Savory spices enhance sensory delights

If you’ve only tasted supermarket cinnamon, you’ll be wowed by a whiff of organic cinnamon from Ceylon, and tempted by the extra sweetness when the spice hails from Saigon. Chinese cinnamon is citrusy and Indonesian, the least intense, is the familiar one found in grocery aisles.

While the Valley abounds with wine tasting venues, the recently-opened Savory Spice Shop offers a new kind of sensory discovery, where you can compare five styles of cinnamon and sample and savor 400 herbs and spices. Small tester bottles sit beside larger jars of spices. You pour a little in your hand, take a taste, then brush the remains onto the hardwood floor, adding to the shop’s enticing aroma.

There are 14 kinds of pepper and a whole array of salts, including Himalayan salt blocks that you heat in the oven to 500 degrees and then cook food on the top. “They’re amazing, they infuse the food with flavor. And they last forever,” said Pat Benfer, who owns the shop along with her business partner Cheryl Ytreeide. They opened last November a few doors down from Whole Foods in the Sonoma Marketplace, in the 200 block of West Napa Street.

“It’s so much fun. It’s a great location and everyone is so nice. There are wonderful people here,” Benfer said. Jen Patterson, who grew up in Sonoma, also works in the shop. “It so inspiring and there’s so much to learn,” she said. She calls Benfer and Ytreeide, “the spice lady gurus.” The proprietors are extremely knowledgeable about their products and can tell you all about cardamom pods, dried kefir lime, wasabi powder, sumac or the difference between Tahitian and Madagascar vanilla beans.

There are also little informational cards posted here and there with spice tips and facts, like, “When substituting dried herbs for fresh, use one third the amount,” and, “It takes one ton of sea water to produce 77 pounds of sea salt.”

“Love Your Spices” is one of the rules in “Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual” by Michael Pollan, the prolific author at the forefront of the healthy eating movement. Pollan says herbs and spices are a great way to add richness to food without adding fat or sugar. With more people attempting healthier eating, and cooking TV shows being hugely popular, the market for spices is growing.

With the trend toward home cooking and more flavor-adventurous consumers, the current annual retail sale of spices hovers around $3 billion and is expected to reach $4 billion, according to the Spice and Extract Manufacturing Industry Report. That may be why spices many people have never heard of – like fenugreek leaves – have a home on the shelves at Savory Spice Shop.

Their priciest offering is saffron, the most expensive spice worldwide. It’s most common use is in paella. Saffron’s thin yellow threads are actually crocus flower stamens, which are handpicked, the labor driving the high price. They sell two kinds, Organic Moroccan for $15.85 a gram (that’s $7,195.90 a pound) and Spanish Cape for $13.25 a gram.

Besides cinnamon, Benfer said the most sought-after spice is turmeric, used for cooking but also touted as a cure for inflammation. Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of the “Dr. Oz Show,” is widely credited with creating the popularity of turmeric, which he says is an important addition to a healthy diet. A search of his website shows 3,030 references to turmeric, claiming it helps cure everything from the winter blues to psoriasis, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Benfer recommends her own remedy for sleeplessness – turmeric, cinnamon and honey mixed into a half cup of hot milk at bedtime – that she swears by and her costumers have agreed is helpful. “I ask people to try it and come back and tell me how it worked,” she said. A believer in her products, she takes turmeric everyday.

While the main emphasis is on cooking, with the shop offering an interesting collection of cookbooks and many free recipe cards, they do have customers seeking spices for medicinal purposes, many for use in ayurvedic medicine. Benfer said they’ve sold many copies of “Healing Spices” by Bharat B. Aggarwal.

There are 165 signature blends available, from barbeque spice rubs to a tarragon, shallot and citrus dressing blend that is one of their biggest sellers. It can be used for salads and is “wonderful for fish” Patterson said. The Mexican Mole blend allows you to make mole, an almost-all-day ordeal if you start from scratch, in about half an hour.

Want the top five spice blends for chicken? They’ve got them: Mt. Eolus Greek Style; Lake Barkley Fried Chicken; Tan Tan Moroccan; Jamaican Jerk; and Team Sweet Mama’s BBQ Chicken Rub. Which seems to prove you can eat chicken every day and it will never taste the same.

There are also shelves of dried chilies, which Benfer said, “chefs are using a lot of these days.” Two popular ones are crushed Aleppo chilies and crushed Urfa chilies.

At the Savory Spice Shop, you may be inspired to cook up something entirely new, and possibly even a dish that cures what ails you. Along the way you’ll inevitably learn about an herb, spice or extract you never knew existed.