Maplewood is a destination for foodies because of two stores on Manchester just a short distance apart: Penzeys Spices and Vom Fass, the European oil, vinegar, and spirits shop. Penzeys: This place is “Six Flags” for the nose, a virtual “spice museum” designed to turn you on to home cooking. The shop with more than 250 spices can intimidate the most seasoned cook, (pun intended) when faced with five different varieties of cinnamon or a dozen or more curry and chili powders. Test jars are there for you to smell the various spices and most varieties come in several sizes so you can start small. During my recent visit I was searching for the vibrantly-flavored Vietnamese Cinnamon that I wanted for Christmas baking after having read some superb comment about the spice on line. I also got the Medium Chili Powder that offers just a little more kick (not a lot) than their regular chili powder. I eyed the spice gift boxes that might make good holiday presents. I looked to see what Saffron was selling for ($147 for ¼ ounce, according to the catalog), which made me feel glad I had bought some much, much cheaper at the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul earlier this year. My friend said I was becoming a spice snob. Not so, I insisted. I just wanted to give a flavor boost to my humdrum cooking and pointed to the Penzeys motto: “If you love people, cook them tasty food.” Vom Fass: On the same block with Penzeys, about ten doors away, is another haven for the bon vivant. I’ve had a hard time remembering the name of the store; it doesn’t roll off the tongue or stick in the mind. The name means “from the cask” and refer to their oils, vinegars and spirits coming from large jars and kegs. The salespersons are good about wanting you to test the products from tiny spoons. I can’t handle oil and vinegar without some accompaniment. Hmm…if they would just dab the samples onto a bit of lettuce, it would be easier to judge. In the photo above, the salesman is filling a small bottle with the Lemon Oil that I bought. I started to ask if I could use it on furniture as well as salads, but figured he wouldn’t think the comment was nearly as funny as I did.
Having to buy bottles for my purchase was annoying, but this time I remembered to bring along the empties I had from previous purchases. I replenished my Honey Balsamic Vinegar and bought a new one, Fig-Chili, that the salesman highly recommended. Again, reading the manual is essential to a meaningful visit and bringing your own bottles will make the trip less costly.
Owner Anita von Ballmoos offers wine tastings and monthly cooking classes for those who want to learn more. Both stores are an education in new flavors, blends, and aromas. Even if you just smell and sample, it’s a fun outing with a friend. Penzeys Spices: 7338 Manchester; Open: Mon.-Fri. 9:30a-5:30p; Sat. 9:30a-5p; Sun. 11a-5p. Vom Fass: 7314 Manchester,; Open: Mon.- Sat. 10a-7p; Sun. 11a-5p.