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042: Burlap and Barrel and the Global Spice Trade (Day 11 - Part 1)

Updated: Aug 25, 2022

What's the connection between Germany, Guatemala, and ‘elaichi’- the aromatic seed pods of cardamom that we use in our chais and shrikands in India?

Ethan Firsch, the co-founder of Burlap and Barrel, which imports 51 single-origin spices from 16 countries to the United States, showcased the anomaly of Don Amilcar’s “vertically integrated” cardamom farm in Guatemala. In the late 1800s German ‘settlers’ arrived in Guatemala, invited by the military general-President Justo Barrios. The newcomers were encouraged to grow coffee, for export to Germany, in the highlands. Both the land (forcibly confiscated) and the contract labour (through the “Day Laborer Regulations'') inequitably came from the local indigenous population of “Indians”. Alongside coffee, the Germans grew “Green Gold” - cardamom - a spice alien to the cuisine and culture of the locals.

Till date, cardamom has not made its way into the local food and taste preferences.Till date, 7 companies largely run by the descendants of the German settlers, own and control the export of cardamom from Guatemala. Till date, most of the farm labourers are descendents of the Mayan women who began working on the plantations in the 19th century. Don Amilcar’s farm is an exception to this situation - where he has control over the entire production cycle - cultivation, harvest, drying and export, and pays fair wages to the farm labourers. Guatemala exports 80% of the world’s cardamom and produces nearly 1.5 times of what is produced in India.

Through this example, and others, Firsch (who comes from an activist, line cook, and humanitarian-work background) showed how the five year old Burlap and Barrel is slowly making a dent in the convoluted spice supply chain. Their focus is on quality, flavorful, novel, single-origin spices for individual consumption (home cooks currently make 80% of their market). At the farm and foraged end, they work on pure trust - with no written contracts (!), and tap into their network of NGOs, ministries of agriculture and foreign affairs, as well as the increasing connections through social media.

Firsch also showed how some spices like cinnamon, grown in Vietnam, are intergenerational spices. The tree needs to grow for 20 years before it can produce the high quality cinnamon bark. So parents plant trees, in the hopes that their children will eventually harvest them. When children of farmers migrate to cities for more lucrative employment opportunities, traditional knowledge of farming, as well as traditional species and varieties may be endangered.

Talk conducted online on December 3, 2021 by Ethan Firsch of Burlap and Barrel on Day 11 of the Food and Politics Studying Foods Workshop.

Photo Credit: Jaspreet Kalsi on Unsplash

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