Browsing at Savory Spice Shop caters to both your inner culinary artist and your inner child. These simultaneous mindsets come on when you shake a bit of crimson cinnamon onto your hand and pinch a smidge onto your tongue, then throw the rest right on the wood floor. Since there are five kinds of the sweet spice to taste, you can make quite a little mess. When you are done, you’ll also have a much better idea of what you’re buying than if you compared bottles on a grocery shelf.
While she offers 300 products, store owner Kate Wheeler won't send you out the door unless you know what to do with what you bought. She encourages this taste-and-toss method and says it helps keep the shop smelling great.
Savory, which opened at 225 Galisteo St. about 10 months ago, is part of a franchise operation that started in Denver. Wheeler had a hand in launching more than two dozen operations for the company as a franchise specialist, and now the Santa Fe location is her own venture.
Shoppers can also find recipe cards throughout the store that offer good ways to put the ingredients to use, and Wheeler teaches about five cooking classes per month in the back of the shop.
If she has just one message to impart to cooking novices, it's this: Keep it fresh.
That means the jumbo-sized tin of black pepper that's been sitting on the back of the stove for three years doesn't taste anything like freshly ground pepper on her shelves. And if you are making banana bread with last year's baking spices, you're not doing yourself any favors, she says.
Most ground spices have passed their prime after about a year, she says. Savory buys all of its ingredients whole from growers, then grinds and blends them in Denver for delivery to individual stores that package them for sale within one month.
"If you think about it, cinnamon is a great example," she says. "Cinnamon is the bark of a tree and once it's been ground down, all the oils start to release. And once those oils are gone from the cinnamon, you are basically putting sawdust on your food. And that is what it tastes like. "
Sawdust must be a word that culinary experts keep in their back pockets for just this occasion. At a recent lecture, I heard Chef Rocky Durham use it in the same context. He suggests you get your own whole ingredients and use a dedicated electric coffee grinder to process as you're cooking. Find it tough to clean the cardamom out of the grinder? Durham recommends using salt, then saving the now "special salt" for other meals.
And speaking of special salt, Wheeler says the salt section of her store is one her favorite areas to take new customers.
"The history behind salt is fascinating and all the salt is different. Right now, everyone is really into the pink Himalayan salt, and the reason people are into it is because it's considered the quote unquote healthiest salt because it has 84 trace minerals in it, and it's really high in iron. So, it tastes really salty without having to really add more salt," she says.
Yet, there are so many more options. As soon as I taste the truffle salt, my mouth takes me back to a fantastic sushi restaurant in San Francisco called Elephant. It's amazing how luxurious a simple sprinkle of this condiment can make a piece of fish taste. The salt I leave the store with, however, is the alder wood-smoked variety, one of three smoked salts the store offers. Shaking this over tomatoes and cucumbers creates a flavor that has me saying, "I can't believe it's not bacon." This salt also transformed my recipe for deviled eggs.
Looking for kaffir lime leaves that have a strong odor and flavor for a Thai recipe? Check. Need some asafetida as an onion and garlic substitute for Indian cuisine? Done.
Have no idea what either of those things are? That's OK, too. Wheeler and her well-trained staff are waiting to help.
"We have all the complicated stuff for the people who are looking for that, but we also want to cater to the people who don't cook much," she says. "If you just want to go home and cook a piece of fish or chicken or tofu, we'll give you a rub and call it good. Make you a gourmet without having to be a gourmet."