Teatime with Ethan from Burlap & Barrel

By Navdeep Kaur

The spice trade has been the real driver of world history. Below, in this 15th century artwork, a king is offered a gift of pepper. Pepper, along with other spices, was a luxury commodity and remained a luxury for the majority of the world’s history. Spices were so precious that fantastic stories were spread about their origins. Cinnamon, for instance, came from the bark of the twigs used by giant birds to build nests on high cliffs.

Despite joyful tales of spice origins, the spice industry has a complex history that includes conflict & inequality. Even today, the supply cycle of spices is lacking in equity. But, things are changing. In our latest Teatime, we speak with Ethan, co-founder of Burlap & Barrel, a single origin spice importer. 

 

“Herodotus [an ancient Greek writer] describes cassia as one of the main spices of Arabia, along with frankincense (Boswellia sp.), myrrh (Commiphora sp.), cinnamon, and ladanum (Cistus creticus, a kind of resin). While he was aware that they arrived at Greek ports with Arab merchants and that they fetched a high price in the market, he recounts only fanciful tales about how they were obtained and the plants they were derived from. For example, he insists that frankincense grew on a plant guarded by dragons or winged serpents and was obtained at great peril by the people of the Arabian Peninsula. Cassia, he claims, grew in a deep lake whose shores were guarded by giant bats. Cinnamon came from the twigs used by giant birds to build their nests on high cliff faces.”
—Fruit from the Sands: The Silk Road Origins of the Foods We Eat, Robert N. Spengler III. 

The impressive flavors, aromas, and colors derived from spices and herbs have been the real drivers of world history, responsible for the discovery of diverse cultures and their varied palate.

Marked by rough beginnings and at the helm for the creation of circumstances for colonisation, spices were used by the elites of the day for extravagant displays, as symbols of social status and as objects of desire, which were consumed in an ostentatious manner.

A flourishing spice trade existed between India, China, and the islands of Southeast Asia long before the Portuguese, Dutch and later the English worked their way in. The intense craving for spices was also caused by needs that go above and beyond culinary usage as they were considered beneficial in treating diseases, burned as incense for religious purposes or general aromatics and were also incorporated into cosmetics and perfumes.


The nature of spice trade has completely altered today. They are no longer luxurious commodities but conveniently accessible and globally available. We can step into huge supermarket chains or corner neighbourhood shops to see it for ourselves. The possibility of shipping them across continents in a matter of hours is changing the ways in which the world is utilising and consuming spices. Owing to their multifarious nature and extensive availability, spices have become those taken-for-granted household commodities that are used as important ingredients in daily cooking or for other purposes. Their ubiquitousness can surely be connected to the relentless processes of rapid globalisation, which are fraught with the origins of commodities getting lost in the labyrinthine of global industrial-agricultural systems and their supply chains.  


In this day and age, when individuals are ever more concerned about how the ingredients going into their dishes are produced and processed, ethics concerning sustainability and praxis food production are beginning to take center stage along with its perceived health benefits and the pleasure derived from their taste. Individuals are increasingly moving towards being aware of the manual labour that goes behind the production of their food and the larger social structures are moving in the direction of taking responsibility for building a food system which is based on respect and dignity of the producers.

Leading the way with ethical production and distribution of spices is Burlap and Barrel. They are working with the farmers across the world to bring single-origin spices to the tables of chefs and home cooks, and thereby building new standards of flavour with their efforts to ensure that farmers and consumers are less segregated from each other as much as possible.

We at DONA are proud to source ingredients for our products from Burlap and Barrel. This collaboration has enabled us to deliver that authentic, fresh taste of spices in our concentrates and take a step towards participating in procuring from local, agricultural and sustainable ecosystems. 


The care which is practiced in sourcing and delivering these spices to people’s doors by Burlap and Barrel is creditable. Value is added to the commodities to a great extent at their origins and farmers are paid a fair share for their produce. Ethan Frisch, the co-founder of the company says “we are looking for what stands out. These spices are grown by farmers who are very knowledgeable and passionate about their work.” Frisch also remarked that the farmers are eager to share their expertise on growing and use of these spices. The intimate knowledge of the nature of the spices and the meticulousness with which they are nurtured by the farmers makes their quality self-evident.


Such a practice of direct sourcing of single origin spices by Burlap and Barrel plays a key role in creating spaces in which there is a possibility of communication between consumers and producers of spices. There develops a platform of exchange where the farmers share their prowess, they get to know where the spices are going, and the consumers participate in sharing how those spices are being used in their everyday meals. Information flows in both directions, through channels that value quality, an interest in conditions of locality and origins of these ingredients, which get imbued with new social meanings and connections that are no longer taken for granted. 


The flavour of our chai and sourcing of ingredients which produce that flavour through direct trade are our points of focus. We are grateful for Burlap and Barrel as they are helping us achieve this by practicing just and genuine commerce to support small farmers across the world.


black pepper drying racks
Pictured above: black peppercorn berries being laid out to dry in Tanzania