In The Old World, spices were traded as commodities often as precious as gold. Considered a luxury to the rich, the valuable spices brought a high price and were shipped round the globe from The New World back to Europe and from East to West.
Today you can find that same reverence in a foodie treasure land called Penzey's Spices.
Penzey's Spices, located at 516 W. 19th Street (corner of Nicholson), even feels a bit like the hold of a cargo ship. As you walk in, you see the spices cradled in wooden packing crates stacked on the floor and stored in simple glass jars.
But make no mistake. Penzey's in the Heights, one of 42 locations nationwide, is no common spice shop. The herbs and spices are truly showcased, usually in both whole and ground form, and the aroma of freshness is powerful and pleasantly intoxicating. (Herbs, by the way, are the leafy part of the plant, often dried but also fresh. Spices are the seeds, roots, fruits, bark or other vegetative plant substances harvested for the unique flavors they hold within.)
Walking around the store you can open lock-jars and inhale the true fragrances of the bounty within that are often lost or ruined in the versions sitting, sometimes for weeks, on the grocery store shelves. I found myself giggling at the soft, supple, unexpectedly friendly nose of the whole cumin seed. A spice I've often found to be overpowering in the store-bought ground variety. The fennel, light and playful, reminded me of the black licorice my father used to eat, and the crystallized ginger smelled of sweet candy. If you have ever tasted the difference between store-bought and fresh-ground pepper, I need say no more.
Founder Bill Penzey, an obvious foodie himself, has, with the help of a fine and very friendly local staff, built a playground for food lovers right in the Heights. Not only does the store offer nearly every herb and spice conceivable at prices that are lower than your local grocer, but also an array of simple cookbooks, gift boxes, spice mixes and other tools and toys to tantalize the imagination of any gourmand.
I have lived in the Heights nearly two years and just today found myself venturing in for the first time. Clearly it won't be the last. Penzey's is a real chef's resource and a fun adventure for anyone who fancies themselves a devoted foodie. Treat yourself to a visit.
(Of course, if you can't make it to the Heights to shop there is an on-line store available to satisfy your culinary and gifting needs. Aromas not included.)