Passionate cooks will go to great lengths to get their herbs, even if it means growing their own rose geraniums, verbena and other plants not available at supermarkets. But Lucia Cleveland took her search further than most. In 1980, when she was trying to reproduce a dish she had tasted in a restaurant and couldn't find a ready-made version of bouquet garni, she started a company called The Spice Hunter and began importing the French herb bundle herself.
Since then, she has found spices and seasonings all over the world, including bay leaves in Turkey, vanilla beans in Madagascar, saffron in Spain, and a high-mountain oregano in Greece that comes strongly recommended by Mediterranean expert Paula Wolfert. Last year, Cleveland took an all-night flight to Hanoi and then drove a Jeep for two days into the hills of western Vietnam, where she met people who had never seen a white woman before. She found what she was looking for: cinnamon that explodes like a Red Hot.
In the past two decades, The Spice Hunter has grown into a big business: its seasonings are sold in hundreds of supermarkets. Still, Cleveland keeps looking for new flavors. After a 20-year hunt for white peppercorns she liked, she recently discovered Malaysian Sarawak pepper. It has a clean, fiery taste and an ivory color that makes a fleck-free sauce. For information, call The Spice Hunter at 800-444-3061.