DRESDEN MILLS — Mulling spices are hot this time of year.

Poultry and apple pie seasonings are popular too. But the biggest seller at Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants this holiday season is Saigon cinnamon, a variety that is stronger and sweeter because of its higher oil content.

“These two weeks have been extremely busy,” said Christine Suydam, who owns the business with her husband, Rick. “We’re in 15 stores now, and between that and a very strong presence online and our (farmers) markets, every day we’re like, ‘OK, what have we got to do, and how are we going to get it done?’ “

On this particular day, the couple had already filled more than 500 spice jars in the previous five days. But it’s not just the holidays that have the Suydams scrambling.

As word gets out about the unusual variety and quality of their spices, the business is growing about as fast as they can handle it – especially considering they both still have full-time jobs. Rick Suydam says Gryffon Ridge (the gryffon comes from his family crest) sold more than 15,000 jars of spices this year – and all those half-cup jars were filled, labeled and shrink-wrapped by hand.

The Suydams run their spice business out of their rural home, where they also raise heritage pigs, chickens and ducks. They prepare and package the spices in a commercial kitchen they’ve built in their basement, which has a six-burner gas stove, a huge mixer, large stainless sinks and other equipment. Colorful spices are everywhere, and when Rick is working on a curry blend, the fragrance wafts upstairs and fills the house.

54 SPICE BLENDS AND COUNTING . . .

In addition to selling herbs and spices, Gryffon Ridge has created its own signature spice blends made from recipes the couple developed themselves and which contain no fillers or anti-caking agents.

The Suydams just released their 54th blend, an Arabic seasoning called Baharat that is typically found in the Persian Gulf and contains Kashmiri chile powder, cassia, loomi, black peppercorns, coriander seed, cumin seed, green cardamom, nutmeg and cloves.

A large part of the business focuses on education, because customers invariably wonder about a spice they’ve never heard of before and ask about how to use it. Their inventory is filled with things like asafoetida, an Indian spice that smells like stinky feet but, when added judiciously to a pot, is a nice substitute for onions and garlic.

Epazote, galangal powder, file powder for Cajun cuisine – the Suydam’s shelves are filled with things you probably won’t find in the typical home kitchen, along with all of the usual spices people use every day.

Just a simple a conversation with them is filled with interesting tidbits, such as the fact that fenugreek is used to make artificial maple syrup. Grains of Paradise, a spice from Africa used by brewers and chefs, was named by Medieval merchants who told customers it floated on rivers out of Eden.

“It’s a very old spice,” Rick said. “It’s the signature seasoning in Sam Adams Summer Ale. The flavor is kind of a cross between pepper and cardamom. It’s got a bit of a musty smell when it’s not ground.”

IT ALL STARTED WITH THE CLOVES

Chefs and foodies have a simple trip to the grocery store to thank for the creation of Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants in 2009.

The Suydams had been talking about starting a business for more than a year when Rick went to a supermarket for some cloves.

“I ended up paying $6.58 for 0.3 of an ounce of cloves,” he said. “And when you opened them up, there was no aroma to them at all. It worked out to over $300 a pound. It was a ridiculous amount of money.”

Rick and Christine decided they could do it better and cheaper, and started sourcing spices and ordering samples to check them out. When Christine got laid off from her job (she’s since found another) and Rick retired from the U.S. Coast Guard (he now works at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Togus), they decided to launch their new spice business.

They bought a coffee grinder and started ordering.

“We had a pound of this and a pound of that sitting around, and we were like, ‘Boy, this is a lot of stuff,’ ” Rick Suydam said. ” ‘We’re never going to go through it all.’ We started in the Brunswick winter (farmers) market, and had just phenomenal reception. People would ask, ‘Can you get this, do you have that, are you going to make this?’

“We were a bit naive when we started, saying, ‘Yes, we can do that, or yes we can get that, and yes, we’ll make it,’ and we did. A lot of late nights and a lot of weekends were gone. But it continued to pick up and grow.”

It wasn’t long before their 5-pound bags of peppercorns grew to 30- to 50-pound bags.

AS HOT AS IT GETS

Gryffon Ridge now carries more than 200 individual products, including 20 different kinds of sea salt and 13 whole dried chiles. Heard of the ghost chile, the hottest naturally occurring chile in the world? The Suydams have it, and will even give you tips on using one to make a pot of chili without its intense heat making you scream.

This is a chile that needs to be respected. If you touch it and then touch your eye, you will pay for it dearly.

“The ghost pepper has a great flavor,” Rick Suydam said. “It’s deeper, and it has very intense heat that doesn’t stop for about two to five minutes. You’re good as long as you keep eating. When you stop eating, you’ll have about five minutes of, ‘What have I done?’ And then it fades out.”

To make a pot of chili, drop a pepper in the chili, then every 20 minutes or so, check the heat. When the chili is as hot as you want it, take the chile out of the pot.

The couple do a lot of research on the Internet to keep up with trends, and they try to satisfy as many customer requests as they can. Rick would love, for example, to find a good source for mahlab, a powder made from a cherry pit that is used in Turkish and Middle Eastern cooking. “I’ve had half a dozen people ask me for it,” he said, “and I can’t find it in any quantity.”

The business’ biggest challenge is trying to keep its sources of spices consistent. Weather is the biggest factor; a bad year can ruin the supply of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and mace in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, for example.

The Suydams don’t sell anything they don’t test themselves, and they post the recipes they develop on their website (gryffonridge.com).

You might think that most of their business would be online, but the Suydams say it’s the Brunswick winter market that is their bread and butter.

“We’re still amazed weekly at the money the Brunswick-midcoast community spends on spices,” Christine said.

There are days in Brunswick when they don’t sell any chives or other common spices, but they’ll sell out of grains of paradise or Szchezuan peppercorns.

“We’re not getting rich off it,” Rick Suydam said. “But when you think of the little area of Maine we’re selling in, and the business that we do, I can only imagine, if we had the people and the money to be able to invest to the point where we could spread out, what the business would be like.”

Sales aren’t likely to slow down any time soon. Christmas may be just around the corner, but it’s also the advent of chili season.

So, just how old is that chili powder sitting in your spice rack?

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Twitter: MeredithGoad