"We thought it was weird that California doesn't have a 'thing' in the way that Maryland has Old Bay spice, or Louisiana has Cajun spice, or Montreal has Montreal steak spice, or Chicago barbecue sauce," says Frankie Scanlon, creator of Venice-based gourmet salt and spice company Gustus Vitae, Latin for taste of life. "So, we make a little homage to California, trying to incorporate the ingredients and flavors that we associate with our home, and something that would work equally well for vegans or meat eaters."
Using fresh ingredients sourced at their "world headquarters," the Venice Farmers' Market, Scanlon and his girlfriend Vanessa Lengies created Taste of California. It's a mix of dried strawberries, lemon peel, cilantro, thyme, Pacific sea salt, and recently updated with a touch of French tarragon. Taste of California is one of 17 flavors in their collection, which range from $8 to $18, and includes herb-and-spice blends, gourmet salts, and salt-free blends for flavorful and healthy, low-sodium cooking.
Scanlon knows that we're huge fans of Baby Blues' mac & cheese, but swore that his truffle sea salt would take ordinary Kraft mac to a whole new level, and we've already experienced how a dash of smoked sea salt can totally transform a chocolate chip cookie, so we were excited to meet up with the super sweet couple at the Friday Farmers' Market and get a taste of their homemade spice.
With flavors like Taste of India (coriander, black pepper, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves) and Taste of Bordeaux (chives, dill tips, basil, chervil, tarragon, white pepper and parsley), it's hard to pick, but it's impossible to go wrong. The simple combinations magically transform ordinary foods into a work of art, which was kind of the idea when Scanlon and Lengies decided to turn their hobby into a business over the holidays last year. Through trial and error, and the helpful critiquing of family and friends, they developed flavors that could help an average cook make extraordinary dishes with a dash of their special blends.
Scanlon, a New Zealand transplant who came to Venice four years ago for work in advertising, and Lenglies, an actress originally from Canada who's been in Venice for about 10 years, began to sell their blends at the Farmers' Market and quickly grew in popularity. They're now available in Bellissimo Venice, La Bottega Marino, and Andrew's Cheese Shop. And thanks to the extra care they put into their ingredients, which are sold in American-made tins with magnets on the back, labeled with recycled paper, and hand-signed during quality inspection, they will soon debut at Whole Foods Venice.
"I want to stay at the Venice Farmers' Market, and I want us to be a business where we have our friends and people in Venice help us out," says Scanlon, "so we're going to be really careful as we try and manage the growth to keep it as a very Venice company."
As for us, we took home Taste of California (obviously!) and used it as a marinade for grilled chicken, and we also purchased some smoked sea salt to sprinkle on fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Scanlon recommended the smoky salt on grilled watermelon, so we tried that too. Everything was delicious, and as promised, incredibly simple and versatile.
Check out the entire Gustus Vitae collection at http://www.gustusvitae.com/