The spice man cometh

McCormick Global Ingredients, tucked away in offices in George Town, is the largest spice-buying company in the world.  


Every spice has a story, and while Al Goetze is the chief spice buyer for McCormick Global Ingredients, based in Cayman, he might just as accurately be described as chief storyteller. 

Mention a spice, he’s got a story. He has traveled to some 40 countries sourcing spices and herbs, and developing relationships with farmers and local distributors in some of the most far-flung areas of the globe.  

“We view ourselves as experts on agricultural commodities at the source. We bring the samples back and we get feedback from flavor experts, and we source from there,” Goetze says of himself and the four other buyers in the office.  

Yet they find themselves in a unique industry – one dwarfed by the millions of tons of grains and other big commodities. 

“We’re smaller than a drop in the bucket,” Goetze says, “yet so important. Can you imagine a world without spice? That’s why the New World was discovered.  

“At the turn of the 15th century, explorers were trying to find a quick route to the East Indies, the Spice Islands,” Goetze says, noting that they were in search of nutmeg and cloves, which brought great wealth to the producers. “Vasco da Gama figured out how to navigate Africa, meanwhile the Arabs had been trading spices down the Red Sea and then by caravan across the desert. The first people da Gama runs into are Arab traders with peppers. 

“Columbus discovered allspice, called pimento, derived from “pimienta,” the Spanish word for pepper. More importantly, he discovered the capsicum plant, which is indigenous to Central America.” 

Of course, explorers and traders have been in search of spices for millennia. Trading may have begun as early as 10,000 B.C., during the Neolithic period. 


Modern-day explorer 

As for Goetze, he buys 16 herbs (the leaves of plants used for flavoring) and 28 spices, from allspice to vanilla and the alphabet in between. In his world, “p” is for paprika, poppy and pepper (black, white, green, pink), and “c” is for caraway, cardamom, celery, chilies, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cumin.  

Mention any of them and there’s a story, punctuated by the history of each. 

He recently returned from Tanzania and Madagascar, where the best vanilla is sourced. Along with sourcing spices, however, Goetze and his fellow buyers put together sustainability programs to improve yield and flavor. In Tanzania, for instance, production has increased from 10 tons to 50 tons over three to five years, he says.  

At the mention of vanilla, Goetze’s vast knowledge fills in all the gaps beyond its being one of the most popular flavors in the world. 

“Vanilla is an orchid, and of 25,000 orchids is the only one that produces a food,” he says, and it has to be pollinated by hand.” 

It used to be that vanilla came from Mexico and from the French island of Reunion, formerly Bourbon. The wild vines from Mexico, which were originally pollinated by a certain kind of bee, grew prolifically in Reunion, says Goetze, but the vines produced no beans. “They figured out they needed to hand-pollinate, and now it takes 80,000 farmers to hand-pollinate the vines, which produce 1,200 to 1,500 tons [of vanilla] a year.” 

The process takes 13 or 14 months, as the pollination takes place in October or November, the green, mature beans are harvested in mid-July to mid-August, and then there is a six-month curing process. Thre is an alternative – a quick-cure process developed by the McCormick company in the 1960s. Its patent has expired, and it is now available for use anywhere. 

Among Goetze’s favorite places is India, the largest spice-producing and spice-consuming country in the world. The country is the largest producer of red peppers (1.3 million tons), thanks in part to the Portuguese, who took seeds there in the late 1400s. Most of the farmers’ yield comes from quarter-acre to half-acre plots in remote areas of the country. 

In his “Spice Buyers Journal” on the McCormick website, Goetze expounds on a full list of spices, including this excerpt from his piece about India: 

“To get a good picture of this year’s red pepper crop in India, early spring is the best time for me to visit the growing area. The pepper plants are plentiful, and the harvest season is at its peak. The first harvest comes in late February, with new fruit maturing every 4 to 6 weeks, yielding up to four pickings through early summer. India’s largest production regions are in the central and southern parts of the country, including the state of Andhra Pradesh – the largest grower of chiles. 

“Arriving in India, I found myself reminiscing about my first trip here over 20 years ago. I had been working the Malabar coast region and decided to take an all night train to a small town in southern Tamil Nadu, since air travel was very limited. The old, outdated train chugged along at a modest speed, stopping at each local village to take on new passengers, along with vendors selling food and drinks. I dined on Roti sandwich wraps, filled with curried chicken and highly seasoned with spices and red pepper! The train ride was fascinating, and as one can imagine, not a lot of sleep was had that night. 

“While much progress has been made in the years since my first visit, the growing region remains virtually unchanged.” 


Off the beaten path 

Naturally, Goetze’s stories are full of details about exotic locales and even more exotic foods. 

He doesn’t hesitate to pull out the world atlas and pinpoint places most people have never heard of, and even fewer have visited. Guilin, in the Guangxi region of south China, is known for its wild snakes. While that might stop most folks from adding it to their bucket list, Goetze goes on to describe going out to dinner, which involved selecting his entree – a live snake – from a tank. A large king cobra launched in his direction and Goetze recalls how he jumped back about two yards. He did have snake for dinner – it’s chewy and definitely doesn’t taste like chicken – but he notes that everything he eats that falls into the “strange” category is cooked. 

There was fried scorpion near Shanghai and snails with translucent shells (you could see the entrails as you ate them) in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region of northwest China. He flew there from Shanghai on a Russian transport-turned-commercial airliner. “All of the guys getting on the plane had knives and were handing them to the stewardesses, who put them on a tray and then handed them out during the flight!” he recalls. He made it off the plane intact, and though it was quite cold, the terminal building was locked. The luggage was delivered via a dump truck that had collected it from the plane. Eventually, in his search for cumin seeds, Goetze made his way to Kashgar, the westernmost city in China.  

“I stayed at a guest house, which was made of concrete. There was no heat, but at the bottom of the bed were 12 exquisite, locally made blankets that kept me warm.” 

There were trips to Padang, on the western coast of Sumatra, for cinnamon; elsewhere in Indonesia to Kotabumi for black pepper; to Pangkal Pinang on the island of Bangka for white pepper; and to Sulawesi, near the “Spice Islands” (Maluku Islands), where cloves and nutmeg originated. 

Cruising around the world atlas, he’ll happily point out that Vietnam is the largest pepper producer today (it used to be India); Egypt has the best marjoram and fennel; Syria (where he obviously doesn’t travel these days) produces anise and cumin; and Iran is the largest saffron producer (because of U.S. sanctions against Iran, saffron is now sourced in Afghanistan, another place where Goetze doesn’t travel).  


One more variable  

As if snakes, inhospitable terrain, dog meat (yes, that was served to him once), mosquitoes (most spices grow in tropical climates) and potential travel warnings aren’t enough, one of the most important variables for the spice buyer is the weather. 

“We buy cola nuts off the Ivory Coast, which is where most of the storms originate,” says Goetze, who monitors the world’s weather from satellite images on his computer. “We try to project out a year in advance what the crops are going to do; sometimes, two to three years out. We have people on the ground who report, so we know pretty much what the crop size is going to be,” barring typhoons and other weather catastrophes, he says. 


The road to spice buying 

How he came to be a spice buyer is yet another story. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, his father was in the meatpacking industry – Goetze’s first exposure to spices (black pepper and nutmeg). After earning a business degreewith a concentration in agricultural economics from Cornell University, he worked briefly in the family business and later as a Chesapeake Bay waterman, dredging for oysters. When the bay froze (for the first time in memory), he scanned the ads in the newspaper and found a job in packaging with McCormick and eventually moved into ingredient purchasing. From there, he got into spice buying, tagging along in the mid-1980s on a trip to the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil (a big pepper-growing region). 

His travels ultimately brought him to Cayman, where McCormick – the largest spice-buying company in the world – decided to form a global subsidiary, bringing the key people from all of its purchasing departments here. 

“As McCormick has gotten larger [encompassing many brands, including Old Bay, Zatarain’s and Lawry’s], we’ve taken on a much more international view,” Goetze says. 

This way, the company has the leverage to buy direct from the source, and it buys for the entire company, not just the U.S. market. 

An added benefit, Goetze says: “It’s good to be in a tropical climate” since most spices grow in just such a climate, and this particular locale is also a very good “climate” for business. 

Al Goetze interview-1

Al Goetze, left, and the spice managers at McCormick Global Ingredients in Cayman, Jean–Marie Schouvey, Brenda McGrath, Marie Pierce, Martin Callender and Greg Sommerville. – PHOTOS: CHRIS COURT