Saturday, Michelle and I wound up back at Olives et Épices (see “Plus ça change…”) and who should be there presiding, but Philippe de Vienne himself. We got to talking and found M. de Vienne to both unbelievably friendly and unbelievably generous with his encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and spices. We learned about everything from Kemiri Nuts (a staple of Indonesian cuisine) to Colombo Spices (a blend developed by Indian emigrants who were brought to the Caribbean). But what was perhaps the most fascinating topic of discussion of the day, not to mention the most fascinating culinary discovery of the day, was Ras-el-Hanout. Actually, it was Ras-el-Hanout that got us talking in the first place. Michelle had come across this spice blend while at Les Chèvres and was eager to learn more about it. She brought it up with M. de Vienne and it immediately seemed as though he was warming up to a favorite subject—he’s clearly an amateur of Moroccan cuisine, not to mention a bit of a scholar on Moorish culture in general.
Ras-el-Hanout is a spice blend that was developed by the Moors some time ago. The name means something along the lines of “top of the shop” and it is used by each spice merchant and spice shop in Morocco to refer to the finest spice blend they offer. As M. de Vienne informed us, even the most mediocre versions of this blend bring together some 13 or 14 different spices and herbs, but the best blends can consist of upwards of 27 or 28 different ingredients. The standard ingredients include things like cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger, but better varieties can also include things like dried rose blossoms and lavender, and there was a time when the blends might also include hallucinogens and aphrodisiacs such as hashish, belladonna, and Spanish fly. The best versions of Ras-el-Hanout bring together both quantity and quality, and M. de Viennes’ blend includes between 23 and 24 ingredients (depending on what’s available at the time that he puts his batch together) all of which are of the best quality and are blended at peak freshness, and all of which are left whole. Ras-el-Hanout isn’t meant to be used as a base for any dishes, the way garam masala is used in Indian cuisine, for instance, it’s meant to be thrown in during the last stages of the preparation of a dish like a couscous or at tajine, where it serves as a kind of magical ‘secret ingredient’ that enlivens a dish, perks it up, puts a finishing touch on it. For those with imagination it can be used to add something mysterious to everything from a cheese hors d’oeuvre to ice cream.
By the end of our conversation with M. de Vienne, we could barely contain ourselves. We picked up a can and rushed it home to experiment with. He recommended that we grind the whole batch immediately, then keep it in its air-tight can in the freezer, and that’s exactly what we did. It looked a lot prettier when the spices were still whole (as they are in the photo above), but the aroma after we ground the blend was hard to describe and worth every penny. Later that evening I added just the tiniest touch to a “Moroccan” carrot soup I’ve been making recently, and, together with the crème fraîche we swirled into the soup at the last moment, it turned a very good soup into something rather phenomenal. I also added about 1/2 a teaspoon into my most recent batch of oignons confits and—it’s official—they’re now à point.