Open Seasoning

Open SeasoningOpen Seasoning

F or hundreds of years, New Haveners have prized spices and herbs from far-off lands.

If our forebears were plopped into The Spice & Tea Exchange in Guilford, their heads would spin at the sight of so many jars filled with different seasonings, from dusty green to iron red. In addition to pure spices, many-splendored blends with names evoking regions or cuisines command one wall, while other walls are devoted to teas, flavored salts and sugars.

The Exchange has been open for two and a half years. Both a franchise and a family endeavor, it started out with two very separate visits to two different Spice and Teas.

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Cindy Wright and her daughter Jenn Asbury—who co-own the store with Greg Wright, Cindy’s husband and Jenn’s father—tell the story together: Five years apart, “I went to the one in Rehoboth and Mom went to the one in Boca Raton. We just fell in love with it and we were looking for a lifestyle change,” Asbury says. “I came back from Florida and told Jenn we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to open this franchise,” Wright adds. Years later, Asbury came back from Rehoboth raving about her experience—having forgotten the earlier suggestion. “We said, ‘It’s a sign,’” Wright recalls.

Asbury says the spice mixes are a big draw, since they tend to be both evocative and easy to add to simple dishes, where they can make a big impact. The Tuscany blend ($5.19 per oz), a vibrant melange whose primary blush is an earthy yellow, contains expected ingredients like garlic, oregano and tomato powder and surprises like cumin, amarillo pepper and lime frost sea salt. Asbury suggests adding it to olive oil for dipping, as well as to any dish involving tomatoes. She says her favorite is the Coastal blend ($5.19 per oz), a combination of shallots, green peppercorn, dill and much more, adding that it’s best for seasoning seafood or vegetables.

All of the blends are made “fresh here in the store,” Asbury says. Many, including the Coastal, include dried citrus peel, which has Asbury and Wright peeling and drying lemons and oranges. The shop also features a number of teas, from varieties built around camellia sinensis, the basis for the major families of tea, to herbal and fruit tisanes. Asbury recommends the Mystic Dragon ($5.49 per oz), a combination of sencha and dragonwell green tea speckled through with dried mallow flowers and cornflowers, with notes of strawberry and rhubarb.

Asbury and Wright also have recommendations for how to use tea in brewing and cooking. One suggestion is to use tea as a substitute for the water in lemonade. Another is to make rice with it, in which case Wright recommends either the Coconut Oolong or the Marrakesh Mint.

Asbury showed me how the Exchange concocts its spice blends, measuring out ingredients for a Tomato Tarragon mix. As Asbury stirred items like smoked black peppercorn and sun-dried tomato into a large metal bowl, Wright noted that they can’t handle more peppery spices while customers are in the store, since it would induce coughing fits. Even the current blend was tickling my nose, but Wright says she and Asbury have long since gotten used to it. “You can really smell the tarragon,” she adds appreciatively.

The Exchange also lets you make your own blends, and there are enough spices, sugars and salts on hand that the possibilities might as well be infinite. Wright notes the smoked salts are popular for homemade jerky.

Though the recipes are consistent across all Spice & Tea Exchanges, Asbury says the store itself is where they get to show a personal touch. The ceiling and floors are vintage tin and all gift packaging is original. The building itself is the oldest on the Guilford Green, built in 1749.

Before taking on the Exchange, Asbury had a corporate job and Wright had been a stay-at-home mom. For the former, the retail venture was a reprieve. “It’s much more relaxing here. Everyone is happy when they come in through the door,” she says. “I remember the first day I was here. My cheeks hurt so bad because I was smiling so much.”

And that’s a pretty sweet—or should I say spicy?—deal.

The Spice & Tea Exchange
80 Whitfield St, Guilford (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 9:30am-6pm, Sun noon-5pm
(203) 453-0022
www.spiceandtea.com/guilford.html

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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