The beginning of this company was one of those rare "light bulb" moments. In 1981, having recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I wanted to prepare a bouillabaisse for a party. A key ingredient is saffron, and although the gourmet revolution was already taking place, I had some difficulty finding any. My search took me to Oh's Fine Foods, one of those great old world family stores with sacks filled with grains and legumes and spices. The owner told me that he was also having trouble finding saffron. Instinctively, I turned to him and said, "I'll see if I can find you some."
I called the Department of Foreign Agriculture in Washington and got the name of an importer. I ordered a couple of pounds of Mancha saffron, packaged some up for retail sale, and Oh's Fine Foods became my first client. I then made the rounds and started selling to Bay Area specialty stores like Lhasa Karnak, G.B. Ratto, the Pasta Shop, Rainbow Grocery, and Real Foods and restaurants like Chez Panisse, Bay Wolf, and Broadway Terrace, and began developing private-label packaging for larger companies.
I loved my business visits to the local homes of regional world cuisine: places like Alejandro's and El Meson and La Roca, where Concha, the owner, would sit me down and "force" some of her wonderful cooking on me. There was Kyber Pass, St. Pierre, Robert, Bucci's, Zola's, and Donatello. Many of these French, Spanish, Italian, and Middle Eastern restaurants were pleased to get a new source for well-priced, new-crop saffron. The local seafood venues of that time, like Gertie's, The Spinnaker, and Pacific Cafe were all welcoming to my business and soon I had enough clients to warrant a trip to Spain.
I timed my visit for the annual late autumn harvest and set off to meet the growers, learn what I could, and begin to directly import. It was a wonderful, if slightly scary trip for me. I had never been to Spain, but I persevered, travelling from village to village, meeting growers and taking photographs. Now I've been to a half-dozen harvests and continue to be humbled by the time and effort required to supply us with this remarkable spice.
I also realized early on that I wanted another product and decided on vanilla beans. I concentrated on the high end of the trade, importing the beautiful black oily gourmet-quality beans from Madagascar. I soon added the vanilla from Tahiti, which has an entirely different flavor and fragrance, then the tahitensis variety grown in Papua New Guinea. In 2005 I visited Veracruz, Mexico, the birthplace of all vanilla, for the first time. My hosts were the Totonaca Indians, whose ancestors learned to cure vanilla centuries ago, and are still cultivating vanilla today.
Both of these spices have captivated me over these many years. Their beauty and fragrance and delicacy, the extraordinary methods of growth and cultivation and curing, alongside the pleasure of meeting such interesting people, the growers and grocers and chefs and aficionados, have all made for a delightful and fortunate career.