From Airwaves To Aromas

A good story can warm the soul, and a good meal can warm the belly. Luckily for us, Costas Halavrezos knows how to dish out both.

A longtime CBC producer, journalist and former host of Maritime Noon, Costas could be found in countless homes across the maritime provinces, every weekday at noon. But now that he has retired, he has found a different way into our lives: our spice cabinets.

Halavrezos has teamed up with Montreal-based spice vendors Épices de Cru and is now selling their products at the Historic Halifax Farmer’s Market in the old Keith’s Brewery. He plans on being there for the next two saturdays – December 11th and 18th – selling everything from spice blends to gift boxes. Passable sat down with him to talk about his new venture.

So how does a former radio host go from doling out stories to spices?

My parents ran a restaurant with a counter and 14 stools and a dinner special every day. They also had a candy counter, and magazine, newspaper & comics racks. So I grew up selling things to people of all ages and backgrounds – whoever came through the door. It was a wonderful preparation for public broadcasting, but also a good grounding in direct sales and marketing – not to mention dealing with people, cash, bank deposits, receipts and the whole rich tapestry of the hospitality industry.

But from the broadcasting side, as a journalist, I’ve also spent more than thirty years being an entrepreneur – pitching story ideas and selling them to critical producers and colleagues every day. So I’m totally comfortable with personally standing behind and selling things I belive in – whether they’re stories or top quality spices. My father cooked a delicious dinner special every day. In 40 years, he never spent a cent on advertising. His trade depended entirely on satisfying customers – enery time, every day. And that was a powerful, clear lesson to me – whether you’re talking about hosting a radio show or selling spices.

So tell us, what are you bringing in?

I’m bringing in a few individual spices, but mostly blends and kits. In terms of blends, I’ll have curries (from Sri Lankan and Jamaican to Madras), blends (Satay, Creole, and Turkish kofte – great for hamburgers or meatballs), masalas (Tandoori, Vindaloo), herbs (Provençal and – for a Middle Eastern flavour – Zaatar) and a wide variety of aromatic peppers (Chicken Hill from the Cardamom Mountains, Indian long pepper & wild pepper from Madagascar).

Indian Long Pepper, image contributed

There are also two very user-friendly bilingual cookbook/spice kit combos (volumes 1 & 2 have six spice blends which cover every recipe in the books). The Spice Kits (between 4-8 different spices or blends in an aluminum or cardboard box) cover everything from the Spice Islands to the Mediterranean and the Indian sub-continent. The kits and the cookbook/spice blends are especially attractive as holiday gifts for friends who enjoy cooking. But, of course, you could also buy something that intrigues you.

What makes these spices – and the source you are getting them from- so special?

Philippe & Ethné de Vienne are “Spice Hunters”. He’s a trained chef, and he & Ethné operated a successful catering business in Montréal for many years. They thought they’d start sourcing spices overseas as a preliminary to an interesting retirement project, but it took off and became a full-time, growing business. They’ve been featured in Jamie Oliver’s magazine, Reader’s Digest, and a host of Québec media. But while they’ve been growing very well in Québec and France, they hadn’t really explored the rest of Canada until I contacted them (my son, Nick – a great cook who lives in Montréal – turned me on to the Épices de Cru line, which is retailed at a shop in the Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal).

Philippe and Ethné and I had a series of good, frank and wide-ranging face-to-face and phone discussions over the past two months. We checked each other out, and arrived at a good understanding about my role in representing their product lines in the Maritimes. I was especially impressed by the efforts they’ve made to travel to, and meet with, the people who grow the spices they import. And I was gratified that they trusted me to launch their products in the Maritimes. Once you see and smell and grind and cook with these spices, you know you’ve gone miles beyond products sourced on the basis of the lowest price from anonymous brokers.

How long do you plan on selling these spices?

As long as people will buy them and incorporate them into their daily cooking habits – like most of the world.

Would you consider selling them after the holidays?

Absolutely. What would you like ?

What are some of your favorite spices to use in unusual dishes?

The nice thing is, there are no rules when it comes to spices. The other night, I started with a recipe for Moroccan Lamb Stew. But I used a Vietnamese Spice Blend and Greek currants instead of the suggested cumin and dried apricots. It was delicious. You can’t go wrong when cooking with spices. By contrast, my friend Janice Murray Gill’s aphorism is, “Cooking is art; baking is science.” You don’t mess with baking ingredients and proportions. But when it comes to spices and cooking, it’s pure sensual play. As Philippe de Vienne – one of the partners in Épices de Cru – says, “With spices, you never have to worry about what to do with the chicken and broccoli in the fridge that you absolutely must cook on Wednesday night.” I recently tried a recipe from Volume 2 of their Asian Family Cooking books for Sri Lankan Red Curry (the spice blend comes with the cookbook) with fresh Atlantic salmon fillets (not the fish in the recipe) and it rocked.

There has always been an amount of mystique and romanticism around the idea of the spice merchant. Does this apply to you?

I’ll confess to being fascinated by the history of the spice trade. But I don’t have to dispatch an emissarry to contact a Bedouin to bring in cumin and coriander via a camel train – something that used to be a two-year process. I met with the folks in Montréal, saw where their employees blended and packaged the spices (nothing is automated in order to ensure quality control) and made my order. It was in Dartmouth within three days. I’m hoping that people who explore the website will see what they want to try, contact me, and I’ll order products for them at the same retail price they see on the site.

We already have a mature food culture in the Maritimes, with top quality meat, fish, produce and wines. But we’re not going to start growing top-notch turmeric or cloves or pepper or other herbs and spices that have grown on Asian and Mediterranean and West Indian terroirs for centuries…at least, not any time soon. I want to bring that rich world of spices and herbs to everyday Maritime home cooks who use good local ingredients.

Check out Costas’ spices and goods at the Historic Halifax Farmer’s Market, located in the old Keith’s Brewery. He will be there for the next two weeks, from 7AM until 1PM, in the atrium.