"You never go back once you've gone fennel pollen," Bronwen Tawse says, opening a jar of the tawny spice to reveal its powerfully sweet aroma.
Tawse, who with her husband, Peter Bahlawanian, owns Spice Station, a year-old gourmet spice store in Los Angeles with a second location in Santa Monica, fell in love with this fragrant, intensely flavorful powder when the couple was developing their inventory. Tucked away off bustling Sunset Boulevard, Spice Station feels more old-fashioned apothecary shop than gourmet food emporium. Beautifully carved mortar and pestles, antique scales, and glass jars brimming with brilliantly colored powders line the shelves, which are made of reclaimed wooden pallets.
The earthy, relatively mild urfa biber was on Bahlawanian's initial must-have list, but it took nearly five months before he was able to find a source.
On closer inspection, the gleaming glass jars contain—in addition to usual suspects like cumin, paprika, and cinnamon—obscure offerings like an astonishingly spicy ghost pepper salt, the Turkish pepper urfa biber, and a popular house-blended Uighur barbecue mix—a medley of black peppercorn, Szechuan peppercorns, cumin, and ginger. Prominently displayed in front of each jar is a card explaining the spice's origin and best uses, both culinary and medicinal—creating a kind of museum of world spices.
By creating a well-curated line-up of rare spices sourced from around the world, Tawse and Bahlawanian have joined a growing group of small, independently owned spice stores around the country, such as Colorado's Savory (which recently began franchising) and World Spice in Seattle, that are giving herbs and powders the same treatment formerly reserved for epicurean favorites like wine and cheese.
Spice Station was born out of necessity. Tawse, who previously worked as a researcher for celebrity biographies ("I went from Tom Cruise gossip to black limes and fennel pollen," she says), and Bahlawanian, who was a concert producer, were longtime recreational cooks and spice lovers, but they often had trouble finding key ingredients for new recipes.
"My husband would go to the Valley for different things," Tawse says, referring to the ethnic groceries that dot Los Angeles's suburbs. But there was always something or other missing from the recipe.
"I'd been traveling and collecting different flavors," recalls Bahlawanian, who says he noticed others undertaking similar spice quests. "I told Bronwen one day, 'Maybe there's a business in this.' "
And so Spice Station was born.
In crafting an inventory, Bahlawanian says they started with the basics before quickly expanding to include salts, sugars, housemade spice blends, and a range of over 40 chiles.
Some of the more exotic spices have been difficult to find. The earthy, relatively mild urfa biber was on Bahlawanian's initial must-have list, but it took nearly five months before he was able to find a source. "99 percent of people I mentioned it to had never heard of it. I went to ethnic markets and they didn't have it. Finally I had to use resources, like old-school 'Hey who do I know in Turkey?'" Through a series of tangential connections and the help of translators, he was finally able to offer it at the store, and it's become one of their bestsellers.