Sharing Time with Spanish Artisans

Don Harris | August 2017

Dear Friends,

During our decades of traveling across Spain, Ruth and I (and later our sons) have always loved visiting the municipal markets that are central to the life of most towns and villages. I remember fondly visiting the "spinach lady" in our town of El Puerto de Santa Maria as well as the Panadería del Buen Pastor, The Good Shepherd Bakery, where I bought bread for the family. Eventually our attraction to the marketplaces of Spanish villages inspired us to be the virtual farmers market for all of you in the La Tienda community. 

When I was the father of our young Navy family in Spain, I used to get up early on Saturday morning and check out the busy local market in our town: there I saw farmers with all kinds of local produce, fishermen offering big slices of swordfish and barrels of various table olives. I remember an older man straddling a revolving wheel as he sharpened our kitchen knives by hand.

Of course, I always stopped at the bubbling caldron of oil where I was greeted by Charo Salgueso and her son. Almost every day from as far back as her grandmother's time, Charo’s family has been at the market serving sizzling churros pastries wrapped in cones fashioned from sheets of newsprint.  

Some forty plus years later, I sometimes still get up early on a Saturday morning to visit our local popular farmers market here in Williamsburg. There is always the anticipation of what fresh local treasures will appear among the stalls of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and flowers. As I am sure many of my fellow market shoppers will agree, our visit to the market is not just to do some grocery shopping. It is to connect with neighbors who bring produce from their gardens and their hen coops in the surrounding countryside.  

I sense that the vendors share similar values: their chickens are humanely treated and their vegetables are not loaded with chemicals and fertilizer. I feel that, perhaps in a little way, I have jumped the industrial food chain where vegetables and animals are viewed merely as commodities. My local butter lettuce and beets are not trucked in from faraway places, or my eggs from huge industrial farms where it is “off with their heads” if the hens do not lay eggs efficiently. These local people are my neighbors - both farmers and shoppers alike we are rooted in a common soil.
Sometimes I connect with them on the most unexpected levels. I now have a dear friend, Dianna, who crosses on the Jamestown ferry on her way to the market. She usually stops at our La Tienda shop to buy our wonderful bread baked in Galicia. She swears that it is the only authentic European bread in town! Sometimes she drops by to leave me some fresh eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes and berries from her friend "Farmer Joe's" garden. 

She is a warm and generous lady who has seen a lot of life since, at age 12, she fled with her mother and their family dog as they sighted the approaching Soviet army coming down the road to their home in the Ukraine. She also brings some Galician bread to her friend, "Farmer Joe," who works his small vegetable patch across the James River, near her home. During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he also escaped the Soviets.  

At any rate, she and hundreds of our fellow townspeople make an effort to visit the farmers market to meet the growers and tradesmen who will bring us the honest quality which was the pre-industrial agriculture. At home I enjoy a BLT sandwich made with a truly hand-picked tomato and bacon smoked in the countryside. And what is more delicious than ears of corn that the farmer picked this morning?   

You may think that what I am writing about is all very romantic, and it surely is. But it is also real. It has been part of my life in one way or another since I was a child. Back in the 1950s as a schoolboy I would walk over to Hittenger’s farm stand when my mother found some extra money to buy their special cauliflower or lettuce. When we were vacationing in New Hampshire, we would drop by the farm stand for fresh Golden Bantam corn, which at the dinner table we would drench with melted butter.

Our search for healthy food is characteristic of the American farmer's market shopper. This is exactly the same process our family follows in Spain. I am sure many of you have been amazed by vast Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria that you visited in Barcelona. I love to witness the vast array of creatures from the sea which overflow the tables and booths of the ancient port of Cádiz, way down south in Andalucía. The catch is brought in by the boatload each day by the fishermen: whole tunas and swordfish, octopus in all sizes, merluza, bacalao, lobsters, crabs, cockles and mussels.  All so fresh that some of the snails are still crawling away at their usual pace until the lady scoops them up and returns them to her bucket. 

In looking for the best in Spain, our family seeks out the same kind of farmer and supplier you might find at your local market! We seek to make connections with artisan suppliers so that we know how they work and we can vouch for the integrity of their products.  

A few years ago, Ruth and I were in the kitchen with Maria Banuelos and her husband Juan Antonio drinking coffee and talking about the saffron harvest in their village, and how to protect them from falsely labeled products coming from Iran and Turkey which could greatly affect their town. In another part of Spain, we are in close contact with the farm family of Jose and Amalia Salcedo, founders of Navarrico. We partnered with their sons to restore traditional wood fire roasting for their piquillo peppers, and learned from them how their white asparagus is tended by hand locally in Navarra - not imported from China as many items are today.

Most importantly, we bring to you products produced on a small scale, and can guarantee their integrity. Let me give you an example: You may be able to buy a wedge of inexpensive Manchego cheese at the local supermarket in New York or Austin. It seems like a great deal, but most of this industrial Manchego has been mass produced from sheep’s milk anonymously purchased somewhere in Spain. The milk for this cheese must be highly pasteurized, robbing it of much of its flavor and texture.

In contrast, one Easter Monday on our way back from Semana Santa festivities in Cuenca, Ruth and I stopped to visit two different Manchego cheesemakers who live close by, a few miles south of Toledo. The first was Artequeso, run by the Alvarez Valera family who tend their own small flock of sheep, and craft a wonderful cheese. We saw the cheesemaker, who personally blends fresh milk with wine and rosemary before forming it into cheeses. The owner invited us to drop by his mother’s shop to get some cheese for our return trip. It turned out that the wall of her shop was covered with trophies that he had earned as a national champion in track!

We drove a little further south to Porzuna, a small dusty sort of town you would typically find in La Mancha. We wanted to drop in to see Antonio at Villajos, who provides our very popular Villajos and Villegas cheeses. There was very little action this day since it was Easter Monday. Nevertheless Antonio and his wife graciously greeted us in their modest office. (There are few days off when you own a dairy.) Their teenage daughter was helping by entering data into the computer, and her younger brother was “hanging out” as sixteen-year-old boys are wont to do.  

The phone rang, as we were exchanging pleasantries about our families. It was a local sheep herder who called to say that he had more fresh milk from his ewes and would like to drop by a few gallons to the family dairy. That he did, and right away the cheese master began the artisan process of producing a small batch of finest quality cheese. The cheeses of the Villajos brothers that we offer to you could not be less industrial unless you churned the milk yourself! We can vouch for the quality of each wedge.

Probably the most glaring example of the need for quality control is in the area of olive oil. I recommend the absorbing book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller if you would like to know all the skullduggery related to the international olive oil market. The fundamental reality you will learn is that it is next to impossible for you, the consumer, to spot adulterated olive oil that has been diluted by cheaper oils. 

The source of the oil might not be what is indicated on the label. Each year, for example, tankers full of Spanish extra virgin olive oil are shipped to Italy to be bottled and labeled as Italian! The moral of the story is the only way you can be guaranteed the quality of your extra virgin olive oil is to purchase it from a trusted source who can vouch for it. That is why our family is constantly on the move amongst the olive groves.

We have known Fermín Rodríguez, an olive oil taster and producer for over 20 years. His family’s Señorío de Vizcántar extra virgin olive oil is La Tienda’s favorite, and among my personal favorites as well. The Rodriguez family owns acres and acres of different strains of olive trees, some of which are over one thousand years old. Let me know you are coming and I can arrange a visit for you.

Each year, during the first days of harvest when the fresh oil is most pungent, Fermin artfully prepares his unique blend (coupage) for La Tienda. This particular extra virgin olive oil, as many of you know, is frisky and fruity. It is the oil I keep handy in my kitchen. It is pressed from the olives picked on the first day of harvest and is alive with blended flavors.  

Their olive groves surround the beautiful “white town” of Priego de Córdoba, a village which retains a medieval Moorish feel.  It was once an important part of the silk trade. Whenever we are in the area we enjoy tapas with his family, which includes his wife Aixa who is from North Africa. She describes herself jokingly as a Jewish, Muslim Catholic Berber - embodying the cultural history of Spain in one person.   

The supermarkets have all sorts of olive oil nowadays, even from Wesson oil to Procter & Gamble. Some have Italian sounding names. But remember, you get what you pay for. Extra virgin olive oil is a labor-intensive product with many careful steps along the way. If it is too much of a bargain, corners must have been cut. That is why it is important that you trust the provider who sells the product to you. 

As a consumer, the question you need to ask yourself is for what purpose are you going to be using the oil. If you are going to fry pollo al ajillo (garlic chicken) in a supermarket olive oil, that is okay. As with jug wine, it is an inexpensive substitute, or so I thought about jug wine, when I was young and foolish! I did not expect too much. On the other hand, if you are going to serve a green salad, or use olive oil for dipping in crusty bread, you want the most flavorful and healthful option. Treat yourself to a quality Spanish extra virgin olive oil. You will recognize the difference immediately, it is a new world of flavor, and we can personally vouch for the quality.

I hope you will enjoy our virtual farmers market from Spain. We have a lifetime of experience and many fond bonds with our Spanish friends, who truly produce the best in Spain for our tables. We enjoy sharing it with you.

Tu amigo,