During the trip to Illinois, it was imperative that we made a stop at The Spice House, in Geneva. Not only was it right on the way, but it’s one of only several branches of Spice Houses started by the Penzey’s in 1957. You may be wondering why it matters that it was, once, in the fifties, a mom and pop grinding operation, but the truth of the matter is that it still feels like one, and in many respects, acts like one.
Their spices are some of the freshest, and almost all of them are ground in-house. Behind the counter there’s a chalkboard, telling what will be coming in fresh in the next week.
All of this is in starkly high-contrast to the baking/spice isle at most super-marts, and while it’s certainly easy to make due with what’s so easily available to us, there is no question in the quality difference.
(This wall was filled, primarily, with holiday spices – that top row is mostly cinnamon, and below it are nutmeg and cloves, among others. At the bottom of the photo, you get a tiny glimpse of the vanilla extracts.)
In front of nearly every large glass jar of herb, spice, salt, house-blended seasoning mix, and extract is a small tester jar, for opening and smelling (and sometimes tasting). The scent of real cinnamon, or double strength bourbon, Madagascar, Mexican, or Tahitian vanilla extract, is just intoxicating. Even the dried herbs smell fresher.
They also carry harder to find items, and even things I’d never heard of. Pure chocolate extract, and vanilla powder (as well as paste)… I was like a kid in a candy shop.
I admit that most of the spices in my cabinet are from McCormick or Spice Islands, but when I get the chance I try to buy in bulk. Health food stores and small local markets often sell in bulk, and for a fraction of the cost of what you buy in the store. It’s often fresher, and there’s at least somewhat less likelihood that it’s been cut with flour or sawdust or some other unwanted filler, but even the best I can find locally is sub-par to this.
As Dave, one of the staff at the Geneva shop, hands me my jar of cumin, he tells me it was ground around 1:30 yesterday afternoon. Many of the spices, he says, were milled or ground within the past week.
Seeing how vibrant the colors are, and how aromatic the flavors, I have no reason to doubt that these are probably the freshest spices I’ve had the opportunity to encounter. I only wish I was more prepared in knowing what to stock up on.
Still, we managed to leave with a hefty 4oz (by weight – that’s a lot!) of true cinnamon, a 15oz jar of Tahitian vanilla extract (this stuff isn’t easy to find, either – in fact, I’ve been considering making my own), a jar of ground cumin, some whole nutmeg, and a bag of chai spice to play around with.
On top of the items we’d picked out, Dave – who was kindly showing us around, answering questions, and graciously letting me snap photos – threw in a free jar of their new Bloody Mary Spice mix, which he says is fantastic when rubbed on meats and braised. Mmm!
On top of the welcoming atmosphere, and some of the freshest herbs and spices around, the prices were (as far as I could tell) right on track with other bulk sellers – including those online. The only downside is that it isn’t located right around the corner from me (how wonderful that would be!), but I can hardly complain. Geneva is not only one of the prettiest little towns, but is also just a stone’s throw away from The Boyfriend’s Family. It was he, in all his wisdom, who insisted on stopping at The Spice House… and thank goodness he did!
Ooh, and they offer online ordering!* http://www.thespicehouse.com/
*No – I am not getting paid to say nice things. On top of probably wanting to brag about it, there are laws stating that I must say when I’ve been reimbursed in any way for advertising, so don’t worry, you’ll know when I am. In the meantime, you can rest assured that any gushing is from the heart, not from the pocket book.