Paint by Spices

By Vanessa Gillard

At The Silk Road, we are always trying to find new ways to show people our lovely spices. Years ago, one creative staff member was inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas to make a design with various spices in an interesting pattern. Customers enjoyed it so much that we now make a new one every couple weeks with different spices from all over the world.

Here are a few examples that our artistic staff have put together over the past year. Can you identify any of the spices? Try to guess before you check out the captions.


A Bitter Thrill to Swallow

By Vanessa Gillard

Bitters add a dash of flavour to almost anything. Whether you're baking or bartending, bitters will become your favourite  secret.

Bitters add a dash of flavour to almost anything. Whether you’re baking or bartending, bitters will become your favourite secret.

Nestled in a grand vintage French china cabinet in a bright corner of The Silk Road is row upon row of vibrantly labeled, colourful little bottles: our selection of cocktail bitters. Many people are intrigued by these mysterious infusions and often have questions about what their uses are. As intriguing as their uses and ingredients are, their history is an interesting one as well.

Bitters originated as cure-all stomach remedies that were peddled to people young and old. One of the oldest and best-known brands, Angostura Aromatic Bitters, was invented in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, the acting Surgeon General for the armies of Simon Bolivar. They were indeed used to remedy the stomach ailments of Bolivar’s soldiers, who were frequently caught ill by their intense living conditions. Dr. Siegert named his medicinal concoction after the town where he lived: Angostura, Venezuela. Bitters increased in popularity through the 19th century, but because they were indeed bitter to drink, they were frequently mixed with other things.  The most popular mixer became, predictably, alcohol. This led directly to the invention of the cocktail. According to an Imbibe Magazine article, Origin of the Cocktail, the term “cocktail” originally described “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Nowadays, bitters are used to add depth of flavour to cocktails. They are never the main attraction in a drink, but their contribution is large: the difference between an Old Fashioned with bitters and without is unmistakable (in fact, without bitters, it’s simply not an Old Fashioned). Bitters can be likened to extracts used in baking: a little goes a long way. Bitters can also be used to flavour non-alcoholic drinks and are particularly nice in brightening up plain soda water. Also, cooking with bitters can be just as exciting as playing bartender; bitters are great in everything from marinades to sauces to salad dressings.

Bitters are basically alcoholic infusions of botanical plants (root, barks, berries, leaves) and spices. The plethora of bitters flavours available from small upstart companies and the time-honoured giants is a reflection of the widespread resurgence in the popularity of Mixology, the likes of which has not been seen since prohibition. There are tons of flavours, but for those who’d like to devise their own bitters recipes The Silk Road has a great selection of botanicals, including gentian root, wormwood, quassia bark and more.

The Silk Road has a wide array of bitters available, from the classic Angostura Aromatic, which is essential to cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned, to the intriguing Bittermen’s  line that includes flavours like ‘Elemakule Tiki which has an allspice and cinnamon flavour followed by a touch of lime and ginger; great with rum. My personal favourite is Scrappy’s Cardamom bitters; a lovely addition to a particularly citrus-laden gin and tonic.

If you are looking to start your own collection, an aromatic bitters and an orange bitters are probably the most essential flavours to start with. If you can’t decide, a great alternative to buying your bitters by the bottle is grabbing a sampler set; we have several varieties from Bittered Sling and Scrappy’s.

With spring just around the corner, why not dazzle at your next barbeque or back yard soirée with a couple newly acquired bartending skills and all the perfect bitters to accompany them. Bottoms up!

Peppercorns: Curious and Common (Part 1)

The Silk Road's black, white,  and green varieties of peppercorns.

The Silk Road’s black, white, and green varieties of peppercorns.

By Vanessa Gillard

Here at The Silk Road there are many spices and seasonings to intrigue and inspire our customers. People often come to see us seeking one thing but leaving with all sorts of others that have piqued their interest. But of all the many spices we sell, the one that seems the most commonplace has one of the most interesting stories: black pepper, sometimes known as “the Master Spice.”

Peppercorns are the fruit of the black pepper plant, Piper nigrum, with the chemical piperine imparting the “hot” aspect to its flavour profile. They are harvested from the large-leafed vine in groups known as drupes and then processed to prepare them for drying. The berries end up different colours and with different flavours depending on when they’re harvested and how they’re then processed and dried. The black variety is picked unripe and then dried in the sun and have that signature black pepper flavour; the green peppercorn is the unripe fruit as well, but they are quickly dehydrated to preserve their milder and brighter fruity flavour; and white peppercorns are picked when they’re almost ripe and have a yellowish-pink colour. This variety is treated with water to remove the skin and then sun-dried; they have less aroma that black peppercorns and a distinctly earthy sweetness.

PepperIn Marjorie Shaffer’s book, Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, she chronicles the various ways that pepper has changed cultures, trade routes and the course of history itself. Explorers risked life and limb to find it, and trade routes forked to deliver and procure it. In 408 A.D. the Visigoths laid siege to Rome, cutting of all of the city’s lifelines. When the Romans were finally brought to their knees by starvation and admitted defeat, the Visigoth army left with many prized items, including 3000 pounds of pepper. Pepper has been considered good for all kinds of things for hundreds of years, (medicinal, culinary and even as a cure for poison) but there’s no question that its taste has become one of the cornerstones of almost every type of cuisine in the world.

Our black peppercorns are sourced from Indonesia and India.

Malabar black peppercorns: Malabar black peppercorns are our basic peppercorns. They come from the state of Kerala in southwestern India, where the world’s best black pepper is grown. We offer several consistencies of ground Malabar black pepper for those who don’t have a grinder or who want the convenience of pre-ground.

Tellicherry black peppercorns: Tellicherry black peppercorns are our premium black peppercorns. Tellicherry is a higher-grade pepper, made from the largest, ripest 10% of berries from Malabar plants grown on Mount Tellicherry in India. These peppercorns are left on the vine longer, which produces berries with bolder, more robust flavour. They have a bright, almost citrusy taste that make them really stand out as something special, and are the preferred black peppercorn of most chefs.

Lampong black peppercorns: Lampong black peppercorns from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia have a very unusual and unique flavour, which makes them a nice change on the table or for special recipes. Their flavour is fruity and bright, followed by an intense spiciness on the tip of the tongue.

Green peppercorns: Green peppercorns are the same as black peppercorns, in that they are picked when green and unripe, but are rapidly dried and have a less intense pepper taste that is brighter and fruitier. We also carry Moulin Poivre Vert canned green peppercorns. The Moulin family of France hand-selects and sorts Madagascar-grown green peppercorns, preserves them in saltwater brine, and then packs them in a distinctive green, black and white can. These soft green peppercorns are common in French cooking, and are most famously used in steak au poivre.

Muntok white peppercorns: White peppercorns are picked when more ripe than their green and black siblings and are yellowish-pink on the vine. They’re then soaked in barrels of cool water to remove the outer skins. White peppercorns contain less essential oil than black peppercorns, as this is in the skin, so they have less aroma and a sweetish pungency to them. They are used often in French cooking, and are especially useful in white soups and sauces that require pepper, because they won’t add the little black flecks that black peppercorns would. We sell Muntok white peppercorns whole and ground.

Pepper loses its potency rather fast, so we recommend grinding your peppercorns in a mill to capture the freshness and complexities that have been enjoyed for so many centuries. Make sure to look for our second instalment of Peppercorns: Curious and Common to learn about some of our more exotic pepper relatives like Long Pepper, Cubeb Berries and Grains of Paradise.

Cheezy Bizness’ Nicole Fewell Talks Food and Spice

By Vanessa Gillard

Nicole Fewell, owner of Cheezy Bizness food truck, shows off the main attraction, a melty grilled cheese. Look for her truck at catered events this winter.

Nicole Fewell, owner of Cheezy Bizness food truck, shows off the main attraction: a melty grilled cheese. Look for her truck at catered events this winter.

As we head into our busy season at The Silk Road we are seeing lots of familiar faces returning to the shop. After all, this isn’t just our busy season: everyone is shopping, making plans with family and friends and anticipating all the beautiful food to be enjoyed in the next month. One of those familiar faces is Nicole Fewell, owner and head chef of the Cheezy Bizness food truck, as well as the proprietor of Porter’s Tonic, a tonic syrup company.

Along with being the owner of two successful businesses, Nicole is also a wife, mother and all around palate temptress. Don’t be surprised to see her orange truck popping up at the city’s best street festivals in the summer or her famous grilled cheese sandwiches being served at events of all sorts. Rain or shine, summer or winter, people come in to our shop specifically to find her unique tonic syrup that “adds a grin to your gin.” We asked Nicole to have a chat with us about herself and her philosophy on all things tasty.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Are you from Calgary? How did you begin your culinary career? 

My first industry memory was working at an inn on Mayne Island, BC. In grade 6, I went with a friend to her Aunt’s place and we worked in the dining room. I loved it.

I moved to Calgary in September of 1999. I had been working on the line in a pub in Invermere and had one friend here in Calgary. She helped me get a job at Concorde. I started as a server and then did some bartending and front of house management. After Concorde closed I worked at the Barley Mill and then became a Flight Attendant with West Jet. When I had my son, who is now 8, I was luckily able to stay home with him for until he was in Grade 1. That’s when I started to make a plan to open Cheezy.

Another great job I had in the industry was with Shelley Adams up at White Water Ski Hill in Nelson, BC. I got to work behind the scenes there. Sometimes I was the first person in the building besides the Cat operators, making cinnamon buns and watching the sun rise on the mountain.

Both of your businesses are based on taking something classic and putting a new spin on it. What inspired this approach and why do you think Calgarians have embraced it so enthusiastically? 

Classics are classics for a reason: they are beloved, cherished and timeless. I chose a grilled cheese truck because everyone finds a grilled cheese comforting, and the creative possibilities are endless. I can keep coming up with new sandwiches and flavour profiles to entice people to come back while also craving our classics, like the Hot Mess.

What ingredient did you have the most fun pairing with your cheezy sandwiches this summer?

My favourite ingredient this summer was the in-truck made Goat Ricotta paired with our Olive Fig Tapenade. I love to play with layers of flavour and texture, and this sandwich had all that.

Your businesses take you all over Calgary and you take part in culinary events quite consistently as well. How would you describe your personal sense of community?

From the day I first moved here I couldn’t believe how friendly and open this city is. When I walked down the street and strangers actually looked up and said hello when passing by, I was shocked. The culinary community is very much this way as well. So collaborative, welcoming and supportive, not to mention inspiring. When you’re passionate about what you do and meet others who are the same way, it’s natural to become friends, whether you’re a writer, chef, food truck owner or wholesaler of fine food. I’ve welcomed a lot of new industry friends into my life in the last couple years which has been amazing. When starting my business, I also relied on old industry friends like Brendan Bankowski of Taste Restaurant, who was so supportive. As one of the original Perogy Boyz owners, he and Chef Shawn Greenwood were so generous with their knowledge.

You appear to support and collaborate with lots of local producers, farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs. Why is this important to you?

Shopping local has always been a priority in our family, so it was very natural for to me to incorporate that into my business. I feed my guests as though they were in my kitchen at home with quality local, fresh ingredients.

Do you recall what your first cocktail was and what is your favourite these days?

I think my first cocktail was probably a Long Island Ice Tea, being that I graduated in 1987 (LOL). My favourite these days is Spirit Bear Gin with Porter’s Tonic Original (of course). I’m also a fan of the Bourbon Manhattan and the Moscow Mule.

When and how did you discover The Silk Road Spice Merchant and what are some of your go-to spices and/or blends from the shop?

I discovered Silk Road through reading an article in Avenue. I buy almost all my spices from Silk Road, for home and the truck. Two of my favourites are sumac and nigella seeds.  I love to use them in salads to take it up a notch. I use nigella instead of chives a lot. I also started making mustard from your seeds this year, which is surprisingly easy and fun to play around with. My current favourite is a Cabernet Mustard inspired by Model Milk’s Pinot Noir Mustard that they used on their Rabbit Mortadella.

Check out Cheezy Bizness and Porter’s Tonic.

Explore Allspice, the Spice for All

Originally discovered and named by Christopher Columbus, today's Allspice berry is commonly sold ground and used in baking. It has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Allspice berries once dried resemble peppercorns.

Originally discovered and named by Christopher Columbus, today’s Allspice berry is commonly sold ground and used in baking. It has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Allspice berries once dried resemble peppercorns.

Submitted by Vanessa Gillard

It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane—No, It’s Allspice OR The Spice That Does it All

On a tippy-toe-top shelf in the baking spices section at The Silk Road the allspice inconspicuously sits and waits for the invariable observation from customers, “Allspice is one spice, huh?”

Likely the reason for people’s surprise is, of course, allspice’s deceptive name and flavour; many assume that allspice is a blend of spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg and clove notes collectively make up the flavour of this spice with a bit of a peppery punch. This is precisely why the little dried berry earned its moniker.

It’s said that Columbus’ exploration party encountered the allspice plant in Jamaica and named it the only thing that made sense, something that would confuse people for generations to come. Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising when we consider that the same folks named the first people they encountered in North America Indians because they wanted to be in India.

Allspice has anti-microbial warming effects that can be attributed to eugenol, the same essential oil that is found in cloves. Russian soldiers put allspice in their boots during the Napoleonic war of 1812 to keep their feet warm and odor free, and the spice is also used in some men’s colognes, including—you guessed it—Old Spice.

Allspice is commonly used in English baking and is a main ingredient in our English Mixed Spice, but perhaps the most common place and essential use for allspice is in Jamaican jerk seasonings, and our South Coast Jerk Spice is certainly not light on the allspice (or the habaneros for that matter). It’ll knock your spicy Russian socks off!

We offer allspice both whole and ground, but we do recommend buying the whole berries because ground allspice loses its potency rather quickly.

What’s in Your Brew? (Other than Green Food Colouring)

The Village Brewery growler has become a familiar sight in and around Calgary in recent years. The growler is both interesting to look at and an environmentally concious choice when going on a beer run.

The Village Brewery growler has become a familiar sight in and around Calgary in recent years. The growler is both interesting to look at and an environmentally conscious choice when going on your next beer run.

Submitted by Vanessa Gillard

Regardless of whether your favourite brand includes hops, spices just might be in your most beloved beer. This St. Patrick’s Day The Silk Road has endeavoured to bring you some stews and cocktail recipes, but when thinking on beer we Canadians don’t necessarily consider it a spicy subject. The subtleties and seasonings of our national pastime are incredibly varied and it is interesting to consider the flavour that goes into this widely celebrated beverage.

The beers that come to us from across the pond are sometimes laden with spices that have been used in recipes for centuries. Historically beer and spices go way back, and although hops and barley have become synonymous with beer they weren’t always the go-to flavouring agents. In regions where hops were not easily grown the role was filled with other bitter plants, such as burdock, juniper or heather. Hops offer flavour and preservative benefits as well as adding bitterness and body to beer but in the Middle Ages a mash of herbs and spices called gruit was used for these same reasons. Grains of Paradise, a peppery-tasting distant cousin of the ginger root, were very popular, likely because it disguised the sour or stale flavours of beers that were improperly stored or brewed. After the Renaissance the spicing of beers fell out of fashion and the more standard methods and flavouring were adopted.

Though the inclusion of spices in beer is relatively uncommon these days there is a variety of choices for spiced ale lovers and home brewing enthusiasts alike. The following three categories of beer are particularly splendidly spiced.

Belgians – The Belgians developed the particularly pungent witbier (white beer) variety which has sweet summery flavours encouraged by coriander, orange peel, grains of paradise and black pepper. Hoegaarden is the classic choice for this particular wheat beer and we heartily approve of the massive receptacle that it is served in.

Fall and winter seasonals – When the temperature drops, adding the warming effects of spice to everyday fare is particularly comforting. Pumpkin beers (a common seasonal choice) tend to use the addition of the usual suspects one finds in pumpkin pie and most are probably in your spice rack right now. Cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, allspice and vanilla are featured in this type of ale. Just when you thought your dream of pouring pie down your throat could never come true!

Experimental – The Belgians may be the more distinguished purveyors of spiced beer but the American and Canadian craft crowds are giving their more traditional counterparts a reason to pay attention. In addition to the many more usual ingredients found in beers, crafters are eagerly adding herbs, flowers and even chiles to their brews.  This past year, Village Brewery made a hugely popular Chai Winter Porter called Village Monk that The Silk Road contributed the chai blend for. It featured those unique spices predominantly, making for an interesting flavour experience. Another interesting example of matchmaking between beer and spices are chocolate porters and stouts,  which combine the dry, chocolately flavour of roasted cocoa nibs with the weight and body of a good stout.

The Silk Road also contributed spices to  Wild Rose Brewery’s saison (another variety of seasonal Belgian beer) acouple years ago. Our ginger and grains of paradise gave this summery beer a spicy undertone which paired well with the crisp citrus character of the saison.

Try one or all of these foamy treats with our recipes for Irish Stout Beef Stew and Cheddar & Nigella Bread. You’ll feel so Irish you’ll have to kiss yourself. And for something less obvious this St. Pattie’s, try our custom concocted cocktails with friends and avoid the slapdash chaos.