Spice hunter: the second life of a Breton chef

Few people have ever heard of a vanilla cellar, and yet the tiny, arched grotto beneath Olivier Roellinger's spice store in Paris holds some of the finest treasures the celebrated chef has brought home from his travels.

After three decades at the top of his game, Roellinger has hung up his apron - and Michelin stars - for a life as a spice hunter, a way of paying tribute to a prized network of spice growers, and to the seafarers of his native Brittany.

"I was lucky enough to be born in a Corsair's house - the house of a spice hunter," the 55-year-old told AFP at his Paris spice outlet, its wall-to-wall wood shelves stacked high with powdered mixes, rare peppercorns and vanilla.

Like a cross between pirates and mercenaries, Brittany's Corsairs were privateers who had licence to raid the ships of nations at war with France, and so used to seize cloves and nutmeg from the Dutch in the 18th century.

Setting up his restaurant in the family home in the port of Cancale, Roellinger hoped to "tell the story of this place, caught between sky and sea" - an ambition that would earn him three coveted Michelin stars.

But once a year he and his wife Jane would board up and "set off on the routes once travelled by Brittany's sailors," bringing back 10 to 20 kilos (22 to 44 pounds) of spices to create new dishes, each one telling "a new maritime adventure story".

Roellinger is captivated by the history of spices, their role in fuelling early maritime trade and explorers of the New World.

"Once heated up, these barks, root and seeds offered a glimpse of the world beyond, of something spiritual," he said, while in the kitchen "it's as if you suddenly had 15 extra primary colours to paint with."

After three decades at the helm, manning the stoves week in week out, Roellinger decided it was time for something new.

So two years ago he closed his three-star table. Setting his crew to work on his second restaurant in Cancale, a lower-key affair with cookery school and seaside cabins attached, he has since focused his own energies on the spice trade.

"Anyone can open a spice store," he says. "But for decades I spent two to three hours a day with a spoon in my mouth."

In Roellinger's book, spices are used to "set the pace, or to highlight" a flavour - like punctuation marks in a text.

"On their own these spices are nitroglycerin. My idea was to create spice powders, flavours, like a perfumer would create a fragrance for a woman."

"I already had this network around the world, of people producing cardamom, ginger. We wanted to give something back to the people who had enable us to create such a singular cuisine," he said.

Today Roellinger buys from some 130 producers in India, mostly from southern Kerala but also from Rajasthan, he sources red and black pepper from Cambodia, vanilla, cloves and nutmeg from Madagascar, as well as spices from Brazil, Morocco, Uganda or Tahiti.

The chef, who is heading back to Kerala in January for harvest time, pays his suppliers four times the market rate, along the guidelines of the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation.

Inside his Paris store, Roellinger leads visitors eagerly down the stairs to the tiny stone cellar, where vanilla pods of a dozen different origins are stored for up to four years at 17 degrees C (62 F), and constant humidity of around 75 percent.

The vanilla orchid flowers for just one day but it takes nine months to produce a mature pod.

Picked at just the right moment, the pod is blanched, laid out to dry in a sunny courtyard, then wrapped in 10 layers overnight. Next day it goes back out in the sun - and the whole operation is repeated over and over for three weeks.

"It's like making wine - if you get it wrong it'll taste like rot," explains the chef.

Hung in a tobacco shed for six months, tradition holds that the pods are smoothed 30 times between a woman's hands before they are wrapped in tissue and shipped in metal boxes to Roellinger's stores - one in Paris and two in Brittany.

The result? Notes of gingerbread from Tahiti, an apple-scented nose on a Kerala pod to go with rice pudding, a Reunion vanilla that is perfect with hot milk, or this one from Papua New Guinea that Roellinger recommends on seafood, "along with a dash of orange juice".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee