photo by Randee Daddona
The world is full of condiments, but only one comes with a lifelong love story as mellow, rich — and most likely a little spicy — as cHarissa itself.
North Fork retirees Earl and Gloria Fultz made cHarissa by hand in their kitchen for decades, just for friends and family. Gloria had memories of her childhood in Morocco, when her grandmother put the thick, red pepper based sauce on everything, and she recreated it so her own family could enjoy this little piece of her heritage. Earl grew up in Michigan; he was not raised in early 20th century middle-America to have an adventurous palate, yet he fell in love with Gloria, and her native spices came with her.
Three years ago, the couple, already in their 80s, teamed up with Jeri Woodhouse. She’s the owner of A Taste of the North Fork, a popular local line of jarred sweets, pickles and savories. Woodhouse took over production at her commercial kitchen in Cutchogue, and Earl and Gloria introduced cHarissa to the East End in the summer of 2012.
I bought my first jar of cHarissa from them at the Greenport Farmer’s Market that year. It caught my eye, because it was such an “exotic” product — with a little mudra on the label! — but also local. I love spices and I had to try it. I remember chatting with them as I tasted it on a little bit of bread; they loved to tell their story together, gently teasing each other in the process. At home, I found that cHarissa is great to spice up things on my own plate, after the children have been served the boring version. I smeared it on eggs and chicken, and stirred it into curries and soups. I felt good about getting a regular dose of healthy capsaicin and spices, and used up that first jar up pretty fast.
Anyway, it became a local cult favorite, and small food markets started to pick it up. Demand grew just as Gloria’s health failed, and Earl began to man the market stall by himself. Gloria passed away a year ago, leaving her husband, who is about to turn 91, to continue their project alone.
photo by Laura Luciano
Now, cHarissa LLC has been awarded a $25,000 grant. It’s one of five grand prize winners in the National Wells Fargo Works Project contest, chosen from more than 3,600 entrants. cHarissa was the only small business in the Northeast to receive the award this year. It means a lot to Earl to get this recognition, says Woodhouse. “When he found out, he was moved to tears,” she says. “In a way, this helps keep Gloria near.”
So what does cHarissa taste like? It’s not sharp and hot, as the vibrant red color might suggest. It’s complex, with a subtle play of savory flavors and a mild heat. “Harissa” is the generic name of a condiment widespread in North Africa. It’s based on roasted red pepper ground with spices like garlic, cumin and caraway, and is used liberally in many dishes. In cHarissa, the main note is the assertive sweetness of cumin, against a warm cayenne. The “with a kick” version is for those who like more fire on their tongues. That’s the one I’m trying next. There’s also a dry rub.
“The thing about cHarissa is that it’s so versatile,” Woodhouse says. Apparently, Gloria’s grandmother was right; it can go on literally anything; breakfast eggs, lunch wraps, grilled meats and vegetables, fish, rice and grains, soups and stews of any stripe.
I particularly like the idea of using it to make party nibbles — easy yet impressive. It would be great swirled into Greek yogurt or hummus, enlivening those usual suspects. Woodhouse says that a friend of hers tosses the dry rub with roasted nuts, and everyone thinks they are super fancy. And, as a vegetarian, Woodhouse’s favorite fast-food dinner is a sweet potato spread with cHarissa.
cHarissa is now sold in quite a few places on the East End, and the list is growing. It’s at the farmers markets in Greenport, Riverhead and Sag Harbor. On the South Fork, it can be found at Cavaniola’s, the Juicy Naam, Sylvester & Co., the Green Thumb, and at the Golden Pear cafés; on the North Fork, it’s at A Taste of the North Fork shop in Southold, the Orient Country Store, Provisions in Peconic, Fork & Anchor in East Marion, and CJ Gourmet, the Market, Bruce’s Café and Claudio’s, all in Greenport. It’s online also. Even before the Wells Fargo grant, production had increased. cHarissa is now appearing in New York City, Florida, California and Chicago. But the grant will help tremendously to get the product into even more new markets, said Woodhouse. “Our goal is to start sending it out by the pallet-load.”