The Accidental (Food) Tourist

Chicago’s Old Town

The weather threw us a curve ball the last time we visited Chicago. In a half dozen trips, we had the good fortune of sunny, clear days. We had ideas of strolling through Lincoln Park Zoo, the Conservatory, and then wandering to Riverwalk via the Magnificent Mile.

The plan did not include all-day sheets of rain; but, that is what we got.

So, we donned hooded raincoats and sturdy shoes and headed toward Old Town, because it was nearby. We hadn’t fully explored this neighborhood before, and I found some shops on Google Maps that looked interesting.

Plum Market

1024px-Plum_Market_Ann_Arbor_Michigan
By Dwight Burdette (Own work) 

The first was Plum Market, on North Wells Street between West Division and West Goethe. It was a cute name. I expected a small prepared food store plus greengrocer. But Plum Market is a full-on grocery store. The produce selection is large and mostly organic. And just beyond that is a spectacular liquor section that includes an impressive array of scotch and bourbon, along with wine and craft beers. This was a valuable discovery!

The Spice House

Next on my list was The Spice House. It was just a few blocks north, still on North Wells. I have been to many spice stores and was curious as to how this one would compare. All I can say is, there is no comparison. You should go to The Spice House.

As we approached, we noticed groups of people chatting in front of the store. I thought, this must be a local hangout for people who don’t drink coffee. After all, the weather wasn’t great and there weren’t people grouped in front of the other shops. So, okay. We made our way through the crowd.

spice house
photo by Irene

I opened the shop door and stepped into a scent of lemon, lavender, and clove. It was fabulous. The shop was trimmed in honey colored wood, and stocked with apothecary jars holding a variety of dried herbs and spices. An aproned salesperson offered me a candied ginger sample, explaining the two varieties on her tray. I opted for the one she suggested had a bright, sharp flavor appropriate for eating out of hand.

Never have I tasted crystallized ginger like this! It was soft, and moist, as if fresh ginger had just been dipped in syrup, rolled in sugar, and set out to dry. So unlike the firm squares that came out of my bottle at home. It left a nice, lingering tingle like you get after eating a few cinnamon hots. I ended up buying three bags. I also found a bottle of butter flavoring, which had been eluding me at my local shops. Butter extract is a great addition to butter cookie dough and coffee cakes, adding a subtle richness that takes baking to the next level.

Old Town Oil

It was starting to rain again as we continued north on North Wells. Our last stop for the afternoon was Old Town Oil, just a couple of blocks away. When we ducked inside this shop, we saw some of the people who had been outside of The Spice House. Odd.File May 01, 12 06 06 AMThe staff in this shop were also attentive and informed. We sample various oils and balsamic vinegars. The salesperson warmed a sample cup of Tuscan Blend olive oil by using the friction of the cup bottom against her palm. She did the same with some Reserve balsamic vinegar, poured both into one cup, and offered me a taste. It was warm, rich, and soothing. I could taste lemon, thyme, and rosemary.

Meanwhile, my husband and daughter were sampling a Blackberry and Ginger balsamic that was so good I think it would work over a rich vanilla ice cream or gelato. Now, we were up to three bottles. Finally, to make an even four, we purchased some Greek extra virgin olive oil that had a smooth, buttery mouthfeel.

A day that started off gray and gloomy ended with fantastic sights, smells, and tastes.

As we headed back to the hotel, I remarked at the coincidence of the crowds at the spice and oil shops. My daughter asked, “Didn’t you hear what they said, Mom? These people are on a food tour.” I laughed, “Well, so are we, I guess; Mom’s Food Tour. And, you didn’t have to pay anything at all.”

Featured photo by Irene. Some restrictions

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