Spice hunter: the second life of a Breton chef

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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".

© 2010 AFP

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