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Drawn together: the mortar and pestle

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the mortar and pestle

Magali Russie, Spice Mountain

Spice Mountain began trading spices at Borough Market in 2009. First on a trestle table, then a small stall, and more recently a larger site which is really well suited to displaying the different things that we sell: ground spices, mixed spices, a range of different peppercorns and dried chillis, powders from dehydrated fruits and vegetables and more.

When I started the business, I wanted to create a place that brought a smile to people’s faces when they walked in—and I think our spice shop does this. Of course, there are plenty of people who won’t bat an eyelid, but those who do stop and look around do so because we have something in common: a love of spice, of fragrance, aroma and colour. It seems to really cheer them. We often hear cooks walking around saying that they’re “like a kid in a sweet shop”.

We source quality spices from around the world, toasting and grinding most of them ourselves, excluding a few things like lemongrass powder and chilli powder.

Freshly toasted and ground
One of the things that make our products special is that we’re able to turn over our spices and spice mixes quickly, meaning customers always get very freshly toasted and ground powders—incomparable to those that sit for months in warehouses and on supermarket shelves.

Because of the quantities that we process, we use mechanical grinders to turn seeds into a powder. Relative to industrial use, these grinders are relatively small, with the biggest having a capacity of 10kg of spice. But compared to anything you would use at home, they’ll still seem pretty big.

Some people will use a little coffee grinder to get freshly ground spice from seeds at home. They do a pretty good job. But I think it’s hard to find a truly effective, reliable domestic grinder, and I don’t think you get quite the same flavour and texture as you do when you do it by hand with a mortar and pestle.

A good texture
We sell mortars and pestles at the Borough stall. They’re terracotta and made for us in the UK. I like them because they’re easy for customers to carry home yet still have a good texture on the inside, which is important for grinding spice.

Personally, though, I have to admit to liking a really heavy stone mortar and pestle—the kind that would just be too heavy to lug back from Borough!

This tool comes in so many different types: some are ceramic, others made from granite, glass or wood. They can all do the job, but I guess what I really want is for the mortar to be pretty weighty, and for there to be a texture or grain inside, as that helps the abrasion process.

Fat bottomed
I also think you need to be able to get a good grip of the pestle. Its bottom should be reasonably fat to distribute your effort across the materials you’re smashing, and the edges should be rounded to work to the edges of the bowl.

I was born in Mauritius. Perhaps my views on the mortar and pestle stem from the way they grind spice and make paste over there: I vividly remember watching cooks using what’s basically just a square stone or slab with a dent in it, and they just use a kind of rolling pin to grind the spices and pastes. Yes, when I think of what makes an effective mortar and pestle, it kind of starts with that.

Plus, obviously, a bit of elbow grease.