Ethné de Vienne: World Ambassadress
Ethné de Vienne bustles between her shelves of her workshop where more than 400 different spices are stored in white bins and her trademark small metal pots.
“Where is it? Help me, help me! I get excited! Oh my Lord!” the Trinidad-born woman says theatrically in her native English.
One of her employees points to the place where the unground turmeric is stored.
“I’m gonna show you what it looks like,” she victoriously exclaims, holding up the spice she was looking for.
The former model wears a rainbow-coloured outfit and proudly shows me a number of small orange sticks. In another white box, the turmeric is half-crushed, and in a third, it’s fully ground, thanks to a machine standing a few metres away.
“A spice ground just before use is at its best,” she explains in perfect French, finger in the air, staring at me through her thick brown glasses.
The scent of Épices de cru headquarters, located in Montréal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood on Letourneux Avenue, is noticeable from a block away. Ethné de Vienne, the business co-owner, greeted me there an hour ago. Ethné, who immigrated to the Belle Province with her parents in 1969, is telling me her story while sitting in a large meeting room decorated with tapestries, mortars, pestles, traditional art objects and 2,500 recipe books. “Philippe has read them all! He’s made it his business to know all the cuisines of the world,” she says of her husband and business partner.
Years ago, Ethné and Philippe de Vienne made it their mission to get as many people as possible to discover various culinary cultures. They first did this through their catering service and, for the past 15 years, through importing spices from some forty countries.
The adoptive Québécoise is convinced that they couldn’t have achieved that success anywhere else.
“Quebecers are not very nationalistic when it comes to food,” she says. “In other countries you’ll hear things like: “I don’t like it because it comes from somewhere else!” she says changing her voice to mimic the contempt of some people. “Here we’re pigs! We love to eat and we don’t ask where it comes from. If it’s good, we eat it!”
Comfortably seated in her chair, Ethné takes a sip of green tea from a cup made by her son, Arik, a ceramist. She marvels aloud at how the tastes and knowledge of the average person in Québec have evolved over the past 15 years. Turmeric, originally from India, is now her company’s most popular spice, along with pepper.
“We used to have to explain the difference between real cinnamon and cassia, which is more common here and cheaper. Now, people come into our shop and ask: “Do you have cinnamon? The real one?” she says, laughing.
According to this salmon-fishing enthusiast, spices are becoming increasingly important in our cuisine, even in traditional dishes. That explains why Épices de cru now offers cretons and meat pie spice mixes.
“I fell in love with pâté chinois the first time I ate it, but there weren’t enough seasonings. So, I add cumin, onion, garlic and chilies to the meat, Aleppo pepper to the corn, and nutmeg and shallots to the potatoes,” she says.
While explaining the importance of promoting the origin of her products and of small producers from everywhere, Ethné glances at a text message she just received. It’s Andrew, her contact in Ethiopia, who sent her a photo of knockout chilis. She apologizes and gets up to show the photo to Philippe, who is sitting in the next room.
“It’s the first time these will be exported!” she tells us. Ethné and Philippe visited a farm in the East African country where the owners were growing the knockout chilis for their personal use only. “We tasted it and said, “If you plant more, could you dry them and send them to us?” They agreed!”
Throughout their yearly travels, the couple continues to discover spices that they can offer to their customers online, at their Jean-Talon Market shop, and in various outlets across Québec. They also sell Québec products such as gorria pepper, Labrador tea and dune pepper, but supply problems frequently limit the quantity and availability of local spices.
The great adventurer imports few spices from her native Trinidad. But she does always carry with her the Trinidadian openness and intercultural ease, which to her is the primary flavouring of the Caribbean island where she was born.
Text by Roxane Léouzon, cariboumag.com
Translated by Marie-Andrée Parent
Photo: Marc-Olivier Bécotte
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