Words and images: Omid Tavallai
Walking past the trendy boutiques of Rue Tiquetonne, you’re likely to see some storefronts that will grab your attention: Freakish mannequins dressed up in cleverly arranged runway hand-me-downs, hipster vintage wear that walks the fine line between “ironic cool” and “grandma,” or perhaps a water scene of octopi floating up in plastic bubbles. The latter, however, is not the window of a fashion boutique. It’s a spice shop called l‘Épicerie de Bruno.
“Muriel used to work in fashion. She’s very creative with the window displays,” says Bruno Jarry of his collaborator as he surveys his small kingdom of over 150 spices and other accoutrements for the gourmet. “And I was working in banking, which also has nothing to do with this.”
So how did a banker wind up as one of the top purveyors of herbs and spices and exotic foodstuffs in Paris? “I’d always been traveling and I love food. I was interested in all kinds of cooking, all over the world. And I found there was no place in Paris where you can find all the ingredients, the spices,” he recalls. “So whenever I traveled, I always brought back some spices as a souvenir.
“And my parents were chemists,” he continues. “Old fashioned pharmacists who made their own medicines for customers, and there were spices and herbs in what they made. And my grandparents and great grandparents and great great grandparents were grocers in Brittany. So, logically, I decided to get into the business.”
L’Épicerie de Bruno’s appeal comes not only from a strong lineage of épicerie, but a thorough understanding of origin and what it means to how things taste.
“Take pepper, for example,” he says, pointing out a wall with a variety of peppercorns most people likely don’t know exist. “Most people don’t know how it’s grown, yet – as with wine – the soil and climate are important. Nowadays, when people buy beef or vegetables, they want to know where it comes from. Spices, I think, are one of the only food products where people don’t know or don’t care, and the origin isn’t indicated on the package.” On the other hand, Bruno does know, he does care, and he’s happy to dispense his vast knowledge to those who seek it.
Working directly with small or family-owned producers, Bruno gets to know how they work, and he collaborates with them to bring good, 100% natural products to market. “I work with hundreds of farmers in Kerala, India, for example, and encourage them to grow and sell us excellent products, and pay them a very good price, so they’re not simply growing and selling in volume to big wholesalers. Even French ingredients, like the Piment d’Espelette [a mild chili from the Pyrénées-Atlantique region], we source directly from a small, family-owned producer. Same for Fleur de Sel: We know the individuals harvesting the salt.”
These principles are balanced with pragmatism. When you start to think of the origin of spices and seasonings, it seems counter-intuitive to the current trend to buy locally. “If you want to eat things that are harvested or grown within 50km of Paris, it’s going to be very difficult. There are a lot of things you simply won’t eat: Fish, dairy, most fruits… But I support this, especially when it comes to seasonal vegetables. It’s a good initiative. However, in France, we can’t cultivate pepper, for example. There are many spices we can’t grow here. So I support the concept – for products that are possible to acquire in France.
“What’s interesting is that this is very much an urban phenomenon: Paris, London, etc. But I was born in Brittany, where it’s not new – we only ever ate fishes that were caught locally, or we’d buy butter from a local farm. So when you can, try!”
Trying is the essence of Bruno’s. There’s so much to try, that one could come back seemingly every day and not exhaust the palette of flavors on hand. Various spices, dried herbs, leaves, and flowers line the walls. There are 25-30 different kinds of peppers on display at any given time. Black Penja pepper from Cameroon, white Kampot from Cambodia… Over 20 kinds of chillies, running from 0-10 on the Scoville scale, 0 being no heat at all, and 10 being the maximum, like habaneros and some Indian chillies… Vanilla beans of all kinds in small test tubes… There are specific spice blends, some made on premises and some by Bruno’s growers themselves: Blends for European cooking, Arabic & Iranian cooking, South & Central American cooking, and all of the Southeast Asian and Indian/Sri Lankan/Pakistani cuisines. “We even have some blends that some of the Indian shops don’t carry because they’re not popular enough to sell!”
One should not, however, mistake L’épicerie de Bruno for a specifically ethnic shop. It’s for everyone.
“The idea isn’t just for people to come here because they want to make Indian or Iranian dishes, per se, but to take these spices and apply them to things like barbecue, to go outside the traditional uses of ethnic herbs and spices. People often ask questions like, ‘I want to cook duck, but differently – what would go with duck?’ and we’ll advise them.”
It’s also a source for transplants to get a taste of home. “We get many people who’ve moved to Paris from other countries. Americans, for example, are accustomed to hotter foods and come in seeking hot sauces.” (Bruno himself likes spicy foods, but not past 9/10 on the scale.)
The shop is also a good resource for those who aren’t allowed salt or sugar. “Each spice has its own character and subtleties,” Bruno explains. “These characteristics are particularly good for people on restricted diets. For instance, if you can’t have sugar, you might use some cinnamon to remind your palate of sweet foods. Or if you can’t have salt, a little bit of something spicy can recall salted foods.”
Also available are a variety of rices (the shop was originally going to be called “Epices et Riz” – say it out loud) of numerous origins, accessories (“The tortilla press is always out of stock!” Bruno says, pleasantly surprised) and “kits” or pre-assembled spices to make quick work of meals.
“When I was working in finance I had long work days and I’d still want to cook a good dish quickly. So we have kits for making various rice dishes easily. And we’ve created kits for Mexican cooking. And various curry pastes. All with 100% natural ingredients. So in 20 minutes you can make a Thai green curry by yourself, which will likely be better than what you can get in most Thai restaurants here. Most people don’t have time to cook except on weekends, and they want to make quick things, but good things. And this way, it’s less expensive than going out or buying frozen meals.”
With so many choices, a visit to the shop can be daunting. Luckily, Bruno can (with a little prompting) narrow down his favorites: “Madgascar white pepper for every day. White pepper from Cambodia for fishes, it has a bit of a pineapple note! Arabic blends. Curry à l’ancienne (a more coarsely ground curry powder). Basic spices like cumin and cloves that are rich in essential oils.”
Muriel recommends Ras el Hanout (a Moroccan blend), Mélange du Trappeur (a savory/sweet Canadian blend used for grilling, which she likes on pineapple), green cardamom, and cinnamon.
For those visiting Paris temporarily, a spice fix is still available via Bruno’s online store long after the holiday is over, and for those who want a more lasting souvenir, his book Épices (in collaboration with photographer Thomas Dhellemmes) may be of interest. The book features 50 different spices (no herbs, no flowers, just spices!) and a number of accompanying recipes. It’s available at the shop, but widely distributed elsewhere. In fact, a Michelin-starred New York chef saw the book at the nearby culinary bookstore Librairie Gourmande and came right over to pick up some of Bruno’s goods for himself.
In a nutshell: Bruno offers you ethically grown and procured spices, rices, kits and accessories, with the expertise of someone with generations in the business and the knowledge to write a book on the subject, all at the quality demanded by famous chefs.
L’Épicerie de Bruno
30 rue Tiquetonne, 2nd
01 53 40 87 33
Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10:30am-2:30pm and 3:30pm-7:30pm
Métro: Etienne Marcel (4)