Distinction Magazine - August 10, 2013
Tastes of Tradition
Pull off Jamestown Road in Williamsburg and you’re transported to a tiny piece of Spain in the heart of everything Colonial, a place where you can sample the best of what the country has to offer, get to know the store’s friendly staff and, if you’re lucky, meet the family behind the inviting shop and the international business behind it. You’ll be greeted by a historic, vine-covered building flanked by aged wine barrels. Spanish and American flags flap side by side in the wind.
The location was once a museum and then a shop for famed potter J. Palin Thorley – whose ghost is rumored by La Tienda’s staff to still wander the building’s creaking wood floors at night, occasionally disturbing the racks of terra cotta cazuela dishes stacked in the kitchen – before the place became an eatery, the Whitehall Restaurant.
La Tienda’s retail store debuted there in November 2009, giving a home to the Spanish foods, wines and kitchenware the Harris family had sold online for 13 years.
Step inside and find sunlit rooms of Spanish delicacies displayed on simple wood shelves and antique counters. Flamenco music piped through speakers or played live by a guitarist provides the backdrop. There are jars of marinated olives and roasted Marcona almonds and racks of cheese, jamón (cured ham) and chorizo sausage. Stacks of books offer the secrets to crafting homemade paella, a traditional Spanish dish made with rice, saffron and seafood or sausage. And in the back room, a map of Spain helps wine enthusiasts pinpoint the origins of the store’s varied vintages.
But the cozy store is more than a grocery; it’s a hub for friends and family to gather for wine and food tastings, cooking lessons and, on Fridays and Saturdays, a meal of paella or tapas.
La Tienda, Williamsburg VA, Distinction Magazine, Distinctionhr, Spanish Food, Tapas, Sandwiches
On a warm spring day, La Tienda’s patriarch and co-founder, Don Harris, sits down for the store’s newest venture, Saturday tapas, on the shop’s sun-filled patio. He is just home from a Spanish voyage to taste what was rumored to be the country’s best bread, a pan de Cea from Galicia, a coastal region on the country’s northwest tip.
He isn’t impressed.
“I don’t think it’s the best bread in the world,” he says, munching on thin slices of jamón and tomato layered with olive oil on slices of crusty ciabatta.
He waxes poetic about his first trip to Spain, his love for the Spanish culture and the origin of the family business.
Nearly 50 years before, a younger Harris left the small and stagnant hallways of the Navy destroyer that over several long weeks had carried him and his fellow sailors across the Atlantic, and stepped onto the Spanish shore. It was March 1965, and a salty, warm breeze greeted the 29-year-old chaplain. He spent the next few days wandering the streets of Valencia, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Rota, taking in the architecture of the Spanish villas and, for the first time, savoring the fresh tapas – small plates of food – offered by the local bars and cafés.
Harris wrote back to his bride, Ruth, whom he had left alone in Norfolk besieged by boxes after the Navy unexpectedly called the couple from D.C. and deployed him to the Mediterranean. He told her of his adventures, carefully choosing his words to soften the sting of their honeymoon cut short. They had been married just a few months. He told her that, somehow, Spain felt like home. And so began a lifelong affair with a country the Harrises grew to love for its beauty, its warmth and its focus on family.
"Spain is food and family,” he says. “And the key to it all, I believe, is the way they treat their children; they’re cherished from the moment they’re born.”
The newlyweds returned together after the deployment and eventually moved to Rota – a small town in Cadiz near the country’s southern tip – for a naval tour after the birth of their first two sons, Tim and Jonathan. Their third, Christopher, would have a Spanish birth certificate, declaring him an Hijo de la Raza, a son of the race.
The family would move more than two dozen times before settling in Williamsburg, the home of the alma mater of all four Harris boys, the College of William & Mary.
The end of Harris’ naval career after 27 years left him wondering what to do next. The answer presented itself in the colorful Moorish tiles the family had brought with them from Spain. He and Jonathan opened a store and website to sell the tiles, but soon learned there was a bigger appetite for Spanish foods.
They switched gears, and in 1996 the La Tienda website was born.
Launched about a year after Amazon, the site was fueled by the rising power of the Internet – which allowed the Harrises to reach customers all over the country at relatively little cost – and by an especially acute hunger for one product: jamón.
So big was the appetite for the artisanal ham that Americans were willing to pay $200 each for a spot on La Tienda’s waiting list to reserve one of the prized pigs, a jamón Serrano, which today sells for about $300, says Jonathan Harris, now the company’s president and creative director.
At that time, the U.S. prohibited retailers from importing jamón because of concerns over swine fever and Spanish production regulations, he says. But the Harrises felt the political tides changing, and so started “the drama of waiting for the ham.”
It lasted about two years, with the first Serrano hams coming into the country around 1998, Jonathan Harris says. Soon the Harrises’ Williamsburg basement, which served as La Tienda’s headquarters and warehouse, was strung with hams, which the father-son duo shipped whole to customers or took to a slicer in Surry to divide into smaller packages. Today, jamón is still one of La Tienda’s biggest sellers.
The Kobe beef of ham is the Cinco Jotas (five J’s) jamón Ibérico de Bellota, made from the Ibérico breed of noble Spanish black pigs. The spoiled swine live free-range in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, breeding and feeding only on bellotas, acorns, until they are “sacrificed,” salted, washed and hung to cure for up to three years.
The result is a marbled jamón that sells for nearly $1,300. It’s a ham that’s too good to risk in a machine, and Cinco Jotas trains its slicers to hand-carve the jamón into paper-thin cuts that melt on the tongue and leave a smooth, nutty aftertaste.
Americans understand the water-infused, sugar-glazed variety of ham served on Easter, but persuading them to spend $25 for a 3-ounce package of months- or years-old meat can be a challenge, says Tim Harris, who joined his father and brother in 2002 and is now La Tienda’s chief executive officer.
It’s a challenge to which La Tienda and its partner, Cinco Jotas, are rising by showing their customers exactly what goes into every package. On this visit, two slicers from Cinco Jotas delicately shave samples from a paleta, a shoulder, held in a bracket in the center of La Tienda.
“Would you like to try some ham?” offers Frances Bell-Cabrera, a sales and marketing coordinator based in New York.
“Do I just grab it?” asks Sandy Babski, a La Tienda regular.
“Yes, that’s the Spanish way.”
Babski takes a slice between two fingers and gingerly places it on her tongue.
“What do you think?” asks Bell-Cabrera in her New York Spanish accent.
“I like it,” Babski says. “It’s almost like prosciutto, but better, much better.”
In the back, the Harris trio – Don, Jonathan and Tim – entertain representatives from the company with wine and tapas. To an onlooker, it looks more like a family gathering than a corporate event as they talk in Spanish and English about shopping, exercise and, of course, food.
“They said they don’t understand why Americans get up early to exercise,” explains Jonathan Harris, leaning over an emptied bottle of Spanish red wine. “They think that’s weird.”
The reps say they are on a mission to buy Levi’s jeans and Timberland shoes, which sell at high mark-ups overseas, before they return home.
“Oh, you have to go to the outlets,” Tim Harris chimes in. “They have everything.”
The transaction is indicative of the relationships the Harris family forges with their vendors and staff.
They travel to Spain each year to visit producers and search for new ones. They’re always on the hunt for the best quality, they say, with a preference for fair-trade practices and humane treatment of animals.
Every product has a story – that crusty bread baked in Galicia, a buttery Manchego discovered by Jonathan on a trip to Trujillo, an aromatic saffron hand-picked by villagers in La Mancha.
Today La Tienda has grown to two warehouses – one just up the interstate in Toano and one in Spain – and nearly 50 employees. But it does more than sell Spanish delicacies; it’s an ambassador of Spain to America. On its Learning @ La Tienda site, the company offers free study guides, photos and flash cards on Spanish cuisine. La Tienda also hosts classes and events to stoke Virginians’ interest in everything Spanish. In 2012, with the help of actress Penélope Cruz and culinary expert Annie Sibonney, the company’s Campaign for Spain raised $50,000 for Spanish food banks.
Its efforts have landed La Tienda on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post and drawn awards from unexpected sources, such as the Commission on Adult Basic Education. Last year, the Spanish ambassador to the United States presented Don Harris with the country’s Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, an honor afforded by the king of Spain.
The La Tienda experience brings regular customers back week after week and draws longtime patrons of the La Tienda website on pilgrimages from across the country.
On this sunny spring day, as Don Harris sits on his store’s patio 4,000 miles from the European shore, a bearded customer on a crutch pops his head out the back door. His eyes alight on the spectacled, white-haired Harris.
“I don’t want to interrupt your lunch,” he says, approaching slowly. “My name is Karl Bock and I’ve been ordering from you for years. I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Well, thank you,” Harris replies, wiping
his hands on a napkin and extending one to Bock, who says he is a chef from Charlottesville who lived in Spain in the ’70s when his father was stationed there for the Navy. He’s traveled to Williamsburg for the weekend and La Tienda was a must-see, he says.
In the back kitchen, self-trained chef Cynthia Hermann prepares more tapas for a mix of loyal customers and La Tienda first-timers. She is backed by retail store manager Charlene Camroux.
Hermann pulls a baking sheet of crispy papas – potatoes drizzled with olive oil, salt, pepper and, the most important ingredient, smoked paprika – from the oven. Camroux plucks one from the tray and dabs it in a small pool of salsa brava and garlic aioli, popping the wedge into her mouth.
“Oh, this is so good,” she coos.
“I think I’m just looking for a carrier for the aioli,” Hermann replies, her hands on her waist. “That’s all I’m working from.”
Saturday tapas is the newest offering at La Tienda, beginning in the spring after months of trial and error by Hermann. Diners expecting a pages-long menu like those offered at more modern tapas restaurants may be disappointed. There are only a handful of offerings on La Tienda’s menu. The goal is quality, not quantity, Hermann says.
And quality is the result, with Hermann quickly sending out plates piled with gooey Manchego cheese fried in olive oil, golden shrimp sautéed in garlic and crispy sandwiches filled with roasted seasonal vegetables.
The small plates are reminiscent of those served by Spanish bars, which each offer a specialty alongside small cañas of beer, Jonathan Harris says.
“Authenticity is the most important,” Hermann says, putting the final touches on a cold tapas
platter of olives, jamón and cheese. “We wanted to bring an authentic piece of Spain here for people to try.”
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