The merchant of spices

Step into Aux Bonnes Olives on an alley near the daily open-air market at the Place de la Republique in Perpignan and your attention will be drawn to jars of exotic spices stacked on the shelf: Cumin, baies roses (red peppercorns), curcuma (turmeric), wasabi, Roussillon salt and curry powder. At the side of the shelf, big plastic buckets are filled with colorful spices as well. White, yellow, orange, red and black powders fill the containers.

Aux Bonnes Olives stocks more than 3,600 different spices — enough for people to browse for a whole day. The store is unique not only for the number of spices it carries but for the variety. Here, people can find flavors rarely seen in French cooking.

Once known for their distinctive cuisine, the French are now growing fonder of ethnic foods, especially ingredients from the Orient.

Stephanie Cardonne, who works at Aux Bonnes Olives with her father, said one of the most popular spices in the store is actually curry powder, something that is atypical for French food.

People may wonder: How did curry powder find its way to France?

Marcel Cardonne, Stephanie’s father and the owner of the store, said, “I wouldn’t say that our spices are used in Catalan cooking, apart from ginger. [However], the trend of cooking with Oriental spices that we see in magazines and things like that has broadened our audience.”

According to Foreign Agricultural Service, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that helps businesses market their products to foreign countries, Asian cuisines, particularly Indian, are becoming increasingly popular among the French.

In Perpignan, people can easily find Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese and other restaurants that serve Oriental food.

The big chain-supermarket, Monoprix, dedicates a small corner in some stores for Asian foods and spices.  Examples include ready-to-use rendang, a popular beef dish from Indonesia, and Oriental spices such a saffron.

But cooks who want to find truly rare ingredients need to come to Aux Bonnes Olives, the only store of its kind in Perpignan.

Access to such ingredients has the potential to alter the French palette.

Curry baguette, anyone?