A spice as frequently-used as black pepper is proof of how successful spices can become. This subtle spice accompanies salt in almost every meal and adorns every dining table around the world. However, there was a time when black pepper was to most people what asafoetida is now – a new discovery. Funnily enough, both have appeared on lists of foods recently, so evidently food, just like fashion, doesn’t have to be new to be trendy.
“I was doing a radio interview in the UK recently and the presenter said on-air to listeners, ‘Get this guys, Arun uses black pepper as a spice!’ I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to ask what they thought it was? It’s true though that to some people it is just that stuff you sprinkle on your food before you sit down to your meal, they have forgotten what it is,” said Arun Kapil, owner of Irish company Green Saffron.
Green Saffron are purveyors of fine spices, rice, sauces and spice blends. Arun created the company in 2012 when he began selling products at a stall in Middleton Farmers Market in County Cork. Now, six years on, the retail side has seven dry-spice sachets, six sauces, a mango chutney and a rice that are available in (roughly) 1,750 stores through Ireland, France, Holland and the UK. Arun has also developed the company’s wholesale over the years and worked with high-end restaurants and chefs, developing spice blends and dishes for their menus. As if that hadn’t kept him busy enough, his cookbook Fresh Spice was published in 2014 (Pavilion Books) to great acclaim and this year he is running a series of pop-ups and masterclasses in various locations around Ireland and also releasing new tips, videos and recipes on the Green Saffron social media channels. Plus a TV show is on the way soon!
“It’s a really exciting time for Green Saffron,” explained Arun. “We’ve identified three core revenue streams – retail, ingredients and commodities – and after getting a few rounds of investment under its belt, we’ve put together a strategy for how to internationalise and scale the company in these areas and to do this we have formed relationships with significant companies in Europe, Ireland and Britain.”
“In retail, we like to think that we are leading in spice in our own way. For example, two years ago we discovered ‘ayurveda’ and it is just this year that it’s predicted to be a trend. We work with marketing and distribution companies in each territory and the Dutch boys we work with are phenomenal – they got us into 700 Albert Hines stores – and they have identified three exciting opportunities this year whereby positioning ourselves as the go-to Indian, ayurvedic, vegetarian brand in Europe. Our USP is that we have 100% traceability over our spice, 100% pure, we’re coeliac, vegan, halal certified, there’s no water added to our products, no bulking agents added to our dried products, natural and pure is the way to go, with an ayurvedic sense.”
Green Saffron’s other business is split between ingredients and commodities. Ingredients means seasoning and one of their biggest recent deals has been with food group Dawn Meats. “Ingredients is the biggest opportunity for Green Saffron this year. It will double our revenue. We’re looking at 500 tonnes going into Dawn Meats and possibly another 200 tonnes between other onwards processes. That’s the biggest opportunity for growth for the next two years.”
“In terms of commodities, I’m flying off to India this month with my wife Olive with a view to form the Indian company so that we will have a sourcing company, which is a Green Saffron India, in India. Obviously everything starts with us, from our raw material, our beautiful fresh spice; it is an important side of the company that we will grow over time.”
Consumers appetites for spice has only increased in Ireland and the UK with a more largely diverse range of international cuisines available – Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American among the most popular. Chefs are exploring spices with fresh instincts and knowledge and looking at ways of adapting recipes. “There are three main reasons I think spice is so important as an ingredient and why chefs should incorporate it onto their menus: it has beautiful flavours, it is natural and has natural health benefits,” said Arun.
“The latter may not seem like it should matter too much to chefs, however while the science proving the benefits might be less relevant, but the science that has more relevance, and going back to my cookbook, which is about once you understand a little bit about the terpenes – the flavour of the spice – then you can start to combine them in a more possibly subtle/intelligent way.”
“On the science of the health benefits… there is a lot of hype at the moment and marketing talk about the health benefits of spices, but really, where is the science? Don’t get me wrong, there is some science, but nothing has really been taken through to fruition and then to an end product. Green Saffron is being supported by the Irish government through Enterprise Ireland on a spice science project. We are in the 14th month in our project with University Cork City (UCC) and we have a paper that we are ready to publish. What I want to prove is that the polyphenols – the oils from spices – have benefits to gut and brain function. That’s what we started two years ago and I want to be first to market with a proven-by-science spice product.
“The second reason, it’s just natural. In essence, and I think a lot of chefs will agree with me, is that the art of cooking is being lost. It’s brilliant what people can do nowadays, but can you cook? Can you roast, braise… just decent hearty food… that’s where I think spices can really play a part. Of course it does play a part in spherification because you need to increase the flavour as you naturally lose it in all the various chemical gels and stuff, so you boost up the flavour, and spice can do that too. However, really, I would be championing just decent, proper cooking. Fernand Point is my hero,” Arun told me.
“Fernand opened La restaurante de la Pyramide, in Vienne near Lyon in 1921 when he was 24 years old after taking it over from his father. The late Paul Bocuse was his apprentice and wingman. He was awarded three michelin stars during that time; it was when Michelin meant just simple ingredients cooked really well. Fernand Point is by far the chef who I just adore, and his style of cooking – simple ingredients and beautiful flavours.”
“That brings me to my final reason, which might seem obvious but it is how you use the beautiful flavours of spice that is the secret,” Arun explained.
“A chef might use between 12-20 spices; the permutations and combinations alone with that amount of spices are phenomenal! I’ve played around with spice over the last seven years and I have 520 blends working with 30 spices, and that’s only so far! I am only scraping the surface.”
“Spices can be used in such a way as to really bring out a nuance in a protein, carb or starch. The blends I have are based on spider crabs, scallops, pears, quince… every single product I’ve worked with I’ve come up with a spice blend to enhance the flavour, to back up… not to muddy or be ambiguous, but to really bring out what I consider to be the main flavour of the ingredient. A chef would do a similar thing. Whether you want to bring out the sweetness in a scallop or the perfume in fruit. Then you’ve got things like the astringency – the salt, etc. You can really clean-up definition of flavours as well, that’s a really good point. Spices can make better flavours, simple as that.”
Quick Question Round…
“Black pepper, but it has to be fresh. Every year there is a quagmire of people coming up with a new “type” of pepper, but it’s just the region it came from! All the new varieties are just sales techniques. A pepper just needs to filled of chavicine and piperine, beautiful volatile oils that make the heat, the perfume of Parma violet and fresh leather, the pungent flavour and if you have that fresh black pepper, nothing can beat it. Not only does it add sweetness but it adds heat in the background. Pepper is so versatile and that is why it probably why it has such a prevalence in everything we cook.”
Favourite spice blend?
“Garam Masala because of its versatility. Our family garam masala has 12-14 spices in it, so it has the earthy cumins and those kind of notes, but then it also has the perfume from nutmeg, mace, star anise, rose petal, green cardamom and fennel. It has so many applications. If it is fresh, it is amazing. It always comes back to freshness. Garam in hindi translates as hot, and masala means spice blend.”
“Look to the war-torn regions, their food often pops up in trends. I will be championing Afghanistan food because it has the dried fruits and saffron, a bit of a twist on Indian you might say. But also Syrian and east African – Ghana. These are the three that I am looking at in terms of spice.”
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