This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
Inside Napa’s Oxbow Public Market is Whole Spice, a specialty shop featuring walls of whole and freshly ground spices, teas, dried herbs and more, where you’ll find chia seeds next to a mole spice blend and dried chamomile flowers. If the brightly colored filled jars aren’t enough to make you stop and look around, the fragrance of the spices will be. Not to mention the samples of bread dipped in olive oil mixed with za’atar.
Behind the shop is Ronit Madmone, who started the business in 2000 along with her husband Shuli. Here, we ask her all about her love of spices, her favorite ways to use them, and how they fit into wine country cuisine.
Tell us about your family’s story and how you began growing and selling spices?
In 1948, Shuli’s parents immigrated from Yemen to Israel with the intention of starting a farm business growing paprika, onions and other spice-related products. They soon began cultivating paprika from start to finish: growing, drying and grinding it fresh. This process earned them a great reputation within the community, and not long afterward they opened their own spice business, which they called Tavlinai Ha Bayeit (Home Spice). Today, Shuli’s brother runs the shop and stays true to the same traditions that his parents had established when they first opened their spice store.
When Shuli and I had first met he shared with me his dream of opening a spice shop where he would freshly grind all the spices and carry on with the same high standards as his family. To this day, we maintain his mom’s foundation of in-house grinding and using traditional spices.
My parents immigrated to Israel from Casablanca, Morocco. My mom used lots of Moroccan spices in her cooking, and that’s how I got the love bug for spices. We can never forget the beautiful customs we grew up with, and that is why we continue to apply these values in our business. We inherited our love for food and culture from our parents — that is our inspiration.
We are always learning about spices from different parts of the world, and how to create traditional and rare blends from various countries. And we are still learning as we grow. We definitely consider our business a global event, as we are constantly meeting people from all over the world. We especially enjoy learning about their use of spices.
How has learning about and experimenting with spices changed your cooking?
It has been great working with new spices in the kitchen. I write a weekly spice blog and a spice column each week, which is why I need to try creating new recipes using spices from different countries. This experience helps us to discover a new dish on a weekly basis and also encourages us to use new spices in cooking. We recently discovered the Indian dry pomegranate seeds – we have had them in stock for many years and never had the time to use them in our cooking. After a few days of experimenting with recipes for a new blog article, this item is now part of our spice cabinet (which is growing every week). Shuli and I give each other space to explore new ways of cooking – it has been great!
What are some of the unique characteristics about the spices you sell?
We produce and sell a large line of the basic and classic spices and herbs, as well as our own signature seasonings. Our blends are made from some of the most exotic and rare spices and herbs from around the world. It is our mission to sell freshly ground spices to our customers, and they love us for it! We often receive great feedback about our Saigon cinnamon, where some of our customers comment on how they have never smelled such an amazing aroma. We commit 100% of our time and energy in creating the right balance in each of the blends – some are so tasty you can simply eat it with olive oil and bread.
What are some of your favorite spices?
We are always developing new blends and discovering new flavors each week, so we fall in love with new spices on a weekly basis. However, harissa, zhug and zathar blends are a must have in our kitchen pantry.
What are some unusual spices you would recommend for people to try?
The urfa and marash chilies are great to replace the standard chili at home; both are Turkish chilies and both have mild heat. We simply use them with everything from pasta, meatballs and sandwiches to roasted vegetables.
What does “wine-country food” mean to you? How would you describe it?
Wine country food is simple and earthy – you take what is grown regionally, such as olives, fresh fruit and vegetables, add some grilled meat, and then complement the meal with great wine. Some of the spices we use when pairing with wine are: Herbs de Provence Salt, Napa Valley Rub, Rotisserie Chicken blend and lemon herbs seasoning.
How do spices complement the wine country culinary experience?
When we recommend spices for winery menus and/or events we want to make sure that the spices will not overwhelm or dominant the wine. We want the spice to blend well so it opens the palate in a synergistic way with the wine. Sea salts and herbal salts work quite well with wine-country food. We provide excellent choices of spices for wine pairing with different wineries. The most recent winery that I’ve worked with is Bouchaine Winery in Napa. I used sumac in one of the blends and I was nervous that it might not work well, but it ended up being a great success!
The integration of produce, wine and spices has inspired some of the country’s most creative chefs and scrumptious vegetarian fare.
What’s your favorite way to use spices in the kitchen?
I either roast the spices or add them directly to the olive oil to infuse it before adding additional ingredients and cooking. The process of infusing the oil with the spices adds tremendous flavor to the dish – it is a great way for the spice to be absorbed with the rest of the ingredients.
Any tips for people experimenting with whole or ground spices (or blends) for the first time?
We are trying to educate our customers that checking the quality of the spices is as important as checking the date on the milk – using freshly ground spices can change the experience of cooking. Ground spices loose their aromas, so they need to be changed every 3 months. It is always best to buy small quantities at a time. Using a pepper grinder is a good way to use only what you need.
A small coffee grinder can be used to grind whole spices; cinnamon chips can be freshly ground right before baking. That will enhance the flavor of any dessert.
What do you love about living and working in Napa?
Napa Valley is a special place where everyone has a passion for wine and food. At the shop every customer has a wonderful story to share about their food and wine experience. We enjoy spending time in Napa, getting to know all the people who make great products and sharing ideas.
I feel we have a lot in common with the purveyors of wine because blending spices and making wine requires a lot of patience, and just like anything you have a passion for, you want what you make to be great and satisfying — not only for the customers, but for yourself as well. I believe that is why people from all over the world visit Napa: because they know they will experience great food, great wine, great products and the friendliest people ever!
At the end of the day you can’t help but fall in love with Napa over and over again.