Great Ciao

This Just In: Barrel Aged Feta and Wild Oregano from Greece

For all of the European products we’ve sourced over the years, we sure haven’t brought in much from Greece. Scott recently went on a trip to Greece with his buddy George (Yioryo) and brought back some new products that knocked our socks off.

Wild Greek Oregano

The name “oregano” means “joy of the mountain” and has its origins in the ancient Greek “oros” (mountain) and “ganos” (joy). Fragrant wild oregano grows rampant on the lush mountain pastures of Greece, where it is hand-foraged and used in just about everything from tomato-sauces to restorative teas used for curing indigestion. True Greek oregano (Oreganus Vulgare - sometimes called wild marjoram) is a relative to mint. The super fragrant, licoricey aroma hits you as soon as you open the canister, the flavor is peppery and citrusy with earthy undertones.

PDO Barrel Aged Feta

Most people know feta as the ubiquitous cheese crumbles that add a quick bite of sharp, acidity (not to mention salt) to salads. The origins of Feta date back to 800 BC, when sheep and goat milk were staples of the Greek diet. Today, the process of making the brined fresh-curd cheese is remarkably similar to the methods described in ancient Greece.

The majority of feta consumed in the United States is made with cows milk, and is dry-packed or crumbled. Our new Feta from Yioryo is made using a traditional blend of 70% sheep milk, 30% goat milk, and is aged in traditional oak barrels to round out the flavor. The brine is just as important as the cheese, and so our 2 Kg (4.4lb) trays are packed with the brine to preserve flavor and freshness. Feta quickly oxidizes and turns sour after being pulled from the brine, so it is best to pull what you are going to use, and keep the remainder stored in brine until it can be used up. We like that first thing you can taste is richness of the sheep milk, and a slight goat-y tang – it tastes like more than just salt.

To Brie, or not to Brie, that is the Queso: Traditionally made Brie from Ferme de la Tremblaye

Often imitated, but never duplicated, brie is easily the most recognizable French cheese on this side of the pond.  The majority of “brie” consumed in the US is a cheap, heavily processed industrial product. The curd is stabilized, to prevent the cheese from ripening during extended transit times. The resulting cheese will be just as ripe from the moment it is packed, to when it is consumed some months later.

To expedite the lengthy process of ripening, the bloomy rinds are sprayed on, rather than being allowed to develop naturally.  Traditional Brie de Meaux takes six to eight weeks to mature, whereas the industrial versions are ready to ship in less than two weeks. By adulterating the natural aging process, the resulting product is bland and rubbery. 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?  Eesh, no thank you.

In a world of mediocre brie, we’ve got the good stuff. Ferme de la Tremblaye is a sustainable farmstead dairy and cheese producer about twenty-five miles southwest  of Paris.  While the word “fermier” typically designates that a French cheese is farmstead and therefore made with unpasteurized milk, these wheels are pasteurized in order to comply with FDA regulations.  However, pasteurization is the only aspect of the production that is nontraditional, the curd is still hand sliced and delicately ladled into forms, using fresh, whole milk exclusively from the farm’s herd of 145 milking cows.  Since 2012 the farm is also self-sufficient, harnessing all of the energy used on the farm and in their home from Bio-gas produced through the anaerobic breakdown of methane.

Tremblaye’s bries are 1kg (2.2lbs) wheels which are much easier to handle than the traditional 3kg (6.6lb) wheels of AOC Brie de Meaux.  The rind is pleasantly mushroomy and gives way to a melt-in-your-mouth paste that is fresh and lactic with notes of sweet cream and garlic.  We fly these cheeses in every two weeks, so you’ll see a thick line of fresh paste through the center which is rare for imported bries by the time they reach us in the flyover states.

Chuzo de Sal: Spanish Salt Stalagmites from Añana

  • Country of Origin: Spain
  • Region: Basque
  • Flavor profile: Bright minerality with savory undertones and a creamy finish.
  • Quantity: Approx. 110 g

if you are looking for the perfect finishing touch to brandish in front of customers with flourish and gusto without a weekly order of fresh truffles (which we are also happy to facilitate) we’ve got just the thing:  Salt.  But not just any salt, salt stalagmites from an ancient salt mining village in Basque Country.

Okay, we know they verge on ridiculous.  But perhaps also just cool enough to pique your interest? Yes?

If you know a thing or two about salt, you know that it either comes from the sea or a mine.  And since the later is rarely equated with traditional salt production, you know that the majority of high-end finishing salts are harvested from the sea.  So what’s the deal with this landlocked valley in Northern Spain producing legendary Flor de Sal?

Añana sits about 50 km south of Bilbao, in the mountainous landscape of Basque country.  The oldest human records of human settlements date back 5,000 years.  200 million years ago, an ocean covering the valley dried up, leaving salt deposits several kilometers thick.  Thanks to a natural springs that run through the salt deposits, brine bubbles up to the surface of the earth, allowing for the salt to be harvested through evaporation, rather than mining.  Several springs supply around 260 liters of fully saturated brine daily to the village, which trickles through elevated troughs to supply a patchwork maze of salt flats.  As competition for sunlight is fierce, the flats have been built up on stilts to get at the choicest real estate.

But elevated salt flats have a one small problem – they leak.  Even the smallest pinhole can allow brine to slowly drip, over time creating a stalagmite of salt.  These used to be considered a nuisance – evidence your salt flat had sprung a leak.  But seeing as its basically the same great stuff they use to make Flor de Sal, the salt makers began snapping off the salt-cicles to sell to inquiring chefs around Spain.

We just had some shipped from Spain to the frozen tundra of Minnesota for you to grate over dishes to add that “je ne sais quoi.”  We also sell the Flor de Sal in nice crunchy flakes.

Aulente Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Sicily

  • Country of Origin: Italy
  • Region: Sicily
  • Varietals :  Nocellara, Nocilla, Cerezuala
  • Acidity: ~0.20%
  • Flavor profile: Sweet almonds and artichokes
  • Quantity: 500ml Bottle

If i were to paint extra-virgin olive oils with a broad brush, I would say that Italian oils tend to be more grassy and peppery, French are buttery and fruity, and Spanish are a combination of the two: herbaceous , fruity, and a little spicy. Sicilian oils are the boldest of the bunch; many of you are already familiar with Olio Verde, which has the subtlety of a punch in the face.

But as with all things, rules are meant to be broken.  Nunzio Bastone grew up in Sicily, where he helped his grandfather harvest olives for oil.  After a career in banking, he returned to his roots and bought a mill in Northern Sicily near Palermo.  He presses the three varietals of olives separately (20% Nocellara, 20% Nocilla, and 60% Cerezuala) and blends them batch by batch for better flavor and texture.  His oil is a knockout, sweet and almondy with artichokey-butteryness and tickle of black pepper in the finish.  Its not a logical flavor profile for the region, and perhaps that’s why we love it so much.

Small Batch Preserves from Madison-Based Quince & Apple

You can keep your Stilton with ginger and mango, I’ve never really been a fan of the “cheese with stuff in it” genre.  I’d rather find the tastiest cheeses, and pair them with delicious accompaniments.  As luck would have it, we just found some really good “stuff” to put on our favorite cheeses.  Quince and Apple is a small husband and wife owned company dedicated to making small-batch preserves that capture the bounty of the Upper-Midwest.  As major turophiles and natives of the Great Dairy State, each of their preserves are designed around pairing with cheeses, and are made when local fruits are at the height of their short Midewestern growing season (save for citrus and figs) and are stockpiled throughout the year so that you can enjoy perfectly tart door county cherries during our frigid Minnesota winters.

Matt Stoner Fehsenfeld grew up making jam from the fruits his family grew in their backyard.  After managing an organic co-op, getting a culinary degree, and cooking in high-end restaurant kitchens, he started playing around with jams and jellies using unique flavor combinations as gifts for his friends and family.  Demand for his products from a few local specialty food shops led him to rent out a commercial kitchen, and use their living room as warehouse.

It wasn’t long before his side-hustle became a full-time gig.  Clare, who has a dual major in music performance and biology, and also enjoys reading business books for fun, was the perfect left-brained accomplice to Matt’s creative tinkering, and quickly assumed the role of Chief Operating Officer.  Today they’ve outgrown both the commercial kitchen, and their living room, and have their own production space and warehouse in Madison.  Despite their larger facility, every aspect of production is still done entirely by hand, from ladling the jam to labeling the jars!

In a world now saturated with “artisan” products marketed to their “foodie” demographic, sometimes it is hard to find products with substance that goes beyond the marketing guff.  Quince and Apple makes beautiful preserves with fresh, well-balanced flavors using the best ingredients they can find, and a deft hand when it comes to adding sugar or aromatics… and they look nice to boot.


We stock all of Quince and Apple’s preserves in retail 6oz jars, sold 12/CS, however all of their flavors are also available in more economical foodservice sizes; give us a call for sizes and pricing.  Quince and Apple also makes a line of superb fruit based syrups for sodas and cocktails.  We are looking forward to selling them soon!

Peach Chamomile – Ripe peaches steep in rich chamomile tea, creating a luscious preserve with notes of maple, brown butter and wildflower honey.Our favorite pairings include aged gouda, washed rind cheeses and creamy blues. Of course a pastry would be delightful too.

Figs and Black Tea – Full-bodied black tea and sweet, delicate figs combine in sultry counterpoint, creating a thoroughly seductive preserve. Spread on a sliced baguette or good cracker with goat cheese and prosciutto.  Spoon over vanilla ice cream for an out-of-the-ordinary dessert.

Raspberry Rose – Ruby raspberries sparkle in this bright preserve.  Lush fruit and floral rose create notes of cherry, punch and lime.  Top a tart or bring a big cheese to life. Try an aged gruyere or bold mimolette.

Orange Marmalade with Lemons - If a preserve can be sunny, this one definitely is. It practically bursts with light and satisfaction and finishes like a sweet summer day.  Spread plain on a piece of toast with real Wisconsin butter.  Add some zest to your cooking by stirring into marinades, vinaigrettes and sauces.

Pear with Honey and Ginger - Fresh from the orchard, ripe pears and crisp apples luxuriate in lush honey and warm grated ginger.  This preserve demands a good pastry – top a croissant, Danish or cider doughnut. Or, stir into your favorite muffin recipe.  Pair with a sharp or bandaged cheddar or a wedge of triple-creme Brie.  This preserve is made with local honey, and local pears and apples when they’re in season!

Shallot Confit with Red Wine - A robust, self-assured preserve with an elegant streak. Bold red wine brightens the deep caramels of slow-cooked shallots.  Pair with blue cheese and sharp cheddar.  Liven up a smoked turkey sandwich or top a steak or grilled chicken.

Tart Cherry and White Tea - Door County tart cherries float in a delicate jelly of jasmine flowers and white tea.  Seductive with a creamy bleu or full-fat soft rind cheese.  Dainty on a shortcake with fresh whipped cream.

Apples and Cranberry - A Thanksgiving favorite, this preserve is a combination of local apples, cranberries, honey, orange zest, ginger and bay leaves.  This preserve pairs with an assortment of meats and cheeses like turkey, pork, or camembert for tart and savory dishes.  Or, mix Apples and Cranberry with hot cider and rum and strain to create a warm cocktail.


Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheeses

Matthew Brichford at home with his herd of Jersey, Tarantaise and Normandy cows. Photo Credit:

When I think of Indiana, I think of the Jackson Five, of the Mad-Max-esque landscape of Gary, and of the white-knuckle traffic spilling off of the Chicago expressway.  Lately, we’ve been bringing in some gorgeous cheeses from Indiana that has changed everything I thought I knew about the “Crossroads of America.”  It started a few years ago with some lovely goat cheeses from Capriole Dairy, and now with some seriously delicious farmstead cheeses from Jacobs and Brichford.

While Jacobs and Brichford is a relative newcomer to the cheese scene, their farm dates back to the war of 1812, when their family was allocated land in the Indiana Territory as a survivors benefit for a relative who had died in combat.  Over the next two hundred years, the Brichford family used the land to farm just about everything imaginable.  In 1981, Leslie Jacobs and Matthew Brichford took the reins, and began raising cattle for meat. In 1995, they updated their farm to include a fluid milk dairy, with the hope of one day making cheese.

Over the next few decades, they added heirloom breeds of cattle to the herd (Jersey, Tarantaise and Normandy) all known for excellent milk quality and high butterfat content.  Matthew claims that he is “not a cheesemaker, he’s a farmer who makes cheese.” So when it came time to make cheese, Leslie and Matthew went to France to meet with geneticists, and brought cheesemakers to the farm to develop recipes that would highlight the quality of their milk.  Today they have only 90 milking cows, and only make their exclusively raw-milk cheeses when the cows are grazing on lush spring,​ summer​, and fall​ pasture​s​.  Their ​daughter, Maize, does marketing and sales while their other daughter, Miah, came back home to the farm to help with grazing management.​

Pictured Above: Ameribella Photo Credit:

Can you have a crush on a cheese?  Ameribella, named after their Great-Grandmother America Arabella, is the kind of cheese that makes me weak at the knees.  Ameribella is modeled after Taleggio , the legendary washed-rind stinker from Northern Italy.  Except that I have never had a Taleggio this rich and unctuous, it almost eats more like a full-flavored Reblochon.  The raw, grass-fed milk from heirloom breeds translates into vibrantly butter-yellow paste that contrasts against the smooth pink-orange rind.  Washed-rind cheeses are tricky, and “non-cheesemaker” Matthew Brichford has mastered the style.  While not runny, the paste does pudge out a bit when you cut into the loaf sized rectangle, its assertive mustardy, meaty flavors are balanced by the richness of the milk.  I’m excited to try it a la Wisconsin Limburger style – an open faced sandwich on pumpernickel with course mustard, a thick slab of cheese, and a few slices of raw onion.

Pictured Above: Everton

Lest my excitement for Ameribella runneth over, I’m just as geeked about Everton, their take on an alpine large format cheese, named after a nearby town in Southeast Indiana.  Weighing in at twenty-five pounds, Everton is only about a third the size of a traditional Gruyere or Comte.  That being said, it makes up for its diminutive size with robust flavor.  Everton is a bit sharper than imported gruyeres, with bold overtones of sweet onion and brothy tamari.  As with the Ameribella, the quality of the milk shines through.  The paste is bright yellow, and flecked with those crunchy tyrosine “flavor crystals” that cheese eaters love.  Everton would be a perfect melting cheese for fondue, or any of the myriad of Swiss recipes that highlight melted cheese at its finest.  Or, if you are like me, you could just eat it as is.


Great Ciao Top 10 List for September

Do you ever get asked your favorite thing is, only for your mind to go blank?  I get asked on a daily basis what is new and exciting at Great Ciao, only for the same thing to happen.  With a warehouse full of fancy groceries, and new ones coming in every day, there is just no excuse for that.  So this afternoon I went old school and walked through the warehouse with a whiteboard to brainstorm my top ten list of foods I’m excited about for September.

10. Mozzarella di Bufala
As Minnesotans, we shouldn’t be so eager to usher in fall menus and pumpkin spice everything when we know the weather that lies ahead.  We still have plenty of delicious Mozzarella di Bufala, brought in direct by air-freight from Italy to the 612.

9. Red Boat Fish Sauce
While it may be pungent when tasted solo, Red Boat Fish Sauce is liquid gold, adding a big hit of meaty brothy umami flavor to every dish it touches.  Founder Cuong Pham started a small factory on the tropical island of Phu Quac in 2006.  When the fisherman return to the port, native black anchovies are cleaned, and packed in salt into tropical wood barrels.  The tropical wood barrels impart a vivid fruity sweetness into the fish sauce and soften its intensity.  We have Red Boat Fish Sauce in both retail and foodservice sizes.

8. Maritime Lavender Honey
French lavender honey (a mono-floral honey collected from bees pollinating lavender fields, rather than being lavender infused) is delicious enough, but this version was collected from bees pollinating  lavender off the coast of southern France, which adds a breath of briney ocean air to its perfumed sweetness.  It is every bit as delicious as it is esoteric (and I really dig it.)

7. Pralus Chuao Bars
These tasty chocolate bars just arrived from France, and they are one of our combined favorites.  Chuao is one of Francois Pralus’ most esteemed bars, collected from a single plantation in Venezuala.  We love it for its deep, earthy, cigar-tobacco-y, dried fruit and leather flavor and aroma.  Most of the time we hoard it for ourselves, but we could also sell it to you if you ask nicely.

6. Italian Wild Fennel Pollen
This stuff is the magical fairy dust of the spice kingdom.  Wild fennel pollen is more floral, sweet, and fragrant than fresh fennel fronds.  A little goes a long way, and now that the weather is cooling down (despite my protests) I’m excited to use it on roasted meats and root vegetables.  I also love sprinkling fennel pollen over a slice of Bucheron goat cheese and a drizzle of Acacia honey for a simple but elegant cheese course.

5. Arroyabe Ventresca Tuna Belly
Who knew that canned tuna could be so irresistable? Answer: The Spanish, but they were probably keeping it to themselves.  Ventresca is the belly cut of the small Bonito del Norte breed of Tuna that makes an annual run off the coast of the Adriatic Sea.  The tender fillets are packed in olive oil, and deserve to be sprinkled with good salt and eaten straight out of the can.

4. Great Ciao Signature Balsamic Condiment from Compania del Montale
Three years ago, we set out to develop a signature balsamic with Compania del Montale, a small Acetorium in Modena.  It took countless sample vials, tastings, and transatlantic journeys before we settled on a blend that was finished in Juniper barrels and had a luxurious velvety-thick texture.  This is as good as you can get without breaking the bank for Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.  We have it in both 500ml. foodservice bottles, and in the pretty 250 ml. bottle you see pictured.

3. Unio Muscatel Vinegar
Two vinegars in a row? Well, you can never have enough good vinegar in your arsenal.  Made from Spanish Moscatel grapes, this vinegar has a crisp acidic backbone balanced by candied lemon sweetness, all at once aromatic and complex with lively overtones of melon and honey. Perfect for a vinaigrette, but sweet enough to enjoy with soda water for a refreshing vinegar spritzer.

2. Haricot Soisson
One of the two classic beans used for cassoulet (the other being the more well known Tarbais bean) Soisson beans are much bigger, plumper, and practically beg to be infused with duck fat, sausage, and whatever other meaty tid-bits you can throw their way.  Soisson beans nearly double in size after soaking, and become rich and creamy once cooked.

1. Finally! Local Honeycomb from Ames Farm
We are always looking to find the ingredients our customers request, and local honeycomb has been one of the hardest things to source given the state of our bee population in Minnesota.  Fortunately, Brian at Ames Farm had an awesome year that exceeded his expectations, and we finally have delicious local honeycomb at your beckon call!



Great Ciao – Your Source For Wedding “Cake”

Recently, one of our customers tied the knot, and requested our help in designing his wedding cake (pictured above) made entirely from tiered wheels of cheese. Given cheese’s increasing popularity (fat is back baby!) We get more and more requests for chefs and caterers to do wedding cheese “cakes” for themselves or for their customers.

While 25-30 lbs of artisan cheese doesn’t exactly come cheap, it is surprisingly on par with the cost a professionally decorated wedding cake. For turophiles, these cakes not only support farmers and artisan cheesemakers, they also make for delicious leftovers, given that the guests don’t eat everything. A half wheel of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in your fridge is a happy way to start a marriage indeed.

I recommend planning for about 3-5 tiers with the top tier being soft and easily cut-able for the bride and groom. Something old (aged) something new (fresh) something unique (washed or smoked or flavored) and something blue is a good rule of thumb. Finish with a few sprigs of greenery and fresh or dried fruit, and you have a gorgeous and unique showstopper.  We are happy to help you make a diverse selection of cheeses for you or your customer’s special day.


Fleur d’America: Jacobsen Flake Sea Salt Now at Great Ciao

Ben Jacobsen’s obsession with salt began when he was finishing his MBA in Copenhagen, and a friend gifted him with a bag of fleur de sel.  Until that point, he had never given much thought to the ubiquitous seasoning.  As a self-professed non-cook, he was amazed by the ability of good crunchy salt to elevate simple pleasures – and used it on everything from fried eggs to hamburgers.  He spent the next few years traveling around the world, amassing an arsenal of hand-made salts from around the world.

When he returned home to Oregon, he was surprised to learn that even though the United States was the leading producer of commercial salt – nobody was making the good stuff.  At the time the food scene in Portland was just taking off, and while the chefs and foodies praised everything local, the finishing salts they used were hailing from across the pond.

Brittany, France is home to Fleur de Sel, where miles of channels through gently sloping marshlands purify and concentrate the salt content before it reaches the salt flats.  As the salt crystallizes under the warm sun, highly trained palladiers gently scoop out the prized crystals of fleur de sel as they form on the surface of the flats.  Which is great; if you live in an area with consistently warm sunny days, and a gentle coastal breeze.  Lacking Brittany’s ideal climate in notoriously damp Oregon, Ben went the route of Maldon, an equally famous finishing salt from the equally drizzly country of Wales.

And so he got to tinkering.  On days that his crabbing excursions left him empty handed, he would lug buckets of saltwater back 90 miles inland to Portland.  Since nobody else was making artisan salts at the time, he had to reverse engineer the process.  He knew that getting to the salt would involve evaporation, and so he would boil the water off on his stove, and wait for his precious crystals to form.  The first batches weren’t the best, but showed enough promise for him to leave his career in the tech industry and seek out a commercial cooking space to begin producing in earnest.

While researching, he learned that he wasn’t the first person to harvest salt from coast of Oregon, Louis and Clark had spent a few months boiling down seawater to crystallized salt in an effort to avoid bland food on the return journey.  Ben’s first step was to source the best quality seawater.  He made test batches of salt sampled from thirty different locations up the coast of Oregon and finally settled on water from Netarts Bay.  The next step was to fine-tune the process.  He began using a variety of filters and processes to remove the minerals responsible for bitter off-flavors, and had stainless evaporation pans custom-made.  The process takes 14 hours to get from salt water to flake salt..

Once Ben fine-tuned the process, it didn’t take long for both local and world renowned chefs to sing his praises: Thomas Keller, Paul Kahan and April Bloomfield are all big fans.  As demand for his product grew, he moved his business from the commercial kitchen space in Portland, to a 3,500 square foot decommissioned oyster farm on Netarts bay.  While the larger space allows him to keep up with demand, his process remains steadfastly low-tech.  A new retail warehouse space in Portland doubles as a event space for visiting chefs to host pop-up dinners featuring his salt.  At Great Ciao we’ve also jumped on the American-made finishing salt bandwagon.  Jacobsen Flake Salt is available in both foodservice and retail sizes.  Ask us for a taste!

Tasting Notes: Jacobsen Flake Salt is clean, bright and a little sweet, with large pyramid shaped crystals and a delicate crunchy texture.  Perfect as a finishing salt for just about everything.


Packed Like Sardines: A Visit to Conservas Ramón Peña

Located on the Atlantic coast of Northwest Spain, Galicia is home to some of finest seafood in the world.  The Port of Vigo is the region’s central fishing port, situated at the intersection between the cool waters of the Cantabrian Sea and the warmer currents pushed up from the Mediterranean, creating an ecosystem brimming with a diverse array of sea-creatures.  In fact, Vigo’s fish market was the inspiration behind Jules Verne’s classic novel, 20,000 League Under the Sea, after he witnessed all of the strange – and sometimes grotesque fish hauled back to shore by the Galician fisherman.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Galicia to visit the region’s many conservas producers.  “Conservas” is the sexy Spanish word for canned food.  Years of civil war taught the Spanish to preserve the best of the season to be sent off with their sons and daughters fighting on the front lines.  Nowadays, conservas is less of a means for survival, and more of an art form.  The very best vegetables (heirloom tomatoes, piquillo peppers, and white asparagus) meats (foie gras, partridge and quail) and of course seafoods are preserved in cans and jars to be enjoyed later among family and friends.

Canning factories dot the hilly landscape around the Port of Vigo.  Where thousands of factories used to operate at full capacity, now only a few hundred are left.  Every morning, the factories send their buyers to the fish market to select from the day’s catch.  Every day the factories churn out cans of tuna, mussels, octopus, and oddities like barnacles, baby eels, and the area’s famous razor clams.  We were packed like sardines (for authenticity’s sake) into a conversion van only slightly narrower than the winding two-lane road that connected each producer.  Once we arrived, we would tour the canning facility, taste through their wares (washed down with a glass of local wine) pile back into the van, and repeat.

By the time we arrived at Conservas Ramón Peña, we had already visited four other conservas factories that day.  I was quickly approaching my limit of seafood – and wine.  After donning our sanitary jumpsuits, hairnets and booties, we were escorted through the kitchen – a feature unique to them.  At Ramón Peña any of the vegetables used in their conservas, are brought in fresh and cut by hand.  Each sauce is cooked to order in small batches by the chef on staff.  The factory was immaculate and serenely quiet, with a dozen or so women neatly cleaning and de-scaling fresh anchovies before layering them by hand into the tins.

While the other producers we visited that day have run together in my memory, the conservas produced by Ramón Peña were exquisite.  The sardines were buttery and plump, the mussels were perfectly cooked in a sauce that was balanced out by a gentle spike of smoky pimenton, nothing tasted artificial or overly fishy.  It didn’t come as a surprise when I learned later that Ramón Peña is one of the most highly regarded producers of Conservas throughout Spain.

Well, it only took a couple of years, but we finally received our first shipment of the good stuff at Great Ciao World Headquarters.  We have a veritable smorgasbord of everything from squid in ink, to razor clams, mussels and cockles.  They make for a perfect bite when you crave something really special (and can’t find baby eels up here in the hinterlands…) We hear some restaurants even serve them straight out of the can!