The Spice Must Flow
April 1, 2022 @ 9:00am
Spices have been a constant presence in Winnette McIntosh Ambrose’s life.
“Seasoning — as we call it back home — plays a huge role in everything we eat,” says the Trinidadian-born owner of spice market-patisserie Souk and French pastry shop The Sweet Lobby, both on Barracks Row. “Whatever it is, it has to taste amazing. That flavor comes from the inventive use of spices. We can’t handle food that is not intensely seasoned.”
On the Caribbean island, the most popular way to spice a dish is with “green seasoning,” a made-as-you-like-it blend of fresh herbs such as chives, chadon beni (culantro), parsley and thyme, along with other flavor enhancers: garlic, lemon or lime juice, hot peppers and onions.
“Everyone has their own version,” says McIntosh Ambrose. “It is key to season whatever we eat.”
It was a cornerstone to her mother’s Creole style cooking, a cuisine rooted in West African traditions. The island’s wider cuisine takes inspiration from the globe-spanning array of cultures that make up its population: Indigenous peoples, the African diaspora, large communities of Indian and Chinese immigrants and transplants from Syria, Lebanon and, most recently, Venezuela. Between such diverse backgrounds, myriad spice traditions are at play.
Given this emphasis on internationally-minded seasoning, Souk feels like a natural — if not nearly inevitable — element of McIntosh Ambrose’s arc as a culinary creative. After opening The Sweet Lobby in 2011 to much acclaim, and a trophy- winning turn on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars,” she needed a new space to expand her wholesale pastry production. Scoring a spot just down 8th Street SE, she wondered what else to do with it.
“My husband and I are avid travelers so we asked ourselves, ‘How do we bring travel into a venture of some kind?’” she says. “What do we love when we travel? A big part of that is food.”
She decided it would become a patisserie fusing French technique with global flavors and a spice shop inspired by her strolls through the souks (markets) of Dubai and Morocco. These days, Souk stocks over 150 spices from more than 30 countries, in a panoply of forms: leaves, seeds, flowers, powders, roots, salts and peppers. Some are well known — heady curls of cinnamon, sharp tipped cloves and crimson threads of saffron — while others are less known, like borage leaf and lemon myrtle.
“We’ll stock in lower quantities a few unusual things that people ought to be exposed to,” McIntosh Ambrose says.
Many of the spices appear in the shop’s custom tea blends. Others are incorporated into pastries. Vanilla bean perks up canelés, breakfast buns are rich with cinnamon, caramelized onion biscuits hide mustard seeds and springy cherry blossom season inspires cookies imprinted with preserved Sakura flowers imported from Japan.
The last two years have been grueling for the business, which McIntosh Ambrose pivoted in multiple ways, including offering pizza and subscription boxes for the first time, creating a now-permanent walk-up window, doing away with indoor seating to install a long pastry display counter and adding some sidewalk seating.
On top of that, the spice business faces a host of existential challenges — from the pandemic’s impact on producers and supply chain disruptions to climate change, catastrophic weather and conflict disruptions to growing operations. The latter makes it difficult for McIntosh Ambrose to source Aleppo pepper from civil war-torn Syria, while storms in Madagascar, where most of the world’s vanilla is grown, drove up the price of a single vanilla bean from less than $5 when Souk opened in 2015 to roughly $15 for consumers today.
Despite it all, McIntosh Ambrose has remained adaptable and inventive, with strong seasoning always at the fore. In recent months, the pastry case has featured pear-rosemary-frangipane tarts, pistachio-rose pound cake and cheddar-scallion biscuits speckled with black sea salt.
Souk: 705 8th St. SE, DC; dcsouk.com // @dcsouk
The Sweet Lobby: 404 8th St. SE, DC; sweetlobby.com // @thesweetlobby
Storing Spices: Do’s + Don’ts
1. Figure out a storage solution, such as a cabinet, drawer, shelving or magnetic containers secured to the side of a fridge. A cool, dry place is best. Don’t store spices near heat, like the stove or exposed to direct sunlight.
2. Store them in airtight containers. McIntosh Ambrose prefers 1–2-ounce clear glass jars. One exception: If a spice will be kept for more than six months, use airtight tins to help prevent degradation from light exposure. If storing in custom containers, label spices with their name and date of purchase.
3. Keep spices organized so they are easy to find. Consolidate or discard duplicate spices. Every six months or so, check your spices to ensure they haven’t lost their flavor. McIntosh Ambrose recommends having an easy-to-access collection of oft-used spices on the countertop.
Behind The Photo
A kaleidoscopic selection of Souk’s spices: astragalus root, mace, orange peel, turmeric, green cardamom pods, beet powder, rose petals, bee pollen, black Hawaiian sea salt, jasmine, pink peppercorns, dried chives, echinacea, pink Hawaiian sea salt, Vadouvan curry and butterfly pea flower.
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