What are common Middle Eastern spices

150 spices, 180 types of tea

Food and spices that used to be exotic are now part of the daily menu. If you want to keep up in the specialty trade, you have to penetrate culinary white spots.

Many exotic fruits, many foreign spices have found their way across the sea to Europe since colonial times. The global culinary diversity seems to be known, the time of discovery is over. Anyone who visits Schwarzenbach's grocery store in Zurich's Oberdorf will quickly find out wrong: the treasure trove of spicy dishes with different tastes is inexhaustible. In the past, pineapples and peppers were exotic and therefore exclusive and expensive. Today, dishes and spices from remote regions or from small-scale production have risen to the league of delicacies.

Due to special climatic conditions, the nature of the soil, different cultivation methods and processing methods, they are particularly tasty and stand out from the mass-produced goods. “Today we sell over 25 different types of pepper with special taste nuances,” says Heinrich Schwarzenbach, who is the fifth generation to run the business. “When it comes to spices, we always have something new, for example the cinnamon blossoms, which taste much sweeter than conventional cinnamon sticks. Our Zatar spice from the Middle East is also popular, as are dried Persian lemons, which are very small, black and wrinkled. "

No self service

In the past, as now, advice is required so that such unusual ingredients prepare culinary delights. There are usually four to six shop assistants behind the antique counter in Schwarzenbach's grocery store. They advise customers when buying, provide information about special features and give tips for preparation. The trained upholsterer seamstress Irene Meier quit her job as a branch manager of a bakery to work at Schwarzenbach out of sheer joy in the teas, coffee and chocolate types, spices and dried fruits: "The job is very demanding," she says, smiling all over her face: “At home, I often have to stick to books to find out more about our products. After five years I'm still studying. "

Your work demands blood, the shop is reminiscent of an apiary: the colorful, fragrant displays attract local gourmets and photo-hungry tourists in swarms. Small baskets of freeze-dried raspberries from Poland, Filipino banana chips and Chinese goji berries beckon to buy. Tasmanian pepper leaves, Venezuelan tonka beans and Congolese sandalwood powder line the shelves.

The nostalgic is the concept and the recipe for success at the same time: The sales counter dates from the 1910s and is reminiscent of an old pharmacy facility. “We kept the counter for a long time because we didn't have the financial means to modernize it. Suddenly we noticed that this is part of our success, that we should not go into self-service, but should continue to advise customers at the counter, ”says the managing director. According to sales consultant Irene Meier, customers love this touch of bygone times: “The presence of the ancestors can still be felt today. You can just tell that the store has a past. " This year the traditional business is making history; The Schwarzenbach family celebrates the 150th anniversary of their grocery store.

Change through the century

In the office behind the shop counter hangs the ancestral line of the Schwarzenbach dynasty: great-great-grandfather, great-grandfather, grandfather and father Schwarzenbach, or Heinrich I to Heinrich IV., As the family calls them with a wink, look at the fifth in the row - of course Heinrich V. - over the shoulder. For the anniversary, the latter has come up with something special and rummaged through the family archive for a book project. “My family and I worked through all the files. In some cases we had to have them transcribed because the old manuscripts made them difficult to read, ”says Heinrich Schwarzenbach.

In 1864, when the story of the business began, the European colonial powers were still busy opening up the remote regions of the world for their own purposes. In addition to the unsightly aspects, the European arrogance and the seemingly strange valuation of the various human peoples today, this was above all a time of scientists and of marveling at global biodiversity. New transport routes opened up, and suddenly traveling salesmen brought exotic fruits and spices as well as coffee and cocoa in large quantities to Europe. They opened up new lines of business that promised to revolutionize the food market.

During this time of upheaval, the first Heinrich Schwarzenbach, a trained confectioner, opened his grocery store in flourishing St. Gallen at the age of 24. “That was a different kind of business. The goods were only sold on fixed market days. My great-great-grandfather set up tables in the street and presented his displays on them. So the shop wasn't open every day. "

Heinrich I drove the pioneering spirit of the time. He tried to find out which products would sell. First he made pasta with a homemade pasta machine. That was not well received, so he switched to selling exotic spices, vegetables, eggs and other fresh products. “He was certainly not a constant person. He just tried out what was typical at that time. "

Economic upturn

The meticulous businessman followed the pioneer. Henry II profited from the boom at the turn of the century when the purchasing power of customers increased. In 1910 he acquired the “Zur alten Post” house in Zurich, where the ancient lettering “Colonialwaren H. Schwarzenbach” still attracts customers today. His business acumen was mostly rewarding, even when he invested in a coffee roaster in the 1920s. To this day, the company's own roasts form the basis of the range. The boss personally supervises the roasting process two to three times a week. The smoky-tart scent that wafts through the alleys has been part of the ambience of the old Zurich district since great-grandfather's time. «He was the one who drove the development the most, who ran the business the longest of all of us. I think he did a lot right in his time. "

In the war years, when the third Heinrich had already taken over the scepter, it became clear that another strategy of the ancestors was wise: They never only relied on foreign and exotic products, but always also offered fresh local goods. During World War II, imports plummeted to such a low level that staples like flour and potatoes became the store's main line of business. Eggs, which the grocery store had had in its range since it was founded, were suddenly a luxury product; from 1933 to 1942 their price quadrupled.

Diversification in the post-war period

Schwarzenbach's father took over the business at a time of recession, when the shop life of the 1960s and 1970s was in full swing. The mergers in the food industry created new niches. "My father had to constantly adapt the range and look for products that the wholesalers didn't have." While the canned hype was still in the 60s, in the 70s customers suddenly no longer wanted to buy fresh spinach, but frozen. Schwarzenbachs adapted their assortment to the trends. Balsamic vinegar or special olive oil, which was tastier than that in ordinary tin bottles, also appeared at that time. "My father realized that he had to rely on high-quality products if the business was to survive."

Today Schwarzenbach focuses on durable products and wants to stand out from the competition primarily through diversity. "We used to have maybe 10 spices, today we have 150, for tea there are now 180 varieties, and we offer around 80 different dried fruits."

Alternative travel routes

The exquisite products have their price, 25 grams of a special type of pepper cost seven to ten francs. But Heinrich Schwarzenbach is convinced that more people are consciously enjoying their food again today: "If I get a good pepper from South India and it is clearly better than the competing product, the customer will happily pay more for it."

In times of lively sustainability discussions, it also means paying more, but also knowing where a product comes from and how it is produced. At Schwarzenbachs, this aspect is taken into account: “During the holidays we often travel to distant countries and look at the production conditions. The more direct the route to the producer, the more we can say about our products. Whether the farmer who grows the coffee plant receives enough for his work, for example. This is nothing new to us. It was always normal for us to work like this. "

And yet, there is no organic or Max Havelaar symbol on any of the spice jars.

“Large corporations naturally have to deal with this evidence via certification, as they lack contact. We are not direct buyers either - we are far too small for that - but we know our middlemen personally and know where our products come from and how they are grown. "

In order to enable the producers to get fair prices, Schwarzenbach tries to avoid the route via the large food exchanges. «I recently hosted two coffee producers from Brazil. They emphasized that they could not produce any high-quality coffee at current world market prices. So they looked for the direct route to the roasting plants. "

And Schwarzenbach wants to stay true to one more ecological principle: almost all of its products come to Europe by ship. «This is the most environmentally friendly way. Six, seven, eight weeks in a container is no problem for pepper, tea or coffee. When properly packaged, the quality does not suffer. "

Spicy tutoring

The different types of pepper appear again and again at Heinrich Schwarzenbach. You are particularly fond of him. The managing director offers his customers personal advice in pepper seminars from time to time. «I would like to expand this area; I particularly enjoy the seminars. In direct contact with customers, I learn for myself what other uses our products are for. "

At the seminars, designing the website and the labels or in the store: Mother Annelies, sister Brigitte and wife Patricia help out, they are all involved in the family business. According to Heinrich Schwarzenbach, the fact that the business has already existed for 150 years is not only due to the strong family ties: "It worked for us because for five generations there was always a junior who wanted to continue the business."

However, it is currently unclear what will happen to the business after the fifth generation. Schwarzenbach and his sister each have two children: “Of course I would be very happy if the business continued after me. Our older, 14-year-old daughter is very interested in the products and at least she likes to cook. " The prospects for business are good, but the line of ancestors on the office wall will certainly not list another Heinrich in the sixth generation.