Great Ciao

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!

“Más que Bueno!” Mascarpone from Delitia in Lombardy

While Mascarpone (MAH-scar-pon-ay) has many origin myths, the most colorful stems from the Spanish occupation of Northern Italy in the 1600s.  A Spanish officer tasted the intensely rich thickened cream and exclaimed that it was “Más que Bueno!” (Better than good!)  And the name stuck.

Mascarpone is similar to crème fraîche and clotted cream in texture and flavor, although there are slight differences in it’s production.  Unlike it’s cousins, Mascarpone is made by coagulating heated cream with citric or acidic acid.  The remaining curd is drained, resulting in a thick, almost whipped texture.  Mascarpone is famously used in Tiramisu, but can also be whipped into risotto, or served simply with fresh berries and a dusting of cocoa – just to name a few.

After intensive product testing (read: alternating through spoonfulls of imported and domestic mascarpones) we began sourcing our mascarpone from Delitia in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy.  While most mascarpone is made with the cream of commodity milk production, Delitia uses cream skimmed from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.  The resulting product is a mascarpone that is light and airy in texture, with an intensely fresh, lactic richness and a delicate finish reminiscent of coconut.  While air-freight mascarpone can be slightly more expensive than its domestic counterparts, it doesn’t have any of the cloying sweetness of some domestically produced versions, making it a blank slate for either sweet or savory applications.

Delitia’s mascarpone is available in 500g tubs, and is kept in stock at Great Ciao World Headquarters.

Like Buttah! The Making of Triple Cream Cheeses…

Back in my retail-cheesemongering days, customers would often request triple-cream cheeses, followed by the declaration, “I only like TRIPLE crème brie.” Which was remarkably similar to the chocophiles who would insist that they, “only eat chocolate over X% cacao!”

For a cheese to be considered “triple-cream” it needs to have a minimum of 75% fat in dry matter.  Double cream cheeses range from 60-74% fat in dry matter.  To obtain this higher fat-content, already rich whole milk is bolstered with cream, creating a decadent texture that is nearly like eating butter.  Before you blanche at the fat content, keep in mind that just as with the percentage of cacao in chocolate – the percentage of fat in dry matter is not telling the whole story in a cheese’s nutritional makeup.

Double and triple cream cheeses tend to be younger (which is also why we can’t bring unpasteurized versions into the United States- but that’s another story.)  As younger cheeses, they have a water content that can reach upward of 50%.  While the fat in dry matter of a triple cream cheese is 75% percent fat in dry matter, the total fat content hovers around only 39%; whereas butter has a total fat content over 80%.  Compare that to Parmigiano Reggiano, which has a much lower water content after being aged for 16 months or longer, but a total fat content of around 30%.  Bite-for-bite, the same size piece of Brillat Savarin on your cracker has only slightly more fat than the same sized piece of an aged Parmigianno Reggiano, Gruyere, or Cheddar.

Double and triple cream cheeses are typically sold frais (fresh) or soft-mold rinded.  Fresh versions are unrinded and can have a dense texture similar to fresh chevre (ex:Regal de Bourgogne aux Raisins or Regal de Bourgogne aux Moutarde.) Or they can be fresh and spreadable like Mascarpone.  The soft mold ripened versions are seen in classic triple-cream cheeses like Brillat Savarin, Explorateur, Delice de Bourgogne, Prince de la Fontaine, and in American newcomers like Nettle Meadow Kunik.  All versions are excellent served as a dessert course with perfectly ripe berries or tropical fruit, and are best washed down with sparkling wines.

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.