One of them is probably your earliest food memory.
Sage at Thanksgiving. Chili powder in the winter. Dill in summer potato salad. Oregano simmering in an autumn spaghetti sauce.
The scent of baking cinnamon is the stuff of waking and sleeping dreams.
Older than everything else in homo sapien culture that makes us human, herbs and spices are the very glue that holds all of our humanity together. There are no, and apparently have probably never been, any cultures that have not modified their food with some of Earth’s abundant additives.
It’s easy to overlook the importance that spices, herbs, salts and flavorings have played in human history. Sometimes more valuable than gold, spices and herbs were the basis for world conquests and even wars. Walk into markets filled with every conceivable flavoring plant, seed, bark and root from all over the planet, and it’s difficult to appreciate how so many generations would risk their lives for what’s now so cheap and plentiful.
Spices and herbs — spices come from berries, flowers, bulbs, bark and roots; herbs come from leaves — define not only entire cultures, but personal tastes and personalities. Some people laugh loudly and eat fiery peppers or pungent stews. Others sniff and prod at boxed macaroni and cheese, looking to see if someone has tried to sneak in a couple of sprinkles of black pepper or possibly something even more worrisome and foreign, like paprika or chives. The horror.
Not just kids, but there are plenty of American adults who don’t venture past the salt shaker when it comes to changing up breakfast lunch and dinner. Salt, it seems, is the one flavoring everyone the world over can agree upon.
The mother of all spices, culinary salt goes back at least 8,000 years, food historians say. Words like salary comes from “salt.” It was Earth’s original money. Salad? Roman’s dressed their greens with salt and a few other herbs.
So it’s not a wonder when you walk in the door at Savory Spice Shop in the Aurora Southlands shopping center that salt and flavored salts play a starring role in just about everything collected to flavor meats, fishes, sauces, broths, breads, fruits — everything.
Salts of the Earth
Flavored salts and salt-based rubs are where budding foodies almost always start, said Savory owner Michael Sandhoff. Salt flavored with a little sweet onion or roasted garlic moves even the most cautious of pallets onto the launching pad for a journey into the great cuisine and beyond.
The need for the Denver-created Savory Spice store model was born along with the growing idea in America that food is more than sustenance. Now that might sound silly, but American cuisine has been dumbed down to the lowest and often most bland common denominator on the planet over the past several generations. While most of the world has long longed for signature and exotic new tastes, Popular America cuisine became so insipid that ketchup and mild yellow mustard became two of the country’s most potent additives.
Spicy American neighbors
Well, not for everyone, of course. Mexican transplants and their ancestors have long kept to cooking with the bounty of exotic tastes born south of the border. Cayenne, anchiote, jalapeño, onion, cinnamon, vanilla and cocoa, have always been defining tastes of our southern neighbors, no matter how bland the rest of American cuisine became. The same with Far East and Middle East transplants. They weren’t about to give up eons of pungent and piquant foods for the sake of fitting in with a TV dinner of Swanson fried chicken, boiled corn, mashed potatoes and red Jell-O for dessert.
In th 1960s and 1970s, daring home-ec pros and full-time mom types nudged America to try a little cardamom on those cookies, or add some extra cloves to the pickled beets. There were few, very few, public options promoting the tastes and smells of foreign foods and encouraging a little experimentation. Curry, once limited only to wild deviled eggs or an annual muligatawny soup, began showing up in all kinds of recipes.
But it was after the great steak-out nights of the 1980s that the American pallet started growing up. Many credit the evolution to television, foodie television.
While a picture doesn’t smell like anything, watching experts saute, bake and taste a seemingly endless variety of foods can be gastronomically erotic. Food TV exploded from generations of obscure public television offerings. While food and food culture was previously left to snobs, the new food shows began drawing in every demographic and culture. Now, almost everybody’s keenly interested and vastly more adventuresome and experienced than just a decade before.
“Our sales are heavily affected by what the popular food TV shows are doing,” Michael said.
If a top-rated show does a big piece on curries, he’s not surprised when the very next day everyone wants to buy and talk about curry.
Fire and Spice
This is where it gets fun. Forget the days when curry had one answer and came in a small, square tin, likely to sit in the “spice cabinet” for years. Curry at Savory means dinner-time passage to places like Ethiopia, where a rich and pungent Berbere mixture hails from. Or it can mean a trip to Jamaica, where the salt-free Caribbean curry stars in jerked meat recipes and stews. A more traditional garam masala has the deep, saucy curry that gives so many Indian curried dishes their signature taste. Something very different? Ghost Curry, flavored with the popular and swaggering ghost pepper, which also stars in a popular flavored Savory salt.
A favorite of mine is the vindaloo blend, a fiery mixture of faintly smoky tastes and earthy richness. Way too spicy for a hot summer day, lamb stew on fragrant basmati rice after a day of skiing doesn’t get any better.
Curries in the shop cover the globe like markers on a prized trip around the world. Sweet, spicy, smoky, bitter, fresh, engulfing. All the tastes of the world in a dozen or so glass jars.
Which one to pick is not the hard part, but the fun part, Michael says. That’s what sets a shop like Savory apart from just about every other market. You can, and should, smell and taste everything. A store clerk will guide you through the maze of all the flavors, aromas and tastes. If you don’t know really what it is you like, you can quickly find out what you don’t. Sure, ground Tikka Masala on you finger tastes nothing like it does after being kiln-fired onto a chicken breast, but it’s a big, potent hint.
And the wall of ground capsicum (pepper pods, like anaheim or bell, not pepper corns, which are a whole other animal) can be overwhelming. There are the standards for the Holy Trinity of chiles jarred and ready to try: Ancho (medium heat) Pasilla (hot stuff) and Guajillo (mild). Beyond that, a world of heat can come from ground chipotle, cayenne, ghost, allepo and, well, dozens of chiles, all with their own packed heat and flavor.
Michael has no strong advice on whether chiles should always, never or sometimes be tempered with hot oil or fat before moving into a recipe. You’re on your own.
A personal favorite for Michael here is the Peruvian Chili Lime rub. Fish. Nothing like it, he swears. Scented with cumin, the ground yellow chili has a broad range of accompaniments that make any grilled fish dish memorable, he says. As a special treat, it’s incredible rubbed into pineapple and then caramelized on the grill. Best part of summer, he says.
Expanding Herbal Universe
The trip around the store and world broadens as you make your way inside. Smoke imparted on salts, oreganos with personalities as different as kids in a big family. Bitter. Rich. Shroomy. Nutty. Smoky. Some of each.
Savory is a misnomer when it comes to some of the shop’s star attractions. There’s a handful of cocoas. Premium Dutch process cocoa delivers a powerful chocolate punch to any cake or brownie recipe. Mexican cocoa delivers strong chocolate flavor, but with much less cocoa butter, and won’t mess with your favorite recipes. The black onyx cocoa is for professionals, deviants and the dangerously curious. If chocolate was explosive, this is TNT. Laden with so much cocoa butter, most recipes have to be adjusted for fat content. The rewards for your trouble, however are memorable.
Other than chocolate, the world of cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg become expansive here. Fresh, pungent vanilla beans and extracts add an amazing variety of vanilla influence to sweets and desserts. Cinnamons and the barks they come from are nearly as varied as peppers. All of them friendly and welcoming, cinnamon is a starter spice that everyone remembers liking in one strength or another.
Spices are Comfort
The flavors preserved in the shop just don’t bring variety to your food life, they bring the world into your kitchen and dining room. They bring welcome nostalgia and comforting memories, and they bring surprises.
Kate, a clerk at the store, said that she can’t imagine anything she’s tasted as divine as the Lemon Honey. Sweet. Rich. Buttery. Bright. What’s it good on? “Everything. Like dipping everything in lemon meringue pie.”
For Michael, the aged black garlic has rocked his food life. “It’s not what you’d expect,” he said. Sweet and nutty, but distinctly garlic. It’s easier to describe what it doesn’t taste like rather than what it does. It’s not bitter, overpowering or biting. Soft, like the sweet memory of garlic.
It’s good in flavoring salt, too. And salts are often where customers begin and end.
Our photographer, Gabriel Christus, practically salivates when he talks about sprinkling Italian truffle salt on well-roasted Brussels sprouts. Not of this Earth, he swears.
Not just salts to add to food, a favorite are blocks of the immensely dense pink Himalayan salt. Superheated on a grill, they let you bring a showy way to cook thin meats and fishes right on the table. Finely ground, the salt itself melts forcefully on the tongue.
Despite what many believe, salt is not salt, Michael insists. The taste of salts are flavored by the environment and conditions they’re formed in. French Fleur de Sel is salt from evaporating sea water, formed into buttery flakes in the wind. It has a faintly ripe taste. The same texture comes from Australian Murray River salt. Faintly pink from native algae, the salt is a cascade of soft flakes that melt softly like butter on the tongue. The experience, both he and Kate say, is unique, even for salt aficionados. Perfect as a foil on sweet desserts or the ultimate compliment to soft pretzels and rolls.
Besides the growing variety of salts colored and flavored by lava, iron and other minerals, subtle additions bring the old world comfort of salt with the adventure of new flavors from new places. Alderwood smoked salt. Pepper salts. Like salt and an endless variety of salted rubs and spices. Each one has its own history and culture, making Michael as much anthropologist as chef du piquant. And that’s what he loves most about his job. He wraps up a beloved career in cooking with the satisfaction of interacting with curious and adventuresome people. His customers don’t come in because they need to eat, but because they’re looking for more than just food.