Home Grown Across the Sea

Don Harris | March 2012

Through La Tienda, my family and I seek to generate the same trust that was typically earned in simpler times - a time when people bought from the neighbors they knew. Of course you are not able to be personal friends with the Manchego cheese artisan in La Mancha, but we are able to know Fernando in your stead! 

We continue to befriend the hard working Spanish artisans who produce the high quality food you seek for your table. Our mission is for you to trust our judgment and feel assured that the traditional person-to-person way of doing business is still possible, ironically, with the help of the Internet.

The relationship I am referring to is what I experienced as a child. I would go with my mother to the butcher shop where Mr. Higgins would give her the best meat that he had on hand – even during the wartime rationing. They had known each other for many years, and over that period of time a sense of trust built up between them.

During the spring and summer during my high school days, I would stop by a local farm truck to pick up freshly harvested produce. The owner, Mr. Hittinger, knew me well, as his daughter and I were in the same class in school. That same trust with Mr. Higgins was there too, because we had lived in the same community for most of our lifetimes. I knew that the vegetables and fruit from Mr. Hittinger’s vegetable stand and greenhouse would always be safe and healthy.

Of course, the variety of produce was limited to the seasonal vegetables and fruits that grew in the region: asparagus in April, strawberries in June and sweet corn in August. There were no raspberries from Chile in November or mangoes from Mexico in January and I did not expect them. 

What I have just described happened in my lifetime; but two or three hundred years ago the produce you ate most likely was grown within a few miles of your dwelling, and if you did not grow it yourself, you surely knew all about the person who did. The idea of eating food that was grown anonymously thousands of miles away was beyond the consumer’s comprehension.

Today it is quite different. We rely on government agencies to monitor our food supply and the global food chain is governed by logistics rather than products: uniform spherical tomatoes or California peaches supplied when we can pick them off the trees in Virginia.

The bond of trust between the provider and the consumer hardly exists, except in the nascent buy local/farmers market movement. It goes without saying that the kind of arrangement provided by well meaning government bureaucracy, or the less benign marketplace controlled by agribusiness, does not generate the same level of trust people formed with one another over the years.

In a couple of days, my wife Ruth and I will be spending three weeks traveling hundreds of kilometers throughout Spain, from Santiago to Sevilla. We will be meeting and sometimes dining with the families of artisans who provide La Tienda food for your table. Our son Tim has returned from an extensive visit with several of our artisan jamón producers. There is no substitute for being on the scene and sitting down for a meal together.

We are especially interested in the classic bread from Galicia, which has been greeted with such enthusiasm within the La Tienda community. Ruth and I look forward to getting to know these bakers better, and perhaps along the way discovering another classic Spanish bread or two for you to enjoy. 

The first place we will visit, just an hour from Santiago de Compostela, is Lugo, a medieval city encircled by 1,800 year old Roman walls. On the outskirts of the town is the bakery where we will meet the people who make the great Galician breads and rolls that so many of us enjoy.

Next we are taking a slight detour to the small Celtic town of San Cristóbal de Cea, whose local bakers use a 13th century recipe to make what they proclaim to be the best bread in the world. And maybe it is! By chance about twenty years ago, Ruth and I pulled into this village with a van full of hungry kids to feed ("I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty"), and were amazed at the quality of the bread. We never forgot it, and now we have found it again! Whether we can transport the crusty airy loaves to America is another challenge.

Later in the trip we will visit the small town of Alfacar, near Granada, where a legendary bread is baked following a recipe from Moorish times. This ancient bread has been highly coveted in all of Andalucía for hundreds of years. It will be quite different from the airy, crusty bread of Galicia, perhaps with an olive oil base. I will let you know what we discover.

I won’t burden you with every detail, except to mention that we will be visiting the baker of our Magdalenas muffins, looking for a potentially classic bread from Granada and finally we will be greeted by the people of the ancient town of Antequera whose town bakery provides us with traditional molletes rolls.

We find it important to participate in the spiritual core of Spain as well, so we will start our journey at Santiago de Compostela and will join with the Spanish people who observe Semana Santa. After attending the celebration of Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) in the magnificent cathedral of Toledo, we will drive south to Andalucía. In Córdoba, Ruth and I will spend much of the day with the Rodríguez family. Their eldest son, Alejandro, was a guest in our home in Williamsburg for a few weeks and he will be part of one of the brotherhoods whose men carry heavy pasos in the Semana Santa processions. His father, Abel, is an old friend of ours whose company supplies us with the amazing fresh frozen Ibérico de Bellota chops and steaks.

We will spend the rest of the week in Priego de Córdoba enjoying the solemn Semana Santa observances. Priego is a beautiful white town perched on a cliff, surrounded by olive groves as far as the eye can see. There we will get together with Fermín and Aixa Rodríguez and taste their latest pressing of Señorío de Vizcántar extra virgin olive oil which he personally bottles for us. At the edge of town we will meet Antonio and his wife Maria who hand cook  San Nicasio potato chips in extra virgin olive oil. 

In addition to visiting our friends in their family enterprises, we keep an eye on the Spanish food scene in general so as to anticipate possible problems. For example, a few years ago low quality Iranian saffron was destroying the traditional market for the famous saffron of La Mancha. Most people would not know how to discern false saffron from the real thing. But we moved quickly to identify María Angeles and Juan Antonio, who had a sterling reputation for honesty and diligence, and shifted all our saffron orders to them.

Quality control is a special consideration when it comes to extra virgin olive oil. Some of you may have read the marvelous new book called Extra Virginity, which among other things outlines the extensive treachery and deceit in the industry. The author asserts that at least 60% of supermarket olive oil is adulterated. It can be hard to identify the tainted olive oil, so we solve that problem by relying on individual producers of integrity. 

We have visited Rosa and Francisco in their Castillo (de Canena). Fermín and Aixa are like family with their cute little Sophia, and we count Hans and Daida de Roos, who live in their 12th century finca, Can Solivera, as dear friends, and paragons of integrity. Hans is justifiably proud that their oil has been chosen by the chef of one of the top restaurants in Spain, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona.

We want to reassure you that when we say we offer you the best of Spain, it is not an empty slogan. And there is always room for improvement. We are now encouraging producers in Spain to produce certified humane jamones, so that the animals will be valued as living creatures as they always were before the advent of industrial food production.

My very best to you and your loved ones (and your local farmer),