On a spirited Spice route

Martine Nouet meets the chef who brings spice to our lives
By Martine Nouet
Spices should never be used as single, they should be blended”. As I am listening to Olivier Roellinger speaking in favour of blending, I immediately think of whisky and of the master-blenders who orchestrate their quest for harmony and complexity through a skillful measuring, blending whiskies which feature a whole array of aromatic profiles. In both domains, this relies on professionals with a flair, a know-how and years of practice.

Just as one can’t just suddenly become a master-blender, one can’t become an expert in spice handling overnight.

Think of the number of dishes ruined by the extra pinch of pepper or by a specific spice (or several) blatantly overwhelming in a homemade ras el hanout or garam massala?

The famous Cancale chef obviously thought of the amateur cook when he designed his blends of spices in order to give “our classic cuisine a tempo and a relief it had lost”. The chef has this suggestive comparison: “The ingredients are the words of the sentence, and spices its punctuation”. They give the dish all its meaning.

It all started in 1982, some 30 years ago, when Olivier Roellinger opened his restaurant La Maison de Bricourt. He invented his first
“powder”, the now iconic Retour des Indes. It was the encounter with a student who was researching La Compagnie des Indes towards the end of the 17th century that triggered off the chef’s creations. He designed a blend of 14 spices as a tribute to La Compagnie des Indes. When its members brought back from the West Indies all these fragrances. A fantastic world of perfumes and sensations which still nurtures the creative mind of “the wanderer on the face of the earth” (l’homme aux semelles de vent). Something the great poet Arthur Rimbaud used to call himself. There definitely is some ‘Rimbaldian’ spirit in Roellinger. With his eyes always focusing on elsewhere, far beyond the marine horizon, Olivier Roellinger (O.R ie gold in French) is a gold digger, a specific gold named curcuma.

The Retour des Indes, that first powder, rich in this spice also known for being beneficial to health signed an emblematic dish at La Maison de Bricourt, ‘le saint-pierre retour des Indes’, a John Dory cooked with cabbage. In fact, this dish is still on the menu of Le Coquillage, the restaurant of the Relais et Châteaux hotel Le Manoir Richeux in Saint-Méloir des Ondes, next to Cancale.

Olivier Roellinger and I are sitting in front of an impressive set of jars and bottles, whiskies, rums and cognacs. We are ready to start the game. The rule appears simple but is quite complex. We nose the spices and look for the best whisky matching. We spent the whole afternoon playing the game, I will take with me wonderful memories.

Poudre Retour des Indes

Back from India

Curcuma is dominant in this 14 spices blend that includes coriander and fenugreek among others. Its medicinal virtues are explained by the chef: “Each time I would send a plate to the dining-room, I would take a tablespoon of sauce. I have swallowed a lot of curcuma. This must have kept me in good health.” Thinking of the John Dory Retour des Indes served with mango and apple pulp, we both come with the same idea: a rum. Preferably an old demerara rum rich in exotic fruit and soft spices flavours.

Poudre curry corsaire

Pirate curry powder

This is a real curry, marked by cumin, coriander, cardamom and fenugreek which matches well with shellfish, mussels and cockles. I suggest a young malt having matured in ex-bourbon casks, like Glann ar Mor from the Celtic Whisky Compagnie.

Poudre des fées

Fairy powder

This powder enhances vegetables (especially root vegetables) and soups: pumpkin, carrots, chestnuts, celeriac and potatoes. Based on red mace, lemon peel and cinnamon bark, it welcomes a young grassy Speyside malt such as The Heart of Speyside from BenRiach.

Poudre Serenissima

Serenissima powder

This spice blend propels you into Venice and the splendours of its Royal purple… Clove, saffron, paradise seeds, ginger… all these luxurious spices that the noble Venetian families would bring back from Alexandria sublimate all tomato-based dishes. Wild herbs and tomato pulp laced with olive oil make a splendid match with Cragganmore 12 Years Old.

Poudre Neptune

Neptune powder

A combination of aniseed flavours (green aniseed, fennel, star anis, etc) and seaweeds. As its name implies, this blend favours a marine matching with either shellfish or fish which Caol Ila will embellish with its smoke and vanilla notes.

Poudre Gallo

Gallo powder

A tribute to celtic culture in Britanny, hinting at Brocéliande forest and its legends in the “Gallo country”. Galanga, laurel, sage, juniper, clove and orange peel root the flavours into a rustic note which is ideal for pâtés and poultry stuffings. Old Pulteney 12 Years Old will harmonise with the rooty and earthy profile of this spice blend.

Poudre du Vent

Wind powder

This powder goes in search of the scent of the Indian monsoon, in Kerala, with notes of eucalyptus and cardamom. Olivier Roellinger dedicates it to poultry. For such a dish, we need a whisky which would be earthy as well as ethereal, Olivier suggests. No problem, I have what we need: a Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old, marked by heather flower and root notes, these fragrances that the wind blows from Jura across the sound of Islay.

Poudre marine

Marine powder

Coriander, fennel, ajowan (rich in thymol, thus the turpentine notes of the blend) and garlic meet with tasty fish like mackerel or mullet. There is a medicinal and poultice fragrance in this blend. We try Laphroaig 18 Years Old. A match made in heaven!

Poudre Grande Caravane

Grande caravane powder

A classic including fenugreek, cinnamon, sesame, niara and cardamom. Let’s head for the Mediterranean where lamb and sun vegetables are glorified. Although a Nordic character, Talisker plays a colourful partition with this spice blend and slowly cooked lamb, like in tajines.

Poudre à pain d’épices

Gingerbread powder

The Spice powder especially dedicated to sweets are an innovation in the range. With the gingerbread blend, ice creams, cakes and citrus fruit salads have the taste of childhood. Glenrothes will be the perfect companion in this match.

Poudre équinoxiale

Equinoxiale powder

Cinnamon, vanilla, black pepper, all devote themselves to chocolate. Hot chocolate, mousses, cakes and others will be charmed by Lagavulin Distillers Edition finished in a Pedro Ximenez cask. When the sublime meets the succulent…

Poudre défendue

The forbidden powder

With such a name, you just feel like diving into the jar, don’t you ?Olivier Roellinger has a mischievous smile. “This blend is based on galanga, ginger, green aniseed and nutmeg. It is supposed to be aphrodisiac. The fragrance is powerful and complex. Almost intoxicating. That powder will enhance any fruit salad.” We glance at each other… and both agree to travel to cognac. Hennessy Paradis, Rémy Martin Extra, Léopold Gourmel Quintessence or Frapin Multimillésime N°3, all extraordinary cognacs to take your tastebuds to a heavenly journey. Do indulge yourself.

You feel dizzy? Not surprising. I had the same reaction after this extraordinary session.

You will find more about these magical powders on the website (in English). And if you happen to be in Paris in December, you will be able to visit the spice store. Olivier Roellinger is opening a shop in Paris in November (all details on internet).

And of course, the best will be provided in Château-Richeux at Saint-Méloir des Ondes. A treat you will not forget.


To make the journey linger on…

On his website dedicated to his spice creations, Olivier Roellinger describes the world olfactory memory through his constants trips in search of the best spicy flavours. Each powder tells a story. But it also tells the chef own story. As he writes himself:

“In Saint-Malo, the main port of the Company of the South Seas, future East India Company, the child that I was had his eyes fixed, perhaps more than others, on the horizon. Looking well beyond the ramparts of the old city, I dreamed of improbable voyages, imagining other shores and other suns. My childhood dreams had the perfume of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and benzoin. These spices became the treasures of an imagination sparked by dreams of these adventurers: Bretons, sailors, intellectuals, explorers, writers, who were named Jacques Cartier, René Duguay-Trouin, Mathé de la Bourdonnais, Surcouf, Jean Charcot or Chateaubriand.”

A quote from Olivier Roellinger

“Like a nose in the world of perfume, I define myself as a palate in that of flavours. This game has always allowed me to express the Saint Malo region’s spirit of adventure, to escape beyond the horizon and satisfy the thirst for travel that I wish to share with you”.