Great Ciao

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!

Carob Honey from Sicily

The Sicilian Black Bee is a species native to the Island, and a descendent of African bees.  The species faced rapid decline in the 1980s in favor of the western honey bee, and would have become extinct had it not been for Sicilian Entomologist named Peter Genduso.  He introduced the Sicilian Black Bee to remote islands where it could repopulate, while dreaming of someday bringing the bee home to Sicily.  His pupil, Charles Amodeo campained for the Slow Food Association to create a Presidium to protect the Sicilian Black Bee – today there are eight beekeepers harvesting honey from the native species in Sicily.

Most people are familiar with carob as a second-rate replacement for chocolate.  Carob trees grow throughout Sicily, and are distinguished by their leathery brown pods.  Mono-floral carob honey is somewhat hard to come by, which is why our carob honey harvested by Sicilian black bees is extra special.  The majority of tree-honeys are aphid honeys, in which bees collect the aphid-dew left behind after aphids digest tree sap (try not to think about it too hard!)  Carob honey is made from the nectar flowing from the flowering carob pods.  It is amber in color, with a dense crystaline texture.   It tastes rich and nearly chocolately (not-unlike carob chips!) and bursts with flavors of warm spices, thyme, and finishes slightly bitter.

We love this honey spooned over cheese, or spread on toast with an ample amount of butter – but surely you could find a more creative use for it.  Need a taste? Give us a call at 612.521.8725, we love talking about food.

New at Great Ciao: Fleur de Sel from Marais Breton

The unique ability of salt to bring out the flavor in food has made it a historically valuable commodity, at times commanding twice the price of gold.  Roman soldiers were paid a monthly “salarium” in cakes of salt, stamped with the likeness of the Roman emperor.  Our word “salary” is a derivative of the Roman word “salarium,” and we can also thank the Romans for the idiom of being “worth your salt.”

Today a canister of table salt sells for less than two dollars.  Only recently have we industrialized salt production to make it affordable to the masses.   Table salt is harvested through a process called “solution mining” which is similar to the controversial hydraulic fracturing (fracking) used to mine for oil.   Underground salt reserves; the remains of ancient ocean beds, are injected with water; the brine is then pumped out, and further refined into table salt. In the 1920s, public health officials added iodine to our table salt to reduce thyroid diseases, and the Morton Company added anti-caking agents so that, “when it rains, it pours.”  But if you taste iodized salt next to sea salt, you’ll find that the iodized table salt has a bitter, chemical quality. 

The French would argue (and we would agree) that the best salt in the world comes from the coast of Brittany.  For hundreds of years, locals have used the ocean’s high tide cycles to direct water into marshy inland salt flats.  In fact, you can see the expansive network of salt flats if you Google Earth the ancient walled city of Guérande.   Fleur de Sel is made up of the fine layer of salt crystals that float on top of the salt beds before being delicately skimmed off with a flat shovel called at lousse à de fleur.  This tedious job is performed by paludiers, which for years was a job only entrusted to women (men were thought to be too brutish for the task.)  Fleur de Sel is bright white, the name stems from the delicate violet aroma of the salt after harvesting; which is still evident when we crunch into it inMinnesota.

For years we’ve imported Fleur de Sel and Sel Gris from Guérande and Ile de Rey, the two places most notable for their salt production. Recently, the fleur de sel we tasted from a small producer in Marais Breton (a marshy nature preserve south of Guérande) was good enough to make us switch.  Stéphane Guichen, a third generation salt producer, purchased two and a half acres of land in Marais Breton in 2002.  The land had originally been used for harvesting salt, but the salt beds had lain dormant for years.  Unlike the salt production in Guérande and Ile de Rey, Marais Breton is far from any human development.  In Marais Breton, 50 paludiers share 25,000 acres of land, in nearby Guérande 500 paludiers share a quarter of that space.

During the salt producing season, Stéphane sleeps in a wooden hut without electricity.  The early spring is devoted to cleaning and “recharging” the clay floors of the oillets (salt beds) in preparation for the arrival of the brine.  Stéphane cleans and re-clays the oillets every spring so that his salt will have the proper concentrations of minerals, vital to flavor of the finished product. Water travels from theAtlantic Ocean, through a mile and a half of shallow channels to encourage evaporation and remove impurities before they reach the oillets (salt beds.) The channels have been groomed to drop 40 inches over a mile and a half – about the same slope as a shower pan.  During the journey from the ocean to the oillets, the saltwater is concentrated from 35 grams of salt per liter, to 280 grams of salt per liter.  The first water reaches the oillets in late May; salt is then harvested daily through the end of August.  The weather conditions have to be just right for the fleur de sel crystals to form on top of the oillet, with the sun being as important as the right amount of wind.  A rainy day will halt production entirely.  On average, each oillet only produces 1K (2.2lbs) of fleur de sel per day.

When you consider the amount of back-breaking labor that goes into making traditional fleur de sel, the price almost seems like a bargain in exchange for the sweet crystalline bites of flavor it brings to any dish. Fleur de sel is just as well suited for finishing savory dishes as it is when used to adorn a really good chocolate chip cookie.  

Please call us at 612.521.8725 with any questions about our products – we love talking about food!

A Cheese by Any Other Name: Basque Sheep Milk Cheeses

The Basque region that straddles the border between France and Spain is renowned for its alpine sheep cheeses.  The lush green mountains of the Western Pyrenees that have preserved Basque culture have also preserved the cheese-making tradition of the region. Basque cheeses are arguably the most ancient, with evidence of cheese-making dating back 4,000 years.

Though you can find cow and goat milk cheeses in Basque Country, sheep milk cheeses make up the overwhelming majority.  Manech and Basco-Béarnaise are the local breeds of sheep that have evolved to thrive in the Pyrenees’ terrain.  Basque cheeses are referred to simply in Euskara (the language spoken of the Basque people) as Ardi Gasna, which translates to “our cheese,” or “local cheese.”  To add one more layer of confusion, the French refer to this style of cheeses as “brebis” literally, “sheep.”

Last fall we visited our Idiazabel producers at La Leze.  Idiazabel is the “Ardi Gasna” of Spanish Basque Country.  The Ardi Gasna of French Basque Country is Ossau-Iraty-Brebis Pyrenees – one of only two sheep-milk cheeses granted AOC status (the other being Roquefort.)  Though the cheeses have many names, the styles of production are simple, traditional, and nearly identical on either side of the border.

Transhumance is a defining way of life for Basque shepherds.  Between May and September, shepherds follow their herds on horseback up the mountain.  While the sheep graze on fresh alpine grasses, the shepherds live in small stone huts called “cayolars.”  The shepherds milk the sheep and make cheese while living in the mountain cayolars.  International demand for Ossau Iraty has flooded the market with industrial versions of this cheese, typically made with milk from a cooperative of farmers as opposed to being farmstead, and made during the winter months when the sheep are eating hay.

We are happy to bring in a farmstead Ossau Iraty d’Estive, which is only made between May and September while the sheep are happily grazing in the mountains.  Only a few hundred wheels of Ossau Iraty are given the “Estive” designation every year.  The flavor is much more intense and meaty than most Ossau-Iratys, with a heady nose of tamari and chestnuts, and butter yellow paste.  The richness of the paste is moderated with a bit of acidity, which develops into a long floral finish.

Pitxun arrived at Great Ciao last week, and is another example of a great Basque sheep milk cheese.  The small wheel (only 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches tall) is similar in form to P’tit Basque.  Unlike p’tit basque, Pitxun is a farmstead cheese made raw milk.  The paste is semi-firm and creamy white, nutty sweet and clean milky flavors encapsulate everything we enjoy about cheeses from Basque country.