It’s sensory overload when you go down the stairs into the kitchen and storeroom of Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants, located on a small farm among the bucolic hills of Dresden, just south of Gardiner. There are almost too many savory smells wafting through the air — hints of cinnamon, an aroma of curry, the occasional whiff of sage or lavender. Close your eyes, inhale the scent of one of their culinary blends, and picture a kebab stand in Istanbul. A market in Bombay. A kitchen in France.
Herbs and spices might not amount to much in terms of actual volume, but they can transform a dish into something magical with just a pinch. Gryffon Ridge owner Christine Suydam enjoys explaining their many uses to her customers, as well as the history behind each of the more than 200 blends, spices, herbs and other flavorings she sells at markets and in stores statewide.
“They’re all different, they’re all unique,” said Suydam. “They’re all our own recipes, though we definitely did our research when we came up with them.”
Suydam started Gryffon Ridge in 2009, after being laid off from her job working for corporate hotel chains. She recalled going to a grocery store with her now ex-husband, Richard, to buy cloves for a dish, and was shocked when they realized just how expensive a tiny amount of the spice actually was.
“It worked out to be $333 for a pound of cloves, and we were just buying this tiny amount of it,” she said. “The prices they’re charging and the quality we’re getting — there’s got to be something better. That was always going around in my head.”
Gryffon Ridge makes it easy to add a touch of the exotic to your home cooking. Add a Middle Eastern flavor to your lamb with a mixture of olive oil and baharat, an Iraqi spice blend combining chiles, black pepper, coriander, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves with loomi — also known as Black Persian Lime — and cassia, similar to cinnamon. Spice up sandwiches with a mixture of yogurt and harissa, a staple Moroccan blend based in paprika, cumin, garlic and chiles. Add Japanese flavor to a soup with Shichimi Togarishi, a blend of chile powder, orange peel, sesame and poppy seeds, Sichuan peppers and nori. Or try a more traditional blend, such as French herbes de Provence, Jamaican jerk seasoning or any number of grilling rubs.
“I’m constantly experimenting,” said Suydam. “It’s a really easy way to experiment, without spending lots and lots of money.”
There are straight up herbs and spices too, so if you’re looking for a steady supply of, say, turmeric, cardamom or chipotle chiles, Gryffon Ridge almost certainly has whatever you want, priced generally between $3.50 and $5.50 for a two-ounce package. Their salts, too, can take burgers, salads or corn on the cob to another level. Try their brightly-colored lime salt on the rim of a margarita, or splurge for their black truffle salt and sprinkle a little bit on French fries or popcorn.
“We have a blend called Tabil, [a Tunisian blend] that’s one of my favorites. It’s great on chicken, it’s great on pork, because it’s got coriander and red pepper [and garlic and caraway], and it’s really easy on the palate for people that are nervous about what they’re trying,” she said. “If we’re going for curries my favorite is the Sri Lankan Curry. It’s a roasted curry with deep, deep tones.”
Spices used to be one of the most prized luxuries in the world; whole land and maritime trade routes were based upon the movement of spices such as black pepper and cinnamon, considered among the most valuable commodities obtainable during the 11th and 12th centuries. For Suydam, it’s obviously a little easier to obtain — her customers can just come to her. But that air of mystery and exoticism persists, when smelling things such as Ethiopian berbere, garam masala and ras el hanout.
Gryffon Ridge products are available online, and at stores including Whole Foods Market, Rosemont Market and LeRoux Kitchen in Portland, Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport and Barrels Community Market in Waterville. Gryffon Ridge is at the Brunswick Farmer’s Market from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday at Fort Andross, and there are booths planned for the Artisan Bread Fair in Skowhegan on July 17, at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront Aug. 23-25, the Common Ground Fair in Unity Sept. 21-23, and the Maine Harvest Festival in Bangor Nov. 16-17.