Spice Girl

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Growing up on Nantucket, CLAUDIA BUTLER had an affinity for the natural world early on. She loved to explore the outdoors, picking wild blueberries and blackberries, and some of her earliest memories are of turning them into pies.

Later on, she grew flowers and plants, avidly exploring their healing and restorative powers, as well as their ability to bring people together around a common table.

Ambrosia owner Claudia Butler examines one of the many types of salt the shop offers, and stores in cabinets resembling a library’s card catalog.

She attended the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Arizona, but soon realized she’d rather focus on the more uplifting properties of what she was so passionate about. With her partner Dylan Wallace, she started Nantucket Native, a sustainable, chemical-free landscaping and organic-gardening operation that provides vegetables and baked goods to many island restaurants and at the weekly Farmers & Artisans Market downtown.

“At some point, I decided I was really more interested in the cooking side of plants and herbs. I wanted to focus more on health and happiness and not as much on illness,” said Butler, 27. “If you use a lot of spices and herbs daily, you’ll generally stay in good health if you eat well and stay active.”

Last July, she turned that philosophy into reality, opening Ambrosia Chocolates and Spices in the Centre Street building that houses Beauty by the Sea, The Bean and Centre Street Bistro. It’s been a success from day one.

“When we started Nantucket Native, the founding idea was to create edible landscapes. Orchards, herb and vegetable gardens, even our ornamental plantings, would be composed of edible plants. We have had the pleasure of working on some great designs for wonderful clients, but over time, the lawns and hedges started creeping in,” Butler said. “I would often find myself weeding dande- lions out of driveways. Dandelions are a celebrated spring delicacy in much of Italy and France. I realized that I didn’t want to be weeding dandelions, I wanted to be selling them. The shop enables us the opportunity to offer up the jewels of the plant kingdom for people to enjoy. And yes, we sold a lot of dandelion tea last winter.”

Ambrosia’s delicious truffles – hand-dipped, dark- chocolate-covered ganache infused with a variety

of spices, fruits and flowers – draw curious customers into Butler’s cozy and comfortable shop on a daily basis, but the spices are often what keep them there – and coming back.

Stored in small jars inside the drawers of cabinets resembling a library’s card catalog, they range from the exotic to the everyday, and all are organically-grown: nutmeg, mace and vanilla from the Caribbean, cumin, turmeric and cardamom from India, mint and marjoram, cumin and rosemary, and several different varieties of salt and fresh peppercorns.

“The spices are from all over the world. I feel like it’s a really neat opportunity to tap into the network of organic agriculture, and participate in that. It’s really a worldwide trade. It’s exciting to think about all the places the spices are grown, and the lifestyles you are promoting by choosing organic,”said Butler, who also offers a number of different spice blends of her own creation. She’s always experimenting with new combinations, and is open to creating any blend her customers request.

The gold-capped jars are intended for sampling.

“It engages the senses. I hope people will remember by smelling them the meals from their childhood, even if they didn’t know exactly what it was that was in there,” Butler said.

The store may be small, but it’s welcoming – with carefully-sanded hardwood floors, a vaulted ceiling and plenty of natural light – and was recently renovated to add even more shelving. In addition to the spices and chocolates, Butler carries essential oils, several different varieties of tea – she sold out of chai this summer – tea accessories, pepper mills by Peugeot and pottery by her friend Nell Van Vorst.

“I’m trying to keep it open and inviting. Often people share old family recipes or stories about food they’ve made and we pass them on,” Butler said. “It’s getting busier and busier. I’m very optimistic for the spring and summer. I haven’t worked much in retail, so there’s been a lot of learning by doing.”

She started Ambrosia – choosing the name in large part to reflect her childhood love of Greek mythology (ambrosia was the “food of the gods”) – as a natural outgrowth of the organic-landscaping and gardening business she started with Wallace.

“The idea to open the shop had been growing for a while. It’s a natural extension of our gardening work. All the spices are organically-grown, which is good for the people growing them, good for the environment where they are grown, and good for the consumers. It’s all tied to our gardening practices,” Butler said. “Ultimately, we’d like to grow what we can on the island for the shop. Lemon verbena, mint and rosemary are relatively easy to grow on Nantucket, and the freshness gives you so much more flavor. We’re going to try some of that this summer.”

While Butler – who feels completely at home in the Centre Street building, having worked for both The Bean and Centre Street Bistro – minds the store with help from assistants Lindsey Toft, Morgan Jones and Sally Obremski this summer, Wallace – whom she affectionately calls her “sweetheart” – and several friends will do the gardening, landscaping and work at the farmers market.

It’s obvious she’s comfortable in the space, and truly passionate about what she does.

“I really enjoy helping people understand that all of these spices – right down to the black pepper they use three times a day – come from plants, and really remember how important plants are to us, how life-enriching they are. I really love plants, and I love to share that with people. I love it when a customer comes back and tells us what they did with their spices, or being there that moment when they smell something that was the secret ingredient in their grandmother’s cooking,” Butler said. “A lot of family culture is about food, about sharing food. I’m trying to create a space where that can happen, and it seems to be working.”

The spices are sourced from all over the world, and currently ordered through a number of trusted distributors.

“I’m constantly learning. I end up finding sources online, or in trade magazines, and I order lots of samples. There’s really quite a big difference in flavor from one batch of spices to another. I do a lot of sampling and choose the one that tastes the best,” she said.

Butler, however, is looking forward to heading out on a number of exploratory buying trips, and forging direct relationships with spice-growers all over the world. She’s already learned so much, she said, through travel, exploring Europe, Southeast Asia, North, Central and South America.

“I’ve always been keenly interested in how various cultures use plants, for food, medicine and textiles,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to making some trips in search of new sources. I’m looking to go to India in the fall and visit different spice plantations. I’m very much looking forward to creating relationships with the growers. We can grow many of the traditional northern European spices here on Nantucket, but it’s challenging to grow ginger, vanilla, turmeric.”

Butler believes Ambrosia fills a niche on the island, and complements the offerings of Nantucket’s other markets like Annye’s Whole Foods and Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm that share some of the same beliefs.

“I enjoy shopping at Annye’s, and shopping at Bartlett’s, and in the last 10 years, more and better-quality organic spices have become available, but I think I offer many more here. We also offer a unique service with the blends, and creating custom blends. Because we focus on spices, they turn over fast, and we can find unique things for people. We’re filling a niche, especially when the spices are paired with the chocolate, and introducing people to new flavors,” she said.

And the chocolate is, after all, the reason many customers first enter the store, having heard the buzz through word of mouth, or seeing it seductively displayed in a glass case directly opposite the front door.

“They’re right are up front. They provide that instant gratification, and they’ve sort of become our calling card,” Butler said with a laugh.

The confections are not typical candy-store fare, but rather burst with subtle flavor combinations or a not-so-hidden kick, nonetheless balanced perfectly with the sweetness of the creamy ganache and complexity of the dark-chocolate coating.

“They are hand-cut and hand-dipped, with a soft center infused with various spices, fruits and flowers. I try to come up with imaginative pairings that are seasonally appropriate. They are not too sweet. It’s more about the complex flavors of the chocolate and the featured element,” said Butler, who began experimenting with chocolate several years ago, after her desserts like lemon tarts were big hits at the Farmers & Artisans Market.

“The first batch of chocolates I made were lavender-infused, and people loved them. It was a total experiment, and again, mostly I was learning by doing, although I did train with a chocolatier in New Hampshire, L.A. Burdick, and that helped me a lot,” she said.

As with her spice blends, Butler is always experimenting. In late winter, she was offering a pair of truffles: Chili Vanilla, and Calypso, a Caribbean-influenced confection infused with nutmeg, mace, vanilla bean and Nantucket’s own Triple Eight Hurricane rum.

She makes the chocolates at The Green juice bar and coffee shop on West Creek Road, and is planning to introduce a Japanese series this spring, infused with flavors like green tea, plum, cherry and elder flowers.

“Seaweed is a very important component of the Japanese diet and culture, but I don’t know how delicious it would be in chocolate,” she said with a laugh.

An ardent supporter of fair-trade practices, Butler uses Kallari chocolate, whose cocoa is grown and processed in Ecuador by native people at their own factory in Quito.

“It’s kind of neat how it works out. Because it’s so international, it becomes political. It’s nice to know that chocolate can make a dif- ference,” Butler said.