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La Tienda in the Press

Daily Press - May 21, 2008
Daily Press

Check out this ethnic market in James City County

A little store in Toano brings the flavors of Spain to Hampton Roads, and anyone else with Web access
Deborah Dowd

A former Navy chaplain, Don Harris' passion for the life, culture and food of Spain began when he was stationed there about 40 years ago.

"When I stepped off the ship into Spain, I felt at home right away," Harris said. "I immediately fell in love with a culture where children are treasured, and generations gather around the family table."

It is a love affair that is evident today as he walks through the small retail shop at La Tienda's headquarters in Toano, near Williamsburg. The Harris family's dedication to offering the very best that Spain has to offer is a central tenet of La Tienda's business strategy.

When it comes to olive oils, the famous Iberico and Serrano hams or Spanish saffron, Harris often works with small producers, farmers and companies, using contacts he has made over the years all across Spain.

He has a personal story for almost every product in his catalog, and he was anxious to share his knowledge of these products during my visit.

One of my favorite stories was about the Spanish saffron he sells. If you are not familiar with saffron, it is one of the world's most precious spices, harvested from crocus sativus. It is the reddish stamens of these flowers that are harvested and then roasted to make the Spanish saffron you can buy. It takes more than 200 crocus flowers to make a single gram of saffron with the average harvest of a family being only eight pounds in a year.

The very best saffron was harvested in the La Mancha region of Spain, but not long ago inferior quality Middle Eastern saffron began flooding the market.

Harris offered to buy saffron from a couple in La Mancha. The couple said they would not be able to produce enough to meet his needs, but they knew of other families who had been saffron growers. And with that Harris and La Tienda helped revive the saffron industry in this small village.

La Tienda's customer base is made up of Spanish expats, people who have traveled to Spain and want to re-create the tastes, sights and smells that they associate with their experiences there, and with about one million Americans traveling to Spain each year, it is a strong and loyal customer base.

The business has continued to grow, fueled by culinary interest in paella and tapas, the Spanish tradition of eating "little bites." According to Harris, food is a close-second to family in Spanish culture, with dishes that showcase the delicious ingredients that come from the various regions of Spain.

Harris educated me on the differences between olive oils, providing sips of two different types — one with a peppery finish and one with a smooth, buttery flavor. They were different than any olive oil I had ever tasted. He told me about the famous black acorn-fed pigs that end up as Iberico hams, only recently imported into the U.S. He convinced me that I was deprived since I have never had real Spanish sherry vinegar, a condition that I quickly remedied.

The Harris family members' experiences in Spain and the stories of the many people who have touched their lives and their business can be found at Don Harris' Reflections, also on the La Tienda Web site (Harris says this is his way to still give a sermon even though he is a retired chaplain.)

Want to re-create the tastes of Spain in your own home, La Tienda-style? The La Tienda Web site tienda.com() has recipes for traditional Spanish dishes. I used this resource to make my own version of the Milagros Tortilla, and I found scores of others I cannot wait to try.

Inspired by fabulous ingredients I bought at La Tienda, and armed with the recipe for Tortilla Milagros, I recreated a version of this dish for my family. A Spanish tortilla is not a flat bread as it is in Mexican cooking, but an egg-based dish much like an Italian frittata. My version named after this great shop includes chorizo instead of Serrano ham, and makes a delicious one-dish meal. Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as part of a tapas meal.

Tortilla La Tienda
1 baking potato, cooked and cut in 1 inch pieces (I microwaved the potato with the skin on)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 red or yellow pepper, chopped

1 cup chorizo cut into pieces

1 cup shredded Manchego cheese

5 beaten eggs (you can also use 1/2 carton of egg substitute)
1/2 teaspoon bittersweet pimenton (smoked paprika)

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Spray heavy frying pan with cooking spray and add olive oil. Sauté chorizo pieces and potato chunks until potatoes are browned on all sides. Beat eggs with pimenton and add onion and pepper. Pour wet ingredients into pan, pulling sides in gently with a spatula to allow egg mixture to fill sides. Cover pan and lower heat until eggs are mostly set. Loosen the tortilla and turn over onto plate and slip uncooked side down into pan to let brown. Top tortilla with grated cheese and heat until melted. Cut into wedges and serve.

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