We loved the Poudre des Bulgares and the herbal tea Songe de Nuit, made by Olivier Roellinger. A few weeks ago, he offered us a tour of his shop located rue St Anne in Paris. This beautiful space filled up with spices is nothing but an explosion of colors, scents, and textures.
The staff is incredibly knowledgeable (one told us that tossing a bit of Poudre des Bulgares on vanilla ice-cream or apple pies was delicious!), but it’s also interesting to wander alone in the shelves to find the rare gem.
Interview with Olivier Roellinger, talented chef, professionnal globetrotter and French humanist.
Le Grumeau: Tell us how everything started, how have you become so passionate about food and spices?
Olivier Roellinger: I was a student majoring in chemics in Rennes when I had a terrible accident, I had to stay in bed for months. Some of my friends happened to be “maraîchers” (i.e. market garderners, cutlivating fruits and vegetables) or fishermen and brought me incredible products whenever they would visit me. This was the turning point, I wanted to learn how to prepare and cook these products.
I went against the tide, and listened to my sensitibity and my emotivity to start a new career. But my training as chemist was far from useless, it has been incredibly helpful when it comes to work with spices and creating blend. My wife, who is a pharmacologist, has been equally salutary, her knowledge with plants is a great help to me.
Le G: Speaking about your blends, where do your inspiration comes from?
O.R.: I can tell you about one of the first spice blends I’ve created, Grande Caravane. The idea came to me as one of my friends’ sister was writing her master thesis about the road to the Indies. Not really what you were thinking about, isn’t it?
I’m not trying to do spice blends with exotic or original flavors. I’m trying to create flavors which reminds me of what I know best, which are the flavors of French cuisine. Think about cassoulet for a minute. Beans are an essential component of this traditional French dish, but they’re not French, they’ve been imported from South America a long time ago. It’s a bit the same for my creations, I’m bringing new spices to accomodate with our cuisine.
Le G: How do you create Epices Roellinger products in practice?
O.R.: I always start from the product I’m trying to improve. The question is extremly simple: which spices would sublimate it, reveal it differently? I have a real passion for tomatoes for instance, Serinissima is a spice blend I’ve created to celebrate it (clove, ginger, Guinea pepper, safran and spices).
Sometimes it takes me an incredible amount of time to create specific blends because finding the perfect balance between the product and the spices is not always easy. It took me five years for the Poudre des Bulgares! I used to get a greek yoghurt every morning but I was looking for an association which would render it tasty, I finally found it.
Now my goal is to find a spice, a blend, which could magnify potatoes’s flavors.
When I want to create more traditional blends like Masala or Byriani, I always ask advices to experts of these types of cuisine. The very last one I’ve created, Ras el Hanout has been designed and created with Fatema Hal, a great Moroccan Chef.
Le G: How do you think people have reacted to your products at first?
O.R.: Actually, I started to sell my blends because my friends but also clients used to ask me to give them some at the end of their dinner at my restaurant. That’s how everything started.
My blends are classified on a range of intensisty from 8 to 24 so people are not disorientated and can easily find what they want.
Le G: But you also sell raw spices (i.e. not blends) right?
O.R.: My goal was to sell ready made so that people could cook with spices that were already prepared with the good proportions, which is simpler than having to think about the good amount of each spice. It’s a bit like perfumes, you don’t want to become yourself a sort of wizzard and mix the different scents, it’s simpler to buy ready made ones.
But it’s true that we also happen to sell raw spices that have not been mixed with others. This idea comes from people themselves but also from us, because we want to give more opportunities to our producers to sell their products through our shops. There are about 3000 of them currently, mainly in India and Sri Lanka. It’s a sort of “giveback” after all they’ve done for us: thanks to them, the cuisine we do in Cancale is unique.
Le G: By the way, what is your approach with Epices Roellinger? We know you care about producers, so why not using fair trade labels?
O.R.: I’ve chosen to do without fair trade labels because I don’t want them to become selling arguments even though the spices I buy are ten times more expensive than the ones which are bought by wholesale traders in India who don’t even go out and meet the producers because they belong to an inferior cast.
Le G: You also have an impressive collection of peppers here…
O.R.: You’re right, we’ve found a very large range of peppers, including rare ones like the one that Marco Polo discovered and that all Europe wanted back then in the Middle-Age. Even though a prominent Indian spices expert wasn’t sure whether it was still existing, we found this sort of pepper in India.
Producers didn’t want to develop it anymore, because cultivating it was too complex. But we’ve found a producer who has decided to produce this pepper again for us, the famous Jeerakarimundi.
Le G (we ended our journey by a tour of the vanilla beans cellar located underneath the shop): Could you tell us more about these vanilla beans? They seem to have a special importance to you.
O.R.: Vanilla is quite hard to work with. It takes up incredible hand work to produce a single bean, giving to each one its singular flavor (he’s definitely not talking about the vanilla beans you’ll find at Walmart). The beans are stored outside in the daylight but they need to be protected from cold at night, you need to keep them at the good temperature and with enough humidity. Our vanilla cellar allows the beans to evolve in their metal boxes while it does not alter them.
Each kind has its distinctive flavor, the Bourbon for instance which the most famous, is rather greasy.
We also try to work closely with producers and we have quite rare varieties like this “frozen” vanilla bean, which has been cultivated by a passionate winemaker in New Caledonia.
From the vanilla beans cellar to the shop (where you’ll be able to smell them all)
Le G: Your timetable is very busy (we did our interview right after a horde of Chinese journalists), how do you manage your time?
O.R.: My wife and I spend half of our time in Cancale during the summer months. You know, we still have to manage about 95 people over there, including in our hotel – Les Maisons de Bricourt -, restaurant, culinary school, shops…
The rest of the time, we travel a lot. We spend a lot of time visiting the producers working with us but we also take the time to discover new ones, and how we could work with them. Last year, we went to Burma to see how we could help this part of the world which now enjoys full democracy after years of military control. Unfortunately, our researches were not succesful but still, with friend Michel Bras (also a very talented French chef), we have decided to open a culinary school in Rangoon.
Le G: Everything seems to be working just fine for you, what sortof difficulties d you encounter in your daily job?
O.R.: I’d say it’s how to adapt our production speed to the customer trends. None of our products in the shop must have been produced more than three weeks ago because we want everything to be extremely fresh. It also makes things harder for us.
Le G: How would you convince us to fall in love with your spices?
O.R.: What’s incredible with spices is that they lead us towards the new kind of cuisine, less sugar, less fat, less salt. For instance, we found a sort of seaweed which is a great substitute to salt.
Grumeau is a good disciple, the only thing we can advise you is to go to rue Saint-Anne and find you favorite spices or vanillas. You should also definitely have a try at Roellinger’s restaurant and hotel, Les Maisons de Bricourt, in Cancale where the sea is everywhere to be seen. The cuisine of Roellinger is still at its best over there.
To know more about Olivier Roellinger’s spices and his boutiques, click here.