Supporting Traditional Spain

Don Harris | August 2012

Artisans and farmers in Spain are so thankful when you honor their labor by choosing to enjoy their products. This is especially so during the terrible economic meltdown in Spain you have read about called La Crisis. For many of our family producers the situation is a matter of survival. Friends ask us how they can help their Spanish neighbors. There is an easy and direct way: plan to serve more food from Spain.

We find the people from the countryside of Spain truly remarkable – especially their graciousness and personal involvement, even with strangers. One of the most satisfying parts of my life is the opportunity to meet families from all across Spain, and to enjoy the simple integrity of their way of life. In many cases, our partnership with them makes a difference in the lives of their economically fragile families.

I think of María Angeles Flores. A few years ago, Spain was flooded with cheap contraband saffron from Iran, the sale of which devastated artisan producers in Castilla-La Mancha. Because the farmers could not compete in price, they ceased planting the crocus bulbs altogether in the fields next to their villages. A tradition was in danger of dying.

We saw an opportunity to support this traditional cottage industry. Through friends, we learned about María and her family business. We met her in the small farming village of Minaya where, on the plains of La Mancha, the best saffron in Spain is produced. 

María Angeles invited Ruth and me and Jamie Jones, our buyer in Spain, into her home to sit down with her family at their worktable in a room next to their kitchen. We explained to María Angeles that we needed to form a partnership with a person whose reputation was above reproach, so that we could personally vouch for their saffron as being the very best. 

We told her that we were looking to concentrate our buying with one supplier, hoping that our focused purchase could provide meaningful support. Aware of her family’s reputation for skill and honesty, my only hesitation was whether they could produce enough saffron to meet our customers’ needs. María Angeles replied that she would be honored to provide her saffron to La Tienda. More than that, she added, if we gave her fair warning she could convince her neighbors in the village to start planting crocuses once more in order to meet further demand in the years ahead. And that is what happened.

Her husband Juan Antonio was quite heartened when he heard the proposal. He explained that he had been harvesting saffron crocus bulbs since he was a child. He reflected that he “grew up behind the plow,” and was saddened by the decline of this traditional crop. He proudly introduced us to their daughter, a young lady who is maintaining the tradition for another generation by learning the art of hand-toasting crocus stamens over a silk screen. 

María Angeles and her family are now on firmer footing financially, doing what they love to do. More than that, thanks to the support of the La Tienda community, the village of Minaya is experiencing a rebirth as once again neighbors are working together in the crocus fields and the sorting tables, continuing an age-old tradition. 

Another example of how La Tienda can sustain a family business is our Senorío de Vizcántar olive oil. When we are in Andalucía, we often pay a visit to the Rodríguez family: Fermín and Aixa and their frisky little daughter, Sofia. In Priego de Córdoba, they produce an extra virgin olive oil that is a favorite of ours. 

Fermín artfully blends oil from picudo, picual and hojiblanca olives, adjusting the balance of flavors with each successive harvest. We order a great deal of Fermín’s oil for the La Tienda community, and he faithfully responds by providing the very best of the harvest.

Fermín grew up among the olive groves, and each time we visit he takes us out to his family’s groves, which nestle around the dramatic hilltop town of Priego de Córdoba. He invariably points out the thousand-year-old gnarled tree within whose trunk he used to hide as a little boy. It brings back to him many fond memories. 

One more brief story: Not far from Priego de Córdoba is the ancient town of Antequera, where Ruth and I enjoyed meeting a handful of warm and friendly workers in a bakery – we even ended up in a group picture! The bakers’ job was to form molletes out of soft dough. This breakfast bread has been traditional fare in this town for at least fifteen hundred years. With our arrival, the town celebrated that their famous bread was now to be available in the United States, and their economy would grow.

La Tienda is filled with family businesses like these. Their stories and our involvement with the people are at the core of our business. We know the people, we know how they make their products and we gladly lend them our support.

I find it satisfying to be in the presence of healthy Spanish families who take pride in the traditional products they make. It is a joy to be with them, but they are not immune to the effects of the struggling Spanish economy. We are hopeful that they will persevere.