Great Ciao

The Cheese Stands Alone (or Does it?): Cheese Accoutrements at Great Ciao

As soon as the temperature drops, we see a renewed interest in all things cheese.  Here are a few of our favorite cheese accompaniments for adorning your cheese plates.

Marcona Almonds are a perennial favorite cheese pairing, for when you just a touch of salty crunch to contrast with a cheese’s richness.  The Marcona Almonds we import from Olis are roasted (rather than fried,) salted, and immediately vacuum packed to preserve their flavor and snap.  Added benefit: no oily greasy mess.


Dolci Pensieri Fig Molasses is made by cooking down fresh Calabrian White Dottato figs in a huge copper kettle until they’ve decreased their volume by almost half.  The fruit is separated from the sticky fig syrup and used to make the fig leaf wrapped fig balls that appear at Great Ciao around the holidays.  Fig molasses has a full-bodied smoky sweetness, and tastes just as good atop fresh lactic cheeses as it does with grilled meatss.


Paola Calciolari at Le Tamerici has been making Mostarda (in spite of her pharmaceutical degree) since 1991, and hers are undoubtedly the best we’ve ever tasted.  Mostardas are the most classic (and popularized) cheese accompaniment from the Lombardy region of Italy – fitting considering that the region is also famous for its Taleggio, and Gorgonzola cheeses.  Paola candies thin slices of fruit, which are then preserved in mustard seed oil spiked syrup.  We currently stock her apricot, pear, and fig mostardas.


Turkey Hill Apiary is run by father and daughter team Brad and Corinna, who harvest wildflower honey near their Lakeville, Minnesota home.  Their honey is then aged in either bourbon or rye whiskey barrels to give it the Midas touch.  The boozy aroma of whiskey is right up front, but yields to softer notes of smoke, vanilla, apple and white grape.  These honeys are the perfect companion to salty blue cheeses like Stilton (but are equally tasty when drizzled atop vanilla ice cream.)


Mojave Raisins on the Vine have been one of the not-so-hidden gems of the Great Ciao Warehouse for a few years now.  Farmers in the arid Coachella Valley leave bunches of red flame raisins out to dry on the vine before shipping them to Great Ciao World Headquarters where we sell them by the case or by the pound.

Devodier 24 Month Prosciutto di Parma

Our new 24 “Moon” (720-Day) Prosciutto di Parmas from Devodier are a true knockout!  These prized hams are aged in a deep cellar built over the old bed of the Parma River, with red clay brick walls of an ancient kiln and fir wood frames to hang the hams as they age.  The special atmosphere is controlled by the prosciuttificios who open and close the cellar windows to control the air circulation as needed.  To bear the DOP seal, the hams must be aged a minimum of ten months.  The longer the ham is aged, the more velvety in texture the meat becomes, and the more intense the flavor.  Our new prosciuttos from Devodier make a lovely example of a well-made Parma ham, set apart in its age and craftsmanship from the commodity prosciuttos we have been accustomed to in the United States.  The texture is velvety and supple, to the point that it almost melts in your mouth. The flavor is sweet, porky, fruity and floral, with notes of pineapple and melon, the salt is appparent but not overpowering.

About Prosciutto di Parma: There’s something you can’t deny about the humble marriage of pork and salt.   Hailing from Parma, nestled in Italy’s culinary heartland of Emilia-Romagna, records of dry-cured hams date back to the Roman Empire.  In the mid-1800s when Parma’s ham spread in popularity throughout Italy, Parma’s villages were laid in a way that would increase air-circulation to aid in the ham-curing process.  Prosciutto di Parma is the outcome of the region’s ideal climate, and access to the rare commodity of salt from the saline rich wells of Salsomaggiore.

In the days before refrigeration, Prosciuttificios mastered of the art of aligning the curing process with the seasons.  Pigs fattened off of the summer’s fallen hazelnuts and acorns were slaughtered in late-autumn as the weather turned colder.  The fresh legs of pork were then packed in salt (too much and the ham would be dry and too salty – too little and the ham would spoil), and aged until spring in the cool winter air.  By springtime, the salt had worked its way to the center of the ham and killed off any harmful bacteria.  As the weather warmed up in the spring, so did the hams, beginning the fermentation process responsible for Prosciutto di Parma’s depth of flavor.

Today Prosciutto di Parma is a major industry, with one in every three legs of Italian pork turned into one of Parma’s legendary hams.  In 1963 the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma was founded to protect its’ producers from imitators with less scrupulous standards.  Prosciutto di Parma was one of the first foods to be granted DOP status by the European Union.  Even still, there is a huge variation in quality from one producer’s Prosciutto di Parma to the next.

To Brie or Not to Brie

Often imitated, but never duplicated, Brie is easily the most recognizable French cheese on this side of the pond. In France, Brie is very different from the cheese exported to the United States. AOC Brie de Meaux is named after the city of Meaux, only about 25 miles north of Paris. Brie de Meaux is an artisanally made product; start to finish. The cheese is made from raw milk (this version is still illegal in the United States) with curds being delicately hand ladled in to their molds, and then flipped daily to promote even rind development during the 6 week affinage process. Wheels average around 3kg (6.6lbs) and are 15 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches tall. The rind should be soft and downy, with a straw-yellow paste. Our artisanal version from Chantal Plasse is gently pasteurized, with a subtle mushroomy aroma and a long buttery finish. After arriving at Great Ciao by air-freight, we consider them to be perfectly ripe after an additional two weeks of aging, meaning that you can still see about a half inch of chalky “cream-line” through the center of the paste.

By comparison, the majority of “Brie” consumed in the US is a cheap, industrial product; produced domestically, or brought over in the refrigerated cargo hold of a ship. The curd is chemically stabilized, to prevent the cheese from ripening during the extended transit times. This means, that the cheese will be just as ripe from the moment it’s packed, to the moment it’s consumed a few months later. Some producers have gone a step further with a process called “ultrafiltration,” which removes all of the water from the milk, resulting in a creamier texture. To expedite the lengthy process of affinage, the rinds are sprayed on, rather than being allowed to develop naturally. Whereas Brie de Meaux takes six to eight weeks to mature, these industrial versions only take two weeks. By adulterating the natural aging process, the resulting product is bland and rubbery. Often to make up for the lack of flavor, producers will increase the level of salt, or add other flavors to the mix. Garlic-dill brie anyone?

To ensure quality, our Brie de Meaux is a pre-order item. Have questions about our air-freight cheese program? Give us a call at 612.521.8725.

Come Geechie Some Geechie Boy Grits

Last week we recieved a shipment of white hominy grits, bramata (course) yellow polenta, and cornmeal from Geechie Boy Mill in Edisto Island, South Carolina.  Greg and Betsy Johnsman salvaged a rare seventy year old electric mill they found in a barn.  The original intent was for the mill to provide entertainment for the customers and children visiting the family farm store.  After experimenting with heirloom corn varietals and perfecting his craft, Greg’s grits were in such high demand that the vegetable farm took a backseat.  Today Geechie Boy Grits can be found in some of the best restaurants around the United States.  We are excited to introduce them to the Upper Midwest!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, we think the video below will tell you all you need to know about Greg and Betsy’s operation.   Have questions about quantities and pricing?  Give us a call, we love talking about food!


The Hunt is Over: Tahitian Vanilla Beans at Great Ciao

It took several years of searching, but we’ve finally been able to bring incredibly rare whole Tahitian vanilla beans into Great Ciao World Headquarters…

If you are familiar with vanilla from the Bourbon varietal (which makes up the majority of the world’s vanilla bean supply,) the Tahitian bean will look almost alien.  Tahitian beans are over twice as large as their Bourbon counterparts.  Tahitian beans are plump with moist pulpy interior that is deep amber in color.  In yield testing, the Tahitian varietal contained 11% more seeds and pulp than our Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans.  However, Tahitian vanilla beans are hardly a frugal alternative to the more commonplace Madagascar Bourbon.  The difference in price is due largely to the rarity of the Tahitian Beans.  Tahiti is a small island, with an even smaller vanilla production, and a more industrialized economy that demands a higher labor cost.

In fact, it is best to view them as different ingredients with different uses.  Madagascar Bourbon has the classic “vanilla” aroma: woodsy, lightly floral, and sweet.  Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is best used in dishes where the vanilla is meant to compliment other flavors.  It is exactly the vanilla that you want in order to bring out the best in a chocolate chip cookie.  While Tahitian vanilla contains less of the vanillin chemical compound, the flavor is more delicate and nuanced, with with tropical floral overtones and hints of cherry, licorice, and cinnamon.  Tahitian vanilla is best used in a dish where its delicate flavors will be the highlight of the dish; such as ice cream or panna cotta.


Unio Moscatel and Vermouth Vinegar

Two new vinegars have us sipping and seasoning at the Great Ciao Warehouse.  Both are from Unio, a vinegar producer in Tarragona, a port city in the Spanish region of Catalonia.

Unio is notable for being one of the last producers to use the 150 year old Schutzenback method of cold, drip-fermentation.  Wine is poured into the top of the barrel, which slowly trickles down through a porous central layer.  As the acetified vinegar drips down into the lower chamber of the barrel, fresh wine is added to top off the barrel.  The vinegar is removed using a spout at the bottom of the barrel.

The acetification process takes several days, however Unio ages their vinegar for an additional 3-6 months in French Oak barrels. This slow process results in a vinegar that captures and retains many of the aromas and flavors of the original varietal grapes.

Katie’s Favorite: Unio Moscatel Vinegar

  • Country of Origin: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia
  • Acidity: ~5-6%
  • Grapes: Moscatel
  • Flavor profile:  floral, juicy, sweet
  • Quantity: 500ml.

Made from Spanish Moscatel grapes, this vinegar has a crisp acidic backbone balanced by candied lemon sweetness, all at once aromatic and complex with rich overtones of stone-fruit nectar, blossoms and honey. Perfect for a summer vinaigrette, but sweet enough to enjoy with soda water for a refreshing vinegar spritzer. (500ml. bottle, call for pricing.)

David’s Favorite: Unio Vermouth Vinegar

  • Country of Origin: Spain
  • Region: Catalonia
  • Acidity: ~5-6%
  • Grapes: Macabeo and Parellada, Xarel-lo grapes, along with herbs and spices.
  • Flavor profile: Dry and wine-y with notes of thyme and green apple.
  • Quantity: 500ml.

Made from Catalan Vermouth, this unique vinegar is rich and wine-forward with flavors of thyme and crisp green apple.  Ideal for seasoning a pot of steamed mussels, or for deglazing a pan of sauteed mushrooms.  (500ml. bottle, call for pricing.)


New at Great Ciao! Pasta from Gragnano Italy

Last week a new pasta arrived in Minneapolis, by way of Gragnano Italy, a small town in the province of Naples. Alfonzo and Pasquale Cesarano are the fourth generation of pasta makers at Le Antiche Tradizioni di Gragnano.  Their pasta is made using non-GMO durum wheat (semolina) grown in the hilly areas surrounding their town (most pasta is made with imported flour.)  The dough is extruded through bronze dies to create the rough surface that allows for the sauce to cling to the noodles.  Gragnano’s “main street was laid out expressly to capture the mountain breeze mixed with sea air back when pasta makers hung spaghetti on drying rods like laundry,” according tо а Forbes Life write up.  Although that aspect of the production has moved indoors, the art of slowly drying the pasta has remained.  The longer drying time functions to preserve the nutrients in the wheat, to create a better texture and nuttier flavor – not to mention pasta that doesn’t fall apart while boiling.

But most importantly, these are some darn good noodles. Straight out of the pot the noodles were rich and and creamy in flavor with a meaty toothyness.  The town of Gragnano is known for its paccheri, and their version lives up to its expectation.  Theorecchiette are the prettiest we’ve ever seen.  We are adding restaurant and retail sizes of pasta from Le Antiche Tradizioni di Gragnano, to our list of great traditionally made pastas, so that we can offer a variety of shapes and sizes from the producers who make them best.

New at Great Ciao! French Juices from Alain Milliat

After a particularly nasty winter, summer has finally arrived in Minnesota.  Our residents have come out of hibernation, and onto the patios of every restaurant in the metro area.  Just as the ice was thawing (a few weeks ago) we brought in some really great juices that Scott had discovered on one of his last trips to France.

Alain Milliat grew up in the French gastronomic capital of Lyon, as the son of a fruit farmer. Today he takes heirloom fruit varieties at their peak of ripeness and preserves them in juice.  His juices have been lauded by some of the world’s highest ranked sommeliers – and we think they are pretty darn tasty too!  What we especially like about his juices is that they capture the flavor and the texture of the fruit, the raspberry nectar is jammy and pulpy, the pear juice is aromatic and creamy with the crisp tannic finish you would expect from biting into the fresh fruit.  The passion fruit nectar is a convenient alternative for home-mixologists unable to use up a foodservice sized container of fruit puree.  Whether you are looking to quench your thirst, or make a killer cocktail, these juices are worth a taste.

Flavors in house (sold in 330ml bottles, 12/CS): Cox Apple, Apricot Nectar, Mango Nectar, Morello Cherry Juice, Passion Fruit Nectar, Summer Pear Nectar, Raspberry Nectar, Wild Strawberry Nectar, White Peach Nectar, Tomato Juice.

Milliat Raspberry Clover Club
Don’t let this pink frothy drink fool you – the venerable Clover Club cocktail dates back to 1910, when industry captains would kick back at the eponymous Philadelphia men’s club to celebrate a job well done.  Milliat’s raspberry nectar is a fresh lively alternative to the original recipe’s call for grenadine, but any of his fruit nectars would make for an interesting variation.

2 oz. London dry gin
1 oz. Raspberry nectar
1/2 oz. lemon juice
one small egg white

Shake well with cracked ice until the egg white has created a frothy foam, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

New! Great Ciao Signature Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Region: Modena
  • Acidity: ~5-6%
  • Grapes: 50% Lambrusco Grasparosa, 50% Trebbiano
  • Flavor profile:  Bright and berry-like from aging in Cherry and Juniper barrels
  • Quantity: 500ml.

After three years of product testing, and countless sample vials of balsamic shipped from Modena to Minneapolis, we’ve finally received our first shipment of Great Ciao’s new signature Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, made exclusively for us by Acetorium Compagnia Del Montale.  Our IGP designated Aceto Balsamico di Modena is made by pulling balsamic vinegar from several types of wooden barrels, with the predominant flavors coming from the cherry and juniper wood.  We were looking to create a traditionally made balsamic vinegar, sans the “tradizionale” price.  The resulting product is viscous and creamy, with bright cherry flavors and a rich undertone of aromatic juniper.  What you won’t taste, are the overly burnt, bitter flavors that we associate with cheap “balsamic reductions.”

While its impossible to pin down an exact age on balsamic vinegar (some barrels can be aged for generations!) Our balsamic is made to the specifications of a ten year old vinegar.

Pictured above: The aging facility at Acetorium Compagnia Del Montale

New at Great Ciao: Sustainably grown Vanilla Beans from LAFAZA

Lafaza’s co-founders, Nathaniel and Sarah, hadn’t given too much thought to vanilla until the Peace Corps brought them to the forested northeastern Mananara-Nord region of Madagascar.  Madagascar produces 70-75% of the world’s vanilla crop, but in this remote region, the vanilla growers were so cut off from trade that they had no control over their market destiny.  Collectors working with larger exporters would walk into the villages and dictate the low price they were willing to pay for the crop.  In the two years before Sarah and Nathaniel had arrived, the vanilla market had spiked and then crashed, causing much hardship in the area.  The people suffered, unable to fulfill their basic needs; things we take for granted such as access to clean-running water.  For their Peace Corps mission Nathaniel and Sarah were challenged to help the vanilla growers in their region reach international markets.

Vanilla is an orchid vine that grows in densely forested environments.  A native tutor tree is planted next to the vine and cultivated to have many small branches that the vanilla vine can loop up and around before returning back down to the earth to re-root after each new growth cycle. Mature vanilla vines have ten or twenty loops that are each rooted into the ground.   There are no natural pollinators for vanilla in Madagascar.  Each flower has to be hand-pollinated by a farmer and each flower produces only one bean.  Even the process of hand-pollinating the flowers is an art.  The wrong amount of pressure applied during pollination can lead to a malformed bean.  The vanilla farms are so close to one another that during the flowering season you can hear the growers bragging to one another about how many flowers they have.  The vanilla crop will have to sustain their family for the next year; a bad yield could be disastrous.

The curing process that follows is as important as the cultivation.  A great vanilla bean can be ruined by poor curing.  The beans are laid on a cloth in the sun for two to three hours a day, and then the cloth is rolled up so that the warm beans can sweat overnight.  This process is repeated daily for two to three months.  Teams of women sort through the beans every day, pulling the ones that are fully cured, and sorting by quality.  The beans are then brought inside to dry down on wooden racks until they are perfectly cured.  The A-1 grade of vanilla beans will be sold to customers looking for soft fragrant whole beans for pastry and confectionery applications.  Smaller dryer beans will be sold as manufacturing or extract grade.

Some less scrupulous producers will vacuum pack half-cured vanilla beans to sell for cheap to international markets.  When vanilla beans are packed “wet,” they can become moldy, and the vanillin content of the beans will suffer.  The vanillin compound is the flavor and aroma we associate with vanilla, but good vanilla beans contain 250 active compounds, each contributing to the sublime, nuanced flavor.  Many of these flavor compounds are only brought to fruition during the curing process.

When Sarah and Nathaniel were in Madagascar they lived in a small house just off of the Indian Ocean.  During the vanilla season they would wake up to the smell of vanilla mixing with the salty breeze coming off the ocean.  Nearly everyone has at least a few vanilla vines growing in their front yard, and so vanilla beans were being cured literally right outside their window.   Interestingly enough, vanilla is barely used by locals.  As one farmer told Nathaniel, “Americans love their vanilla, and I love selling it to them.”  The vanilla farmers had assured Nathaniel and Sarah that they had a great product.  But having no background in the vanilla business, they had no idea how good the product was until they sent some samples back to the United States.  Through a contact of Lafaza Co-Founder (and Nathaniel’s brother) James, they were able to get their beans into a blind tasting with a major American chocolate producer.  Their beans were picked as the top choice.  Sarah and Nathaniel exported a hundred kilo (220lbs) pallet of vanilla beans a few months later, which were imported by James in Oakland, CA, and the Lafaza team has been doing it ever since.

When Nathaniel, Sarah, and James looked around at the standing business model for vanilla, they saw that it was not being done in a way that was putting farmers in a central, beneficial or inclusive position.  They thought it would be worthwhile to start a business that fairly rewarded all points of the supply chain.   Their approach to working with the vanilla growers is that they are not only trading with the farmers, but also providing support for sound agroforestry practices and crop diversification.  Their farmers get higher prices for their vanilla, and Nathaniel and Sarah give back to the villages by building libraries, and community centers.

At Great Ciao we are selling Lafaza’s grade A-1 whole beans, as well as their pure ground vanilla bean powder (both pictured above.)  The beans are pliable and aromatic, and are without a doubt some of the finest we’ve worked with.  The pure ground powder is made by taking the driest beans possible and grinding them up.  Much of the vanilla bean’ flavor is in the pod itself, and by using the ground beans you can unlock all of the potential in the beans.  Have questions about the product or pricing?  Give us a call at612.521.8725 - we love talking about food!