Ten Years of La Tienda

September 2006

For hundreds of years a few villagers of a tiny town in La Mancha have picked crocuses and roasted the stamens to produce saffron. And with the click of a mouse La Tienda can deliver the fruit of their labor to your kitchen. I find that quite amazing.

How is it that we, an American family, began ten years ago to bring the best of Spain to America via the internet? Our early knowledge of Internet technology was very American, of course. But our appreciation of Spain came from our intimate involvement with her people. 

My first contact with the Spanish culture was in early 1965 when, as a newly commissioned Navy chaplain, I made my first deployment aboard a destroyer. Among our first ports of call was the bustling maritime port of Valencia -- for centuries it has been a hub for Mediterranean commerce. 

I wandered cobble-stoned streets of the gothic quarter late one night, stopping in a small café named Casa Angel. The place was empty except for the waiter behind the bar. We struck up a conversation -- both of us with just a few words of the other's language. Soon he brought me gambas al ajillo - tasty garlic shrimp served sizzling in a small terra cotta cazuela. What a wonderful introduction to Spanish cuisine! 

A little while later a garrulous group of gypsies stopped by. It was not long before they filled the small bar with the characteristic syncopated clapping and mournful singing of their native flamenco. For some unfathomable reason I felt at home - as if my soul had always been in Spain.

I could hardly wait to introduce this wonderful land to my new wife. We began to scour the countryside together in a tiny SEAT 600 sedan. It was the late 1960's, and Spain was still heroically struggling to overcome the ravages of their civil war and isolation during World War II. The roads were rough, but the towns were timeless, and the people we met were exceptionally warm and gracious. 

Eight years later, the Navy issued our dream orders to the naval base at Rota - not far from the place where Columbus and his successors embarked for the New World. Ruth and I rented a traditional home with a patio for our young family among the sherry bodegas in the oldest section of El Puerto de Santa Maria, a nearby town. 

Our son Tim was 5 years old and Jonathan was only 2.The house was located along the main street, around the corner from a Moorish castle. The air was laden with the heady aroma of aging wine, and often we heard happy children clapping flamenco rhythms as they walked down the cobble-stoned street. Later we moved to a chalet in a more secluded area where our youngest son Christopher was born.

Our brief time living in Spain made a deep impression on all of our family. We included our young sons on our many treks into the countryside - they were absorbing Spain almost from birth. We enrolled our eldest son in a school where Spanish and English children played and learned together in both languages. In later years when Tim was in college, he returned to spend a summer with a Spanish family in Sevilla. 

When our second son Jonathan was still in college, he deepened his love for Spain by walking from France all the way across northern Spain along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. (Later he returned on his honeymoon!) Christopher, our native born Spaniard son, spent a summer in La Coruña as a student.

When I retired from the Navy, in 1988, we settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, where our eldest son Tim was a student at William & Mary. As many of you know, Williamsburg is very orderly and very English -- so we decided to enliven our home by installing classic Moorish tiles such as those that surrounded us when we lived in Andalucía. Our kitchen, baths and fireplace were transformed. A taste of Spain had come to Virginia!

1996 was the time when the Internet was emerging. (Amazon had just started selling books the year before.) As an experiment with the new media, we decided to post the pictures of the tiles on the Internet. We hoped we could help people avoid the difficulties we experienced finding them. Jonathan designed a website and posted examples of colorful tiles such as one would see at the Alhambra. It was not long before we began to hear from across the nation, especially from native born Spaniards - but there were others as well, who had discovered the beauty of Moorish art through their visits to the country. 

Coincidentally, our eldest son Tim was working in Smithfield VA as a company representative for their historic country ham. A group of ham producers from Madrid was visiting the company to discuss Serrano hams, and he was asked to be their translator. He came home that night inspired with the idea that there might be some interest in America for these Spanish country hams.

So we checked out his idea on the Internet. Jonathan posted a picture of a Jamón Serrano on our Tienda website, incongruously next to rows of colorful tiles, with the question, "If we could find a serrano ham from Spain for you, would you like it?" The response was immediate and enthusiastic. It seems all the nostalgic Spaniards who had been dreaming of tiles, were even more excited with the prospect of enjoying a traditional Spanish ham. 

The catch was that at the time the hams could not be imported since the US government had not yet approved them. But we were undaunted. We did our research, traveled to Spain to get to know people in the ham industry, and met some meat importers in America. It was an exciting quest that involved the whole family.

Each month I would write an update to our La Tienda friends with news about our progress in bringing Jamón Serrano to the States. The excitement generated by our customers was palpable: the wait was almost like a vigil. It reached its climax in late December 1998 when the first Jamón Serrano arrived, and La Tienda proudly delivered the first hams to every corner of the country. Because of the Internet, this was not going to be a product confined to elegant cafes, Jamón Serrano was for all America.

While the La Tienda patrons were waiting for this ham, they requested many favorite products from Spain: Nenuco and María cookies from their childhood, almond and honey turrón for the holidays, classic soaps such as Magno, Heno de Pravia, bonito tuna, anchovies, boquerones, Marcona almonds, Magdalenas, Manchego cheese and more. 

One item that was at the top of the list was Jamón Ibérico- the coveted "pata negra" Ibérico ham. Clearly, if we were to have the best of Spain in America, we needed to embark on yet another quest. So we returned to the byways of Spain to follow the trail which has led to La Tienda now offering the celebrated Ibérico pork products, and ultimately Jamón Ibérico

As La Tienda began to have many more enthusiastic patrons, Tim was free to join in our efforts full time. He brought his knowledge of hams and his skills learned during the early days of Internet commerce. Gradually our whole family began to mobilize. First Ruth learned about accounting. As we continued to grow, most of the family began working together. As an added bonus, Grandma enjoyed being with the youngest grandchildren some weekdays, so that their mothers could help out in the office. Six family members are now involved, along with a great staff in the office and in the warehouse.

Early in this evolution our son Christopher was involved as well. With some background in internet marketing, he designed our first customer survey. Since then he and his wife have both joined the Foreign Service, and their involvement has been more as enthusiastic members of the family than as hands-on workers. Chris and Rian share in our decisions, when the whole family has an opportunity to be together. 

As La Tienda has grown, so has the La Tienda community become more varied. Our first native speaking Spaniards were soon joined by Americans who had lived, traveled or were stationed in Spain. As tapas and paella has become popular, all of America is learning about Spanish food. Now half our customers are purely lovers of good healthy food - their connection to Spain is solely through her cuisine. 

I have a sense of wonder about this amazing era in which we live. It is as if through technology we are able to telescope time - bringing medieval products to 21st Century tables! Our family has enjoyed making friends with some of the people of the land -- the heart and soul of traditional Spain. From them we have learned about olive oil, and the traditional artisan Manchego cheese. We have seen farmers mill their smoked peppers to make pimentón and visited with wine makers in the North and the South. The long quest for Jamón Ibérico has enabled us to meet many more people who, although modern in their vision, embody the soul of traditional Spain. Because of the Internet we are able to share these traditional products with you.

These have been a gratifying ten years for me. Working side by side with my family each day at La Tienda is a blessing. We enjoy bringing the very best of Spain to your table. There are more roads to travel, more traditional products to discover. Thank you for continuing to be a part of our journey. 

All the best from my family to you and those whom you love,