a difference between herbs and spices. You might be growing herbs on your window sill easily, but you probably aren't growing cinnamon trees.
posted by garlic at 8:55 AM on May 2


Well, not with that defeatist attitude.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:34 AM on May 2 [8 favorites]


And cinnamon apparently isn't that hard to grow indoors, or if you happen to live in zone 9 or higher (US map; Hardiness zone Wiki page with international information) you can grow it outdoors.


beagle: here's a little secret: at the bulk foods department of your local coop or natural foods market you can scoop your own, buy as much or little as you want, at a small fraction of what McCormick charges for their little jars

If you don't have a bulk section in your local grocery store, look for the "Ethnic food" section, where you might find spices sold in bags instead of little containers. In California and the Southwest, they're often in the "Mexican Food" section, separate from the dedicated spices section in the baking isle.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:11 PM on May 26


If you don't have a bulk section in your local grocery store, look for the "Ethnic food" section, where you might find spices sold in bags instead of little containers. In California and the Southwest, they're often in the "Mexican Food" section, separate from the dedicated spices section in the baking isle.

Also true as far afield as Minnesota. And, this is where you can get true cinnamon, instead of the cassia 'cinnamon' that's mass-marketed in the US as cinnamon. Both are good, both have their use, I like having the extra choice.
posted by gimonca at 5:45 AM on May 27


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