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An invitation to spicy smiles

The commingled aromas of more than 250 herbs, spices, salts, sugars, teas and even rice tend to overwhelm patrons of The Spice & Tea Exchange.

"And it must be in a good way," says owner Scott Plummer. "Because they have a big smile on their face."

Since opening less than a year ago on Ashland's North Main Street, The Spice & Tea Exchange has enticed both foodies looking for black truffle salt, says Plummer, and folks who realize the dried basil reposing on their spice racks for the past decade "is probably not any good."

Hawaiians exclaim over Plummer's stock of famed red salt from their home state. And avid cooks snap up numerous varieties of paprika and peppercorns that they previously found only online.

"They're usually quite impressed by the results," says Plummer.

The store has added new products, such as kaffir lime leaves, in response to customer demand, and now the store is adding a new lineup of cooking classes.

Ashland resident and cooking instructor Laurie Gadbois plans to enhance her plant-based cuisine with items from Plummer's inventory.

"A lot of folks are intimidated by using herbs and spices they're not familiar with," says Gadbois, certified in the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's Food for Life program.

"They're all going to be really healthy, but kind of decadent and delicious at the same time," says Gadbois of her recipes.

Gadbois will teach three classes at the store, starting Thursday, April 17, with "Dips, Spreads and Fresh-Baked Chips. She will cook up a vegetarian brunch on Sunday, May 4, and she'll offer a class called "New and Exciting Rice Dishes" on Thursday, May 15.

The "fairly simple" classes cost $25 per person and will include food and beverage sampling.

Gadbois' sessions will complement free, 30-minute workshops that Plummer hosts at 5 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of each month. Participants are asked to sign up in advance, but Plummer accepts walk-ins. A free spice blend is available to take home following each class.

All of The Spice & Tea Exchange's blends are mixed in-house, many according to the Florida-based franchise's recipes. And most products are sold in bulk, so customers can purchase only as much as they need, ensuring that flavor is always at its peak.

"Freshness is a really big key," says Gadbois.

Spice blends can help inexperienced cooks become more comfortable in the kitchen, while nudging aficionados toward even more exotic cuisines. The Spice & Tea Exchange's Moroccan blend — chili powder, turmeric, garlic, olive salt, cumin, black pepper, chili flakes, oregano, onion and coriander — in lentil soup eclipsed her expectations of the typically Indian-inspired dish, says Gadbois.

In addition to Indian spices, including hard-to-find asafetida, Middle Eastern spices are some of Plummer's most requested. Ras al hanout, sumac and za'atar are popular purchases, he says.

The store also sells unusual teas. One, called lapsang souchong, "smells like a campfire" and has a devoted following, says Plummer.

Copious tips for properly brewing tea can be had at The Spice & Tea Exchange, one of 35 stores nationwide, including one in Portland. But the Ashland store in the former location of Adelante! Gallery and Tea House does not brew teas for in-store consumption, says Plummer.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and until 5 p.m. Tuesday.

For more information, see www.spiceandtea.com/ashland or call 541-708-5306.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

An invitation to spicy smiles