Before its streets were paved, Baltimore was a port city where ships traded international products including spices – a bit of history that lives on today in the form of not one but two major local spice businesses.
Vanns Spices is, if you will, the “David” to McCormick & Co.’s “Goliath.”
Like the biblical David, Vanns stands up very well to the neighboring giant but the company has no interest in giant-slaying. They thrive on their own boutique quality and highly-skilled staff, part of a finely-tuned business plan.
Founded in 1981 by Ann Wilder and a friend, Vanns began as a kitchen table operation that Wilder grew by contacting food industry celebrities and gaining them as customers.
It was an adventure as much as a business for Wilder, who traveled to many countries of origin, insisting on the imported products being as “green” and fair-trade as possible. Her death in 2009 after a long illness marked the end of an era, but not of Vanns.
Students of Spice
Having heard that there had been some changes in management in the last few years, I wanted to take a look at the company, headquartered in Woodlawn just outside Baltimore. I was especially interested to meet the current president of the company, Mick Whitlock. He and his wife Meg Whitlock, Vice President of Sales, took charge four years ago.
I love to hear how people came to live in Baltimore. Mick Whitlock was born on a farm in England, joined the merchant marine and became a waiter on the QE2. He and Meg married and were food brokers in Atlanta, moving later to Baltimore because it is Meg’s hometown.
The Whitlocks are passionate about this spice business and worked at Vanns for a while before they bought in. They joined the Price family, which has been the principal owner of Vanns for many years. Their meticulous attention to detail is riveting and the business, judging from the impressive processing and packaging operation, appears to be weathering the economy quite well. Tasting the spices let me know it has lost nothing of its quality.
Vanns packages hundreds of herbs spices and extracts, as well as blends under their own “Vanns” label. They sell, as such, to Eddies in Baltimore and are used without recognition by many Baltimore restaurants and caterers. Home cooks can order directly online.
They packages private labels for Fairway Markets, Gourmet Garage and many restaurants in New York, Washington DC and nationwide. Professional chefs, restaurants and caterers count on Vanns to produce specific blends to suit their needs. The Whitlocks and their staff often work with professionals to develop signature blends.
Good Spice-keeping Seal of Approval
Obtaining various certifications is a big deal for spice makers and Whitlock prides himself on producing the paperwork to qualify for many of them, including the Safe Quality Food (SQF) rating, the “organic” certification and the Global Food Safety Initiative, which documents food product from source to end user.
Vanns packs jars, grinders and bottles, with hundreds of pure herbs and spices, and blends and rubs. They package dozens of seeds and extracts and many varieties of rice, grains and beans.
Their salt offerings are like a primer on the world’s salt-producing regions, with varieties from places like Italy and Peru, as well as from American salt-making areas, such as Watkins Glen, in New York’s Finger Lakes region. And I discover some novelties at Vanns, such as the freeze-dried vinegar that can be used as an ingredient in a blend to coat French fries.
Until three years ago, every herb and spice was bottled by hand. Since mechanizing, Vanns has increased both sales and production (100,000 units can be generated in two weeks), while maintaining the same size work force. (There are 38 full time and 10 seasonal employees, Mick Whitlock says.)
Their operation is a warren of rooms for research and development, kitchen testing and labeling, as well as meticulously clean warehouse space.
Workers wear gloves, lab coats and hairnets that cover ears and earrings. Their duties include maintaining Material Safety Data sheets and keeping potential allergens, such as sesame seeds, segregated. Kosher and Organic products also need special treatment. Labels are made on site as well and adhered by machine.
Amid the high tech machinery at Vanns, it’s possible to also find some ancient and fascinating products, like their pink Himalayan salt-slabs for cooking. They’re a version of those cedar planks many of us have used for grilled or baked fish. I’m told they don’t make food extra-salty but do add a savory richness.
(As soon as they figure out how to package these 12-pound slabs, the company hopes to make them available from their website, possibly as soon as this summer.)
Another ancient product, and one of their biggest sellers is Herbes de Provence, a blend that includes thyme, savory, basil, rosemary and lavender. Other small-batch blends include Hot Curry Powder and Dark Chili Powder.
Can spices be too-ancient?
I asked about the use-by time for herbs and spices and Mick Whitlock said many factors are involved.
“Whole spices last longer than ground spices,” he noted. “A good rule of thumb is one year to 18 months. I have used spices that have been older but they start to lose their flavor.” Vanns purchases in small batches to make sure they get the freshest possible products into stores. Always store spices in a dark cool place, he said.
What about extracts such as vanilla?
“For extracts one year is best,” he said. “They do not need to be refrigerated but don’t store them in an 80 degree plus area. Normal room temperature is fine.”
Vanns has provided a few recipes that include some of their herbs and spices.
Grilled Marinated Chicken with Herbes de Provence
4 tablespoons olive oil – in two uses
2 tablespoons white wine
2 cloves garlic, mashed
I Tablespoon Vanns Herbes de Provence
4 boneless chicken cutlets
salt to taste
Combine in a bowl, large enough to hold all ingredients, 1 tablespoon oil, wine, garlic, Herbes de Provence and salt to taste. Cover bowl with plastic film and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Heat remaining oil in sauté pan over medium high heat. Remove chicken from marinade, place in pan and sear on each side. Lower heat to medium and cook on each side for 3 to 4 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. Serves 4.
Vanns Pepper Crusted Filet Mignon
4 Filet mignons (about 8 ounces each)
4 teaspoons Vanns Quebec Steak Seasoning
4 tablespoons olive oil
Dredge Steaks on both sides with Vanns Quebec Seasoning and set aside. Heat olive oil in a heavy skillet or corrugated grill over high heat until it begins to smoke. Place steaks in pan; make sure they do not touch.
Sear on both sides for 1 minute each and lower heat to medium. Cook for an additional 3 or 4 minutes or to taste. Serves 4.
Vanns Lemon Pepper Sesame Fish Steaks
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons chipped Scallions
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Vanns Lemon Pepper
4 Tuna Steaks 4 – 6 ounces each
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
4 tablespoons olive oil
In a shallow bowl, large enough to hold a single tuna steak, mix together melted butter, chopped scallions, lemon juice and Vanns Lemon Pepper. Spread sesame seeds on waxed paper. Dip each tuna steak in lemon spice butter mixture. Dredge in sesame seeds and set aside. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat, and sear tuna steaks, one minute a side. Lower heat to medium and cook for an additional 6 minutes, turning once. Tuna will be rare.