A time traveler from the 1400s would be astonished to find free packets of salt casually tossed into a take-out order. To him, this would be today's equivalent of throwing away ounces of gold, since in his time salt and spices were such valuable commodities that wars were fought over them. Fortunes were made and lost on account of them. In fact, the search for spices has long been the catalyst for discovery and exploration.
Today, spice discovery is gastronomical rather than geographical, as the unusual combination of flavors and aromas can make — or break — a dish.
Most of us are used to spice and herb jars available on grocery store shelves; some stores offer common spices in bulk. Ethnic markets offer the most variety of spices, but often these are prepackaged and identified in languages other than English.
But last November, Amy and Scott MacCabe opened the Savory Spice Shop in South End. Savory is a franchise operation headquartered in Denver. In addition to the South End location, another franchiser has opened a shop in Huntersville.
Savory is a whimsical olfactory, visual and taste experience. On open shelves are jars clearly identified in English, often with free recipe cards. Sniffing and tasting is encouraged. "Pour some from the tester into the palm of your hand; taste it; then toss the extra onto the floor," Scott advises. Consequently Savory explodes with a heady, almost exotic, perfume.
Amy reports they stock over 400 herbs, spices and spice blends in the shop. The 140 blends are proprietary and ground weekly in the Denver facility. Among these blends are Jamaican Jerk; seasonings specific to a region such as Indochina; and curries including a Vietnamese sweet lemon, Thai green and Zanzibar.
Chilies dominate one section. The heat factor ranges from the incendiary ghost pepper to the more mellow and fruity Aleppo. Salt and pepper control the real estate on the back wall. The dozens of salts include the pink salts of the Himalayas and Murray River in south Australia; a bevy of French salts; and flavored salts. Amy says her most popular are the flavored smoked salts, but the most expensive salt, the earthy Italian black truffle-flavored salt ($20 for 2.3 ounces), has customers wanting more.
Among the peppers are the common Tellicherry and the unusual, and until recently banned from U.S. importation, Szechwan ($1.40 per half ounce). Though not a true pepper since berries are from an ash tree, Szechwan is known for an unusual property. As Amy explains, "This dry-roasted berry cleanses the palate — after it causes a tingling and numbing sensation in the mouth. I have customers try these Szechwan peppers before tasting our different cheese flavorings."
Another section has vanilla: Tahitian, Mexican, Madagascar vanilla beans; vanilla paste; vanilla-flavored sugar; and vanilla extract, one of the 25 extracts along with lavender and Key Lime. Hard-to-find spices, such as the West African seed Grains of Paradise, are here, too, as well as gift packages. The Bye Bye Birdie is one jar each of a Greek and fried chicken blend, a salt-free German seasoning, and a barbecue rub. Many blends are gluten-free and salt-free, or organic. Most importantly, the staff is welcoming and knowledgeable, allowing customers to explore and demystify spices.
Savory Spice Shop
Atherton Mill, 2000 South Blvd. 980-225-5419. Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. 16926 Birkdale Commons Parkway, Huntersville. 704-997-6133. Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.