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Spice Firm's Tours Soon Only Memory

January 19, 1989|GAIL FORMAN | Forman is a writer in Potomac, Md

Visitors walk down memory lane when they tour Friendship Court at the McCormick Spice Co.'s headquarters in Baltimore.

But soon that tour will be only a sentimental memory, because the port city's 1921 landmark building is scheduled to be torn down within the next two years to make way for the McCormick Center, a mega-building of offices, a hotel and retail space.

Gone already is that wonderful allspice-clove-cinnamon aroma that once perfumed the air around Baltimore harbor--a casualty of the company's decision to transfer production northward to its plant in Hunt Valley, Md.

But if you manage to get there soon, you still find the Light Street headquarter's Friendship Court, built during the Depression, to be an idealized English street, mostly of the 16th Century, when spices and tea first became widely available in Europe.

The court features several reproductions, including a thatched roof duplicate of the outside of Ann Hathaway's cottage, a typical clapboard-roofed rural English cottage, Shakespeare's school house, an early Renaissance house with a replica of the library door of St. John's College, Cambridge and three Tudor structures. Inside are working offices, lounges, meeting rooms and a tea museum.

A Breathtaking View

The glass-walled sensory test kitchen, where recipe development and sampling takes place, is nearby. For many, though, the highlight is the breathtaking view of Baltimore's bustling Inner Harbor and the Constellation.

The view is free and so are samples of McCormick's best. Hostesses in period costumes take tourists to Ye Olde McCormick Tea House, a replica of an early English inn, decorated with an extensive collection of teapots.

There, guests enjoy coffee, tea and (what else?) spice cookies at a replica of the kind of refectory table once used in monasteries and castles.

The walk-in fireplace, with its inglenook for sitting, is emblazoned with the motto of the company founder: "Make the Best, Someone Will Buy It."

An interior stairway, its mural depicting the history of the transportation of spices, leads to a little theater with walls covered with paintings of "the romance of spices." Tourists are treated to a film describing the spice trade--ancient and modern.

Once spices were more valuable than gold, you learn, and peppercorns actually were used as currency. The spicy berries still are the world's most commonly consumed seasoning, followed by cinnamon and sesame seeds. Once the luxury of kings, pepper is a necessity almost all of us use.

McCormick's spice production has changed quite a bit since 1889 when 25-year-old Willoughby M. McCormick founded his company.

The First Tea Bags

It began in a one-room cellar, where he made root beer, fruit syrups and juices, flavoring extracts and nerve and bone liniment and then sold them door-to-door. In 1910, McCormick introduced the first tea bags.

Coast-to-coast distribution came in 1947 with the acquisition of A. Schilling & Co. of San Francisco.

Today, most people still think of spices when they think of McCormick, but the Fortune 500 company calls itself "a diversified speciality food company" with 1,300 products and about 300 million customers.

Besides herbs and spices, it produces seasoning mixes, flavorings, dehydrated vegetables, condiments, pourable dressings, cake-decorating products, frozen foods, popcorn and processed poultry products.

These products are produced in 58 facilities worldwide and distributed to food services, food processors and individual consumers in 90 countries.

McCormick's corps of spice-buying specialists travel to every corner of the globe. That's because many domestic spice crops lack the flavor of wild herbs and spices.

Thus, most of the spices and herbs on the grocer's shelves--McCormick and otherwise--come from far-flung places.

In years past, the Baltimore plant processed and packaged McCormick's spices. Today, all processing takes place in the company's Hunt Valley plant, just north of Baltimore.

To take a tour of Friendship Court: call (301) 547-6166 for reservations. Tours, lasting 1 1/2 hours, begin at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

What spices do Americans like best? Imports and domestic spices combined to create a U.S. spice consumption for 1987 that totaled 684,292,000 pounds, according to the American Spice Trade Assn. The three leading spices in tonnage for 1987 were mustard seed at 115,506,000 pounds, sesame seed at 80,483,000 pounds and pepper (black and white), 79,136,000 pounds. While this sounds like lots of sprinkling, 60% of our usage was in package foods and restaurant meals.

For help adding spice to your life, here's a guide:

ALLSPICE, whole and ground. Description: brown berry with clove-like flavor. Sources: Jamaica, Mexico. Uses: Baked goods, fruit desserts, yellow vegetables, pickles, relishes, marinades.

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