Supporting Local Artisans in Spain

February 2009

Dear Friends of La Tienda,

As you read this, my wife Ruth and I are getting ready for a trip to Andalucía in Southern Spain where we will visit friends whom we have made over the past years - many of them are families whose products we bring to your table. And they certainly are friends, not merely vendors. Whatever business we do with them is confirmed with nothing more than a handshake, often while enjoying a delightful meal. 

Our family takes pleasure in introducing fine Spanish food to people all across North America, but we get our most satisfaction in supporting artisan producers who faithfully retain the tradition of excellence and pride in what they are making. 

We enjoy visiting them at their place of work. In this era of faceless efficiency, they continue to make things in an artisan way. Artisan is a word that is often bandied about in advertising copy, but what I am referring to is the real thing: food made by individuals and often by hand. Through your purchases at La Tienda, we are able to help preserve the traditional production of fine foods. 

We are looking forward to enjoying a glass of sherry and a plate of langostinos with Miguel and María Valdespino, and plan to drop by the Pedro Romero bodega where our manzanilla vinegar is prepared. Later, in Córdoba, we will visit with Mari Carmen and her son Sergio who prepare our specialty olives

I particularly want to sit down with Lola. She and her friends work together to produce income in their tiny village, which was devastated when the only factory closed, and put their men out of work. They make homemade gazpacho, and two Córdoba classics: olive oil and almond soup, and salmorejo. You will see their creations on La Tienda later this spring. 

We encourage many others as they preserve their traditional ways. Our friend Esther toasts and glazes her tempting almonds just as her grandmother taught her as a young girl. Carlos continues to make extraordinary Mallorquina cookies in the bakery his grandfather founded in 1929. He uses lots of fresh heavy cream – each one hand dipped in molten chocolate before packaging them to be on their way to your table. 

José lives on the banks of the Rías de Arousa y Muros in Galicia, where men harvest cockles each day, just outside his home. Each day he and his son and daughter “cherry pick” the very finest sweet tasty berberechos harvested. After meticulously preparing them, members of José’s family place each tiny cockle in a tin to form a tiny spiral. When you open the tin in your home, you will see a work of art, not a commercial product. They have been doing this for generations.

Perhaps the most satisfying story of all, concerns the family of María Angeles and Juan Antonio and their daughter Paloma whom Ruth and I met in their farming village in La Mancha. Their family produces what a leading gourmet critic in Spain proclaims as “the most exquisite saffron in the world.” 

Once a year in the fall, they go out at dawn with their neighbors to harvest crocus flowers, sort them and toast the stamens by holding a silk mesh screen over a fire. Theirs is a family tradition of many generations.

However, times began to change. A few years ago, sub-standard saffron was smuggled into Spain from Iran, and devastated the market for the precious saffron from La Mancha. The illegal saffron may be inferior in terms of the depth of color and pungency of flavor, but it is cheap and most of us in the supermarket would not know the difference until we started using it while preparing a meal, such as paella.

Many in the town of Minaya lost hope. Family after family ceased growing their crocuses. Out of necessity, some had to plow up their small fields for a more profitable crop, and their children moved to the city. The tradition was dying. It is a familiar story in the world of artisan food production.

Our family thought about what we could do to help – not only to guarantee the finest quality of saffron for your kitchen in America, but also to preserve a tradition that stretched back to Moorish times. Our decision was to consolidate all of our orders for premium saffron from La Mancha and place them with María and José. 

Not only were they delighted that they could continue to make a livelihood the traditional way, but also the order was large enough that they convinced some of their neighbors to return to their roots and begin to grow crocuses again. In a small and unsung way, La Tienda made a difference.

The world is a better place when we care for one another, and honor each other’s labor. I think that many of you experience that satisfaction when you patronize your local farmer’s market. Not only is the product better, but also you know the person who grew it. We are extending this same philosophy, as best we can, to support our neighbors in Spain who with their hands keep the tradition alive.

Tu amigo,