December 21, 2011

Soup to Nuts: Business gets zesty
for Maine spice merchants

At Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants, exotic salts, peppers and blends are flying off the racks.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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

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Christine Suydam displays super-hot ghost chiles while her husband Rick shows matcha (green tea) sea salt, one of 20 sea salts available from their Gryffon Ridge Spice Merchants. The company has sold more than 15,000 hand-packaged jars of spices this year.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Suydams started with a coffee grinder and a few pounds of spices. Now they operate their business out of a commercial kitchen they’ve built in their basement, which has a six-burner gas stove, a huge mixer and other equipment, but they still individually fill, label and shrink-wrap by hand each jar – of which they’ve sold more than 15,000 this year.

Additional Photos Below

JUST ABOUT EVERYONE has some spices at home that they bought sometime during the Reagan administration. But your spices should not sit on your shelves forever. And, the Suydams say, you should learn to take better care of them. Here's their advice for getting the most flavor out of your purchases:

Keep your spices cool and dry, and out of the sunlight.

The worst place to store your spices is in a rack right over your stove. The heat is terrible for them.

Do not put your spices in the freezer unless you're going to use them all up when you take them out. Going from cold to warm and back again will cause condensation that will ruin the spices.

Whole spices will last longer. Once you grind or roast a spice, the oils have been released.

On average, you can keep your spices for nine to 12 months before they go bad.

Ground spices with a high oil content, such as ground cumin and coriander, should be used in six months, because they are seeds and will go rancid.

You can keep cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, allspice and cloves longer, up to a couple of years.

If you open a jar of spice and it doesn't smell good, don't use it. If it's normally a green color and it's gone gray, don't use it.


IF YOU'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT that saffron is the most expensive spice, well, you're right. The price varies a lot, but it is still ridiculously high – anywhere from $3,500 to $7,000 a pound.

But in this case, Rick Suydam says, the price is worth it.

"It takes, on average, 220,000 stigmas from the crocus plant to make saffron, and they have to be picked by hand," he said. "And there's three per crocus. So they can charge that, because I'm not going to go out and pick 220,000 stigmas."

The yellow that you sometimes see in saffron is another part of the plant, the style. Good saffron is crimson, not yellow. If you see a lot of yellow style threads scattered throughout your saffron, you're not getting the purest product.

Iran grows 95 percent of the world's saffron, Suydam said. Spain has 3 percent of the market, India 1 percent, and another 1 percent is scattered through Greece and a couple of other areas.

Gryffon Ridge only sells Grade A1 Sargol Saffron from Iran.

"If you look at the numbers as far as tonnage, the U.S. historically has imported more Spanish saffron than Spain grows, so that's a problem," Suydam said. "We just found that the Iranian saffron was a much higher quality."

A gram of saffron is 12 to 14 servings. Saffron is water soluble, and should be steeped in some warm milk or water before adding it to your dish, Suydam said.

– Meredith Goad, staff writer

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.


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."


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.


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 (

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:

Twitter: MeredithGoad


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Additional Photos

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DUQQA – Duqqa is an Egyptian blend used for dipping with bread and olive oil. It can also be used as a coating for fish, lamb and poultry. Duqqa contains hazlenuts, sunflower seed, coriander seed, sesame seed, black peppercorns, cumin seed, fennel seed, spearmint and sea salt.

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STAR ANISE – Star anise, the seed pod of an oriental evergreen tree, is used in Chinese and Indian cuisine. Rick Suydam suggests throwing a couple of star anise into the pot when boiling turnips to take the bitter edge off the vegetables. The Gryffon Ridge culinary blend known as Zeus’s Zeasoning combines star anise with orange peel, black peppercorns, coriander, cumin seed, fennel seed and sesame seed.

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GREEN CARDAMOM – Used in India and the Middle East, the cardamom pod is the fruit of a tropical plant related to ginger. The Suydams describe its aroma as lemony and flowery, and its taste as fruity and bittersweet. It is a popular ingredient in Turkish or Arabic coffee, and in Scandinavian-style cakes and pastries.

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PINK PEPPERCORNS – Pink peppercorns are not actually peppercorns. They are the fruit of the baies rose plant, and are sweet, not peppery, in flavor. The Suydams suggest using them with pork, poultry, wine and cream sauces, seafood and vegetables. They have also used them in ice cream.

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LONG PEPPERS – Long peppers have a piney flavor. They should be ground in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder, because they don’t go through peppermills well.

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GHOST CHILE – Gryffon Ridge’s ghost chiles come from the Assam province in India, where they were first discovered. This chile is the hottest naturally occurring chile in the world – more than 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.

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