Local Treasure – Colonel De Gourmet Herbs and Spices
The real gems in this local herb treasure trove are the folks behind the handsome antique counter.
By Ilene Ross – Photos by Gina Weathersby
Situated in the Northwest corner of Findlay Market is one of our city’s most exotic culinary pleasures. As you approach Colonel De Gourmet Herbs & Spices, heady aromas begin to fill the air. Your eyes fall upon hundreds of jars filled with jewel-like delicacies, and your thoughts turn to lands far, far away. But the real gems in this local treasure trove are the folks behind the handsome antique counter.
De Stewart and his staff know flavor. As a small child, De, or “The Colonel”, as he’s affectionately known, (he is a real Kentucky Colonel after all) spent his time at his mother’s apron strings as the many women in his life worked their magic in the kitchen. Convinced that there was more to seasoning than simply salt, pepper, and lard, De began his life-long study on herbs and spices. He later went on to write his first book, “All about Herbs & Spices”, an encyclopedia-like work on the topic. This man knows his business. Not only is he a guru when it comes to flavor profiles, but he could easily teach a university course on mankind’s history based on spice trading. His staff is top notch as well. Although an audience with The Colonel is reason enough for a trip to Findlay, anyone working here can fully educate you, as well as lift those magical jar lids and send your senses on a journey to exotic places. This type of experience and service could never take place at your typical grocery store. Just a few moments spent with these knowledgeable folks will inspire your palate, empower you to expand your cooking repertoire, and always send you away having learned something you never knew before.
There is serious hustle and bustle going on here. Stop by on a typical Saturday, and wedge yourself in at the counter. You’ll find yourself in outstanding company. Cincinnati’s top chefs shop here, often looking to De for custom blends, to see what’s new, and to get menu inspirations for their restaurants. But don’t let that leave you feeling intimidated or overwhelmed. Everybody is made to feel at home, whether you’re a gourmet foodie, hunting down the latest herb from the far reaches of Africa, or you’re a novice cook testing out a chili recipe for your mom’s hand-me-down crock pot. Just be prepared. If you ask for salt, get comfortable. You’re going to be here for a while. There are over forty varieties available, including my favorite, a bourbon smoked sea salt. And make sure you check out the huge, almost translucent pink Himalayan salt slabs, perfect for imparting a delicate, brackish flavor to the foods you cook or serve on them. Take that, little salt girl!
Top 5 reasons to shop at Colonel De Herbs & Spices
1. The top on my list, is unquestionably the experience. I find that as I age, I value my time far more than I used to. I take great pleasure with even the little things, and that includes running errands. The interaction with purveyors at these small, independent shops and the passion for their product they imbue has become invaluable to me.
2. Knowledge. Have you ever asked someone at your behemoth grocery store to help you track down Zatar? I rest my case.
3. Mind-boggling variety. Giant chain: about 100 herbs and spices. Colonel De: over 500. There are also oils, vinegars, sauces, marinades, gadgets, gifts, and more.
4. One reason, two words. TIME = QUALITY. According to De, time wreaks havoc on exceedingly delicate herbs and spices. The spices in the grocery store start out a lot like the Colonel’s, but all similarities end there. Between spice purveyors, transit time, purveyor warehouse storage time while waiting for grocery store orders, grocery store warehouse storage time while waiting for a store manager to put it on an order, local store storage time, shelf time, waiting for you to buy the product….well, I’m exhausted thinking of that journey, and you can see the problem. Colonel De purveys his own product direct from the source, and delivers it fresh to you.
5. Quantity. Your Grandma’s holiday cookie recipe calls for a two tablespoons of cardamom, and two tablespoons of anise seed. You make these cookies once a year. You don’t use cardamom or anise for anything else. Do you go to the grocery store and buy large tins of these items that will sit on your shelf and most likely get thrown away? Absolutely not. What a waste of money! Pop down to Colonel De for exact amounts of what you need. You can purchase little as a quarter of an ounce, and he’s working on even smaller quantities than that. While you’re there with extra coin in your pocket, try something new, like one of my favorites, the enchanting French Curry blend. It’s divine with shrimp.