I'm standing in the chili-pepper section of Penzeys Spices. Displayed before me are more than a dozen varieties of peppers from around the world, in different quantities and grinds. I've perused the selections like a customer at a perfume counter, sampling the aroma of each from generous display carafes. At last I settle on the Aleppo pepper from Turkey. Similar in smokiness to an ancho pepper, it has a sun-dried-tomato sweetness to balance the fire. It will make a great condiment for burgers, pizza, and sauces.
Chefs and serious foodies will recognize the name Penzeys from its mail-order and Internet catalogs. A Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based family-owned business that began as a bulk spice house in the 1940s, Penzeys has been opening retail spaces of late. The Memphis location, at the Carrefour shopping center at the corner of Poplar and Kirby, is one of the few stores in the South.
The Memphis store was opened a few months ago by Michael Moore, who is a milkman's son, a former IBM employee, and an enthusiastic cook. Moore's specialities? Chili, he says. And soups, lasagne, pies and custards, and just about everything. Moore's broad culinary knowledge helped him click with executives when he went to Penzeys' headquarters to talk about opening the store. It also helps him to help people like me pick a pepper.
The East Memphis store is spacious, and its displays are attractively organized. Most herbs are available in a variety of sizes, and sample jars allow the browser to not only see but inhale the selections. Amid the highest-quality parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme are the harder-to-find galangal (a mild, ginger-flavored root), lemongrass, sumac (also lemony), zatar (a Middle East blend used on pita bread), and fenugreek. Past the chili section are the curries -- red rogan josh, green garam masala, and a yellow maharajah.
Saffron, the most expensive of all spices (a quarter ounce can run up to $57), is available in three different grades (or qualities) at Penzeys. The most select saffron, from Kashmir, is picked only once a year. Not only is it available here, it is less expensive than the lesser-quality Spanish saffron infrequently found in our local grocery stores.
Two varieties of vanilla bean and three choices of cinnamon, again of better quality, are also significantly less expensive than those at a grocery store. This value extends through the entire store, where I found the prices to be, on average, one-third less than elsewhere in town.
Penzeys also sells themed gift boxes -- different collections of products for the newlywed, for example, or for those who like spicy foods or those who live on salads or love to bake or prefer Asian foods. Or customers can make up their own box. The number-one gift this past holiday season wasn't a seasoning at all but hot-chocolate mixes of Dutch cocoa with a "thin mint" extract, which consistently sold out.
There is an extensive selection of hand-mixed seasonings for grilling, marinating, and kicking up your old standbys. With descriptive names like Trinidad, Adobo, Northwoods, Singapore, and Cajun, each mix or rub comes with suggested uses and recipes. Dry salad-dressing mixes and toppings also come in many varieties, an alternative to expensive premixed bottles. Six soup bases are time-saving starters for seasonal soups and stews. I recently used the seafood base for a shrimp risotto, for example. Two teaspoons of the dense reduction produced a quart of richly colored and flavorful stock.
The mail-order and Internet catalogs (Penzeys.com) are colorful and informative, but to discover the right selection for your individual tastes, pay Moore a visit at Penzeys. How else would I have found the Aleppo chili pepper? Or the French gray sea salt? Or the seafood-soup base? Or the seven different peppercorns? Or