Who says certain rhymes can only be applied to ‘reason’. Like marriage rhymes for brides. Move that over and fit the shoe where its needed. I stare at him and he stares right back, across pages filled with spice. Separated by oceans, stories and spices untold. His name is Lior Lev Sercarz, with eyes that match his coat, and hair streaked with silver. He could be a chemist. A spice chemist. And he sort of is. Roasting and blending spices in his 11th Avenue basement.
I’m not like some people I know who win every give-away they enter.
That’s not to say I haven’t been ‘lucky’ for I have. I’ve ‘won’ some pretty awesome stuff. And winning ‘The Art of Blending’ is proof.
Written by the blue-eyed guy, in the blue coat who has been called everything from Spice Master (Spiceologist to the Stars, creating bespoke spice blends for some of the world’s top restaurants, like Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin) to Posh Spice and Spice Whiz, Lior has ‘forged his own Silk Road’. And spice trail, which has him sought out from New York to LA, and Paris.
It has come to me by way of a food52 giveaway where my answer to the question posed: ‘What’s your favourite spice to put in dessert? wins. Not because my response of ‘Cardamom, without a doubt, especially if paired with citruses or white chocolate!’ shows me off as the erudite woman. No….but because I get
lucky chosen. As the one fortunate enough to be gifted. Because I don’t believe in luck. ‘The Art of Blending’ is a revelation in pages: not only of spices, but of intriguing and inspiring combinations.
Note that there are no guides to the proportions of spices to combine to yield the blends. For some people, this might be a big problem, and for others who are wont to experiment – not. I’m of the latter camp so am thrilled to learn new combinations.
Just like Momofuku – the book before it, this spice manual has kept side with me, by me for days on end. Spices to me are both powerful and liberating, ferrying you on magic carpets far beyond your doorstep where everything from regular spices, to tea and salt are fair game. So it is no surprise that I am ‘taken’.
As soon as I have my New York dates, I search for Lior’s email address, convinced I’ll never find it. When I do find it (to my utter shock), I’m left with no choice but to send him an email. Something I’d promised myself I would do if I found his address. I’d like to meet him, take him some Nigerian spices. None of which I’ve seen in his book. He responds the very next day! ‘Looking forward to meeting you’. I am star-struck but 6 weeks is sufficient time to temper my nervous energy.
I arrive at La Boite – ‘The Box’, Lior’s gallery-shop-kitchen. It is raining outside but I am drawn in to the scents and smells of a spice souk, somewhere in the heart of the Levant. The Middle East. There’s some discordance between the auto garages I’ve walked past, dodging cars backing out onto the road, and the scents that currently envelope me. I am carried away, held captive by a dizzying array of scents, freshly roasted, just ground and oh so fragrant. I could do a dance, but I’m not sure what rhythm would cause me to sway – Indian, Moroccan….Spanish even. This is what Lior does, and does well – the stirring of the soul, taking you to places and people steeped in your memory.
He opens the door and I’m ushered into a minimalist designed space, flanked by two white walls with pictures by Jim Houser, a self-taught painter and musician.
This art collection is titled ‘Tip of the Sword’, and it graces the biscuit tins in Lior’s 2013 spring/summer. The biscuits are paired with unique spice blends, inspired by cultural events and personal reflections.
Mind you his biscuits are not any old ‘biscuits’, pronounced with an English accent.
They are rather, the very French version, pronounced bis-KWEE. Which I like. Very much.
Just off-centre, to my left is a table, with shelving down the sides – full of spices.
We don’t delve much into his history for I have read a lot about his beginnings, starting with his childhood spent in Israel, his first years in the kitchen when he had to make dinner many nights as his mum worked, and his defining moment of spice discovery – working as a chef in France, over 20 years ago and falling in love with spices in Olivier Roellinger’s Les Maison de Bricourt kitchen, in the fishing village of Cancale (after which #11, one of his spice blends is named).
Today, he makes his home in New York city, where I too will make mine. Someday. I journey to the beginning of my story, of my ‘introduction’ to him via food52 and we spend the next hour talking spices and why his shop is named ‘The Box’, La Boite.
Inspired by Evelyn Lauder’s collection of food tins which he saw once at a dinner party, Lior began building his own, which inspired his creation of the collectible tins that now house his spiced, sweet and savoury French cookies. Which currently change twice a year.
I especially love the beautifully framed cutouts from articles and magazines, featuring Lior and La Boite, which his mother-in-law crafts and frames for him.
I love the way she cuts the text, playing with asymmetry. The text sits behind white mount boards, in different frames, with black bevelled borders, which make the writing ‘pop’.
It appeals to me for growing up, I didn’t take note of asymmetric designs – symmetry was a big thing, it brought order and was easy to understand. Now I admire the minds that work how they will and this piece is no exception. Even if my photo doesn’t do it justice. It features the New York Times print article of the 7th of April, 2013 by Alex Halberstadt, The Transformational Power of the Right Spice.
All of a sudden, I want to consider a new career…..in spice. Gosh, I want to do everything – sing, dance, cook and bake….and now become a spice miss. I leave, with arms LADEN – with a bag I know is full of spice blends, and a lot of inspiration. To follow my heart and to keep learning and growing as a cook. I don’t open the bag Lior hands me for a few good hours.
It’s still raining when I do.
I’m sitting in a restaurant with my husband, who’s dining on some Caribbean ox-tail stew with rice and peas.
The orange bag contains spices wrapped in orange tissue paper, which I gently peel back to reveal names like Orchidea and Ararat, Smoked Salt, Cancale, Vadouvan, MishMish and Cataluna.
Each spice blend has its story, its roots in some memory of time and place and history. And you taste it. For me spice has almost always been about flavor and only a bit about texture. In my Chinese dumplings, I love how sweet and fragrant the coriander seeds billow with ever bite, for I don’t grind the seeds finely in my preparation. I love the crunch and the smokiness of cumin seeds in cheese (bought) and hummus (home-made). And coarse black pepper in sauces delight me.
With talking to Lior and reading about him, I’ve come to appreciate the various dimensions of spice – texture, the appearance of the spice – colour and freshness and finally the taste.
And what fun I’ve had experimenting with some of the spice blends, each numbered and named.
N.34 Orchidea To be frank, I’d never heard of Orchid root before ‘The Art of Blending’. That hasn’t stopped me from falling in love with this black speckled, sand-textured blend of orchid root, lime and Szechuan peppercorns. I’ve used it a few times in my pie crusts and its perfumed them with a floral scent which reminds me, rather subtly of ‘queen of the night’. The taste is mild, with the peppercorns at their best, tongue-numbing. The lime is present but not overpowering. I’d love to try it combined with sugar, for tossing churros in and many more sweet bakes – I think its character is perfectly suited to them.
N.11 Cancale Funny enough, this combination of fennel seed, dried orange peel and fleur de sel is my favourite. It captures in this delicate mix are delicious on baked fish. They’re even better, though, sprinkled on dark chocolate. $15 for 2.75 oz.
N.35 Ararat Smoked paprika, fenugreek and urfa biber (an earthy dried Turkish red pepper).
Sprinkled on top of crumbled feta, drizzled with olive oil, pinch of chilli, on a watermelon wedge – the spice is amazing – brightly coloured with a burnt orange palette and flavoured with ‘smoky’ spices. I pick out cumin – this spice is a revelation matched against the briny cheese. Lovely. A winner.
N.33 Smoked Salt I’ve tried smoked salt before, but not salt with this intensity of ‘barbequed’ flavor. It reminded me of smoked Mackerel – Nigerians will understand the smell. I suspect its been hot-smoked but perhaps I’m thinking too much. The salt pyramids have changed not only their character, but their colour as well to a dusky pink-beige colour, genes and DNA morphed forever. I’d love to use it to season salads – grilled and fresh, blank canvases like rice and pasta.
N.28 Vadouvan The Vadouvan goes into my ‘stew’ and it is wonderful. I use it instead of my favourite curry powder and it reminds me of the French spice blend, Colombo which I love. This spice is pretty special to me.
It was an honour to meet Lior and I walked out of his spice haven, into the summer rain, refreshed and ready to take on the world.
Thank you Lior.
It was a defining moment for me meeting you and being inspired not only by your courage to start your own business but for the truly beautiful spice blends you create and share.
Here are some links to great articles on spices, which I’ve found inspiring: