Think of the spice trade, and your mind may wander back to the time of the Silk Road, when intrepid explorers traversed the globe in search of new flavors. Today however, the spice industry is a billion-dollar commodities market, dominated by a handful of massive corporate entities, with little of those billions filtering their way back into the hands of small growers.
Claire Cheney believes that her North Cambridge-based company, Curio Spice Co., is doing its part to bring a sense of wonder back into the world of spices, while hoping to support small growers in the process.
Cheney launched the company in 2015 after working for years in the coffee industry. There, she discovered she had an incredibly sensitive palate, and yet she wondered by the same nuances she’d come to appreciate in a single-origin cup of coffee didn’t extend into her spice cabinet. An avid cook, she was frustrated that the spices she found on grocery store shelves were often years old by the time she purchased them. So she set out to source her own, traveling to Sri Lanka and working with a growers collaborative to bring unique spice blends back home.
The business, which started in Cheney’s garage with her selling at farmer’s markets, has now expanded into a North Cambridge storefront and adjacent lab space where she offers spice tastings and cooking lessons. And at the company’s new facility in Winchester, stacks of salts, peppers, and spices from all corners of the world are piled high, and then processed in what is one of the few hand-ground operations in the country.
“For thousands of years spices have been traded around the world and unfortunately they’ve been traded at the expense of the farmers,” she said. “One of the things that Curio is working to do is disrupt those commodity supply chains... We use the shortest supply chain possible, which is working directly with farmers.”
That small chain effect means more money in the pockets of the farmers, many of whom are women, she said, and it means a smaller carbon footprint for the products, which are fresher and often tastier than their grocery stores counterparts.
“We get our customers really unique varieties that they’ve never heard of,” she said.
After all, variety is the spice of life.