Spanish Piñón (Pine Nuts) from Castilla Leon, Just in Time for Pesto Season!

Pine nuts, Pignoli, Piñón…  Historical records of eating the fruit from pine cones date back to Ancient Rome, but we have likely been painstakingly harvesting the fruit from conifers since we became bipedal.  Pine-nuts are the extraordinarily fragrant “nut” harvested from pine cones that are also, extraordinarily expensive.  While all pine cone producing trees produce “nuts” there are only 18 species that produce an edible seed, these species are found in North America, Europe and in Asia.  European pine-nuts are considered to be superior in flavor and texture to American and Asian pine-nuts, and less expensive Chinese pine-nuts have been linked to “pine-mouth” and actual, nasty condition that makes food taste metallic and bitter for a few days, to a few weeks (lesson: don’t skimp on pine nuts!)  European pine-nuts are long and slender, with a texture that is creamy and rich and a subtle, aromatic flavor.

We import Spanish Piñón from Teresa Mate, a family run operation that has been harvesting pine-nuts from the pine grove forests of “Tierra de Pinares” within the autonomous region of Castilla y León since 1970.  Historically, the region of “Tierra de Pinares” was known for lumber and resin production.  Through centuries of trial and error, the regions lumberjacks also learned the art of curing and harvesting Piñón from the Pinus Pinea trees that produce an especially large variety of piñón with a sweet and aromatic flavor.  While it takes 18 months for most piñón to mature, at Teresa Mate, they wait a full three years to harvest the pine-cones so that they have a higher natural composition of the aromatic resins that give the nuts their sought-after aroma.  Teresa Mate also naturally extracts the pine-nuts by allowing the cones to open naturally under the sun (pictured above) instead of baking or roasting the cones.  The finished piñón are golden in color with an exquisite flavor.

Teresa Mate’s Piñón are available in vacuum packed 1kg bags and are at your beck and call for fresh summer pestos and sweet pignoli cookies!


Heirloom Grits from Geechie Boy in Red! White! and Blue!

If Southern foods have got you “grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet tater,” then we’ve got the best grits to anchor your plate.  Geechie Boy Mill was founded by Greg and Betsy Johnsman in 2003 on Edisto Island, South Carolina.  After purchasing a 3-acre farm, they salvaged a rare antique mill they found in a barn on their property.  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 the Johnsmans grow, harvest, adn mill all of their grits, flours and heirloom grains, which can be found in some of the best restaurants around the United States.  We’ve been sourcing these legendary grits from Greg at Geechie Boy since 2014, and now in addition to the white grits that sell “faster than a hot knife through butter,” we’ve added some lesser known varieties of red and blue heirloom corn grits.



You Say “Tomato,” We Say, “Pétales de Tomates Confites”

Did you know that our logo is a tomato?  Customers have scratched their heads over our logo for years, is it a peach? A cherry?  Nope, it’s a tomato.  And for good reason; we love tomatoes! We have DOP canned San Marzano Tomaotes for Neapolitan Pizza, semi-sundried tomatoes in oil, tomato pasata, tomato sauces, tomato spreads…

Last year while Scott was visiting producers in Southern France (poor guy) he got to talking with the farmers who grow our Prunes D’ente (the unequivocally awesome prunes from the Dordogne that have a snappy toothsome skin protecting the fragrant custardy interior, they are mind-blowing) and learned that these amazing prunes are only their side hustle.  What really gets them jazzed are their tomatoes.  Wait, what?

Isabelle and Marc Peyrey run their tiny company in the legendary Bergerac Countryside of Dordogne.  There is no sign on the door, but their products have found their way into some of the finest French restaurants and cheese shops, and have traveled as far as Dubai, and now… Hennepin County.

As a native of Marmande, “the tomato capitol of Europe,” it wasn’t long before Marc took his top-secret “mi-cuit” (or, semi-cooked) process developed for the Prunes d’Ente and applied it to their fresh tomatoes.  It takes 15-20 kg of fresh tomatoes to make 1 kg of his mi-cuit  tomatoes confit.  The “petals” are halves of Roma tomatoes, hand-peeled, seeded, and gently cooked in their own juices before being vacuum sealed with a bit of olive oil, basil, oregano, garlic, and just for Great Ciao: a pinch of Piment d’Espelette.  Aside from the olive oil and seasonings, no coloring, preservatives or additional sugars are used in making any of their mi-cuit products.  If you like our Italian Pomodoraccios, you’ll love the concentrated flavor of these tomatoes. The “petals” have been hand-seeded and skinned resulting in luxurious velvety texture, each “petal” is pristine and plate-ready. The tomatoes retain their sugar-sweet flavor from being picked at the peak of ripeness, and the subtle use of spices amplifies the tomatoes natural aroma.

Our new “Pétales de Tomates Confites” from Marc Peyrey, just arrived last week and  are sold in vacuum packed 1 kg (2.2 lb) bags.  Curious?  Give us a call at 612.521.8725 or shoot us an email, we love talking about food!


The Handee Cheese Cutter: Our Favorite Tool of the Trade

If you have ever been to our warehouse for a cheese tasting, you know that one of our most prized non-edible possessions is our trusty cheese wire.  The Handee Cheese Cutter is the universal standard in the cheese industry, and was a tool of the trade that Katie brought with her from her time as a retail cheesemonger.  It does everything that a knife can do, but better.  It slices through crumbly blues, delicate soft-mold ripened cheeses, tacky washed rind cheeses, and makes clean work of hard, brittle cheeses that would shatter under the pressure of a knife.   This tool is indispensable for quickly portioning out cheeses for plating, and for breaking down larger wheels of cheese that can be dangerous with a knife (here’s looking at you, Mimolette!)

After a few years of joking with our customers that we should sell our fancy cheese wire, we decided to give them a shot.  A few weeks ago we imported our first shipment of Handee Cheese Slicers direct from the UK, nestled between our wheels of Stilton and English Cloth-bound Cheddar from Somerset County.  Each slicer comes with a pack of 12 x 60cm replacement wires.  Additional wire packs will be stocked at Great Ciao for your future needs.  While cheaper plastic bases can be found online, we prefer our sturdier stainless steel version that won’t break when it inevitably gets dropped on the floor, or when the spring loaded action sends it flying across the kitchen by a well-meaning cook.  The cheese wires and bases are NSF approved and can go right through your dishwasher.  Wires typically last a few weeks to a month with heavy use, and only take a few seconds to replace.  The curd-nerds at Great Ciao are familiar with their use and are on-call if you have any questions.


Monger’s Choice: Fontina Val D’Aosta

Rich and creamy, with a gooey melt and just enough earthy funk to hit home, Fontina Val D’Aosta may as well be a perfect cheese.  Often imitated but never replicated by cheaper alternatives like wax rinded Danish Fontal, or Fontinella; Fontina Val D’Aosta is the real deal, with the DOP label to prove it.  Fontina is made in the tiny Val D’Aosta region of northwest Italy, set in the shadows of the Swiss Alps, with Matterhorn to the West, and Mont Blanc to the east.  Fontina Val D’aosta can only be made from the unpasteurized milk of the red spotted Valdaostan cows who graze in the lush summer pasture of the Aosta Valley.

Fontina is an alpine style cheese, the curd is cooked in copper pots over an open fire, and the 20 lb wheels are washed in brine as they age in cool mountain caves.  Our selection of Fontina Val D’aosta is aged between 120 and 150 days, the finished wheels have a brick red natural washed rind that is slightly tacky to the touch.  The cheese has a dense fudgy texture that is slightly softer than that of an alpine Gruyere.  Fontina Val D’aosta is great for nibbling or cooking, with rich hints of fresh cream, and an earthy finish reminiscent of the fresh white truffles that grow in nearby Piedmont.

The classic regional dish from Val D’aosta is Fonduta: the Italian version of Swiss Fondue that, in classic Italian fashion, is far more sinful and decadent than the original.  Fontina Val D’aosta cheese is melted into heavy cream and egg yolks before being garnished with freshly shaved white Alba truffles.

Fontina Val D’Aosta pairs well with a full bodied chardonnay but would also play nicely with a spicy Barbaresco or an aged Barolo.  On the beer side, try Fontina Val D’aosta with a hoppy IPA or Farmhouse Saison.


Heirloom Chandler Walnuts from Old Dog Ranch

Organically Grown Walnuts from a 5th Generation San Joaquin County Family Farm

This might seem obvious, but after a few years in the business we’ve found that we like working with likable people.  And if they happen to make a great product, well then it’s just gravy.

Founded in 1912, Old Dog Ranch has been in the family for five generations of farming in California’s lush San Joaquin Valley, but was only recently named after the sweet geriatric rescue dogs that call the ranch home.  Mollie is the face of the business at San Francisco’s legendary Ferry Market, where she sells her family’s organic Chandler walnuts, as well as an assortment of seasoned roasted walnuts and nut butters of her own design.  When we complimented Mollie on her beautiful products, she smiled and said something wholly self-effacing: “yeah, my dad’s a really good farmer.”

Chandler walnuts are an older English varietal that were reintroduced to California by the UC Davis School of Agriculture in 2004.  Often, walnuts can be overbearingly high in tannins and have a flavor that is stale-verging-on-rancid.  These, are fresh, low in tannins, and creamy with a fluffy and cloud-like texture.  Our raw walnut halves from Old Dog Ranch are sold by the pound and come in beautiful whole pieces.


Quince and Apple Pear Mostarda

At Great Ciao, we’ve never been keen on the “cheese with stuff in it” genre.  We’d prefer to source the tastiest cheeses, and pair them with delicious accompaniments.  As luck would have it, we have some delicious new “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 Madisonites 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 Midwestern growing season.

The newest addition to their lineup of preserves, is a sweet and spicy pear mostarda.  We got a kick out of seeing Matt cook test-batches of mostarda wearing full hazmat regalia to protect himself from the potent mustard oil fumes, but after months of trial and error, he’s concocted a real humdinger.  It has just enough well-balanced zing to brighten up your cheese plate, grilled cheese, or charcuterie board.

From Quince and Apple:

“Inspired by a 15th century recipe, this mostarda is deeply rooted in tradition, while at the same time thoroughly modern, fresh and bright. Our mostarda combines sweet pears and apples with bright fresh lemons and the heat of mustard oil to create a subtle and well-balanced whole.

Mostarda is an Italian condiment, hundreds of years old, that combines preserved fruit with the heat from mustard oil. It is traditionally served as an accompaniment for cheese, charcuterie and cured meats.  We spent 18 months perfecting their ability to make an authentic mostarda that uses true mustard essential oil. Mustard oil is extremely difficult to work with, so most domestic mostardas use only mustard seeds, which lack the distinctive heat seen in Italian mostardas.

Mustard oil heat is different than the spiciness from capsaicin. It is closer to wasabi or horseradish heat and doesn’t get hotter the more you eat. The overall effect is a pleasant medium heat that clears out quickly.  Our favorite pairings are big, bold blues, dense cave-aged cheddars and funky washed-rind cheeses, in addition to a wide range of cured meats. It’s also a great addition to a grilled cheese or hearty sandwich.”


French Comté: Your New Kitchen Staple

There’s something downright practical about a cheese that has the utility of being just as good for cooking as it is for noshing. Comté is an AOC protected French cheese that has unparalleled (and delicious) versatility in both applications.

Hailing from the Franche-Comté region, Comté is made in the alpine foothills of the verdant Jura Mountains that outline the Franco-Swiss border. The Jura mountains are to the neighboring Swiss Alps what Comté is to Swiss Gruyere: nearly analogous, more subtle in flavor, and lacking in name recognition outside of France.  But to the French; Comté has earned the distinction of being the highest consumed cheese per capita, with a market share that would be the American equivalent of, well, American cheese.  Comté is just as likely to be found in child’s school lunch as it is on the menu of a fine restaurant, as it is on a gas station sandwich.  Oh, to be French.

Comté is a traditionally made cheese, born out of necessity, with a history that can be traced back to 1200 AD.  In a time before refrigeration and pasteurization, cheese provided an additional safeguard against the potentially lethal dangers of volatile fresh milk by being purified through the process of bacterial fermentation. Long before “grass-fed” was a buzzword, alpine cheeses were made from the milk of cows grazing on lush summer pastures.  These hearty cheeses were not the “fancy” French cheeses we know today, these cheeses were made to provide essential vitamins and minerals, as well as vital fats and proteins through the harsh, unpredictable rigors of mountain life.  Alpine cheeses were not made for fine dining, their intentions were much more basic: to keep your family from starving to death in the winter.

If Marx had been a turophile, chances are that Comté would have been his top pick, as it launched a communal, cooperative system that is still being used today in the Jura.  In alpine agrarian communities like the Jura, most farming was subsistence based, and many families had only one or two milking cows.  It takes nearly a hundred forty gallons of milk to make a single eighty pound wheel of Comté, so farmers created cooperatives, pooling together their twice daily milking together to be made into cheese by a fruitière (a French verb that translates to: to bear fruit) in wooden huts up in the mountains, before being aged by an affineur in cool underground caves.  This process of cooperative farming and centralized production and aging has remained largely unchanged in the cheese’s one thousand years of artisanal production.

Today, Comté production is tightly regulated by the AOC, with high standards to protect its artisanal authenticity.  Comté can only be made from the fresh, raw milk of Montbéliarde or French Simmental cows, two heritage breeds native to the region.  The cows lead a luxurious life, with ample alpine pasture for grazing (a maximum of 1.3 cows allowed per hectare), and unfermented, natural feed in the winter months when the cows are not at pasture.  During summer production, the cows forage from a biodiverse array of nearly 200 edible herbs, grasses and flowers.  Summer Comté is distinguished by the bright yellow color of its paste, owing to the high carotene content in the milk, and is typically more sought after than Comté made in winter months.

160 fruitières dot the hillsides of the Jura Mountains, and produce Comté within hours of receiving their twice daily deliveries of milk from small local farmers.  Comté is a cooked-curd cheese, which means that the curds and whey are heated during production to help expel moisture from the curds, a critical step for making a cheese suitable to age for long periods of time.  Cooking the curds changes the protein structure of the cheese, resulting in a texture that is perfect for melting (consider fondue and raclette, two famous melty cheese dishes made with alpine style cheeses).  Many modern fruitières still use massive traditional copper vats hung over an open fire to heat the curds.  The fresh wheels are hand salted and aged by the fruitière until they are just sturdy enough to be safely transported to cool alpine caves, from which point on the affineur cares for the wheels until they are ready for sale.

Finished Comté is graded by a panel of 20 judges on a 20 point scale that weighs into consideration appearance, aroma, and flavor.  Cheeses that receive over 15 points earn the prestigious “Comté-Extra” status and receive a green label decorated with cow-bells.  Cheeses earning between 12-15 points are simply named “Comté” and banded with a simple brown label but maintain the AOC designation.  Cheeses earning less than 12 points overall or less than 4 points for flavor are not allowed to be called Comté, and are sold for other uses; most notably to be melted into Laughing Cow Cheese whose manufacturing facility is located Jura’s capital city of Lons-le-Saunier.

“Pourquoi la vache qui rit? Parce que son fromage est fabriqué avec un sous-produit de Comté.”

Green label Comté Extra can be sold in a variety of ages, with the affineur being responsible for selecting the best wheels to age out the longest.  All of the Comté we sell at Great Ciao is Comté-Extra, and is aged at Fort Lucotte de Saint Antoine by the prestigious affineur Marcel Petite.  Nicknamed, “The Cathedral of Cheese,” Fort St. Antoine is a decommissioned French military fort that is unbelievably Tolkein-esque, with an imposing stone façade built into the side of a mountain and massive arched wooden doors that protect the treasure aging in the caves below…  No, not dragon gold, but thousands of buttery yellow wheels of cheese, filling the cavernous space as they age on wooden shelves, stacked high to the ceiling.  One of the only modern innovations to Comté’s affinage at Fort St. Antoine is a robot that systematically flips and vacuums rinds of the massive wheels as they age.  A Roomba, for cheese.

Marcel Petite is famous for only selling his customers up to the quality of cheese that their palates can perceive, so having a skilled buyer on site is key to finding the choicest wheels of cheese.  We currently offer two different age profiles of Comté.  The youngest is aged between 9 to 12 months, and is subtle and creamy, with a finish reminiscent of crème fraiche, thyme and green onion.  Younger wheels are excellent for cooking and melting.  Consider using Comté for applications like cheese Gougères, macaroni and cheese, French onion soup, for croque monsieur and grilled cheese sandwiches, or in savory tarts and quiches.  As Comté ages it becomes bolder and more nuanced in flavor.  The 18-24 month Comté selected by Rodolphe le Meunier is intense and meaty, with a dense texture, loads of crunchy tyrosine crystals, and classic flavors of beef broth, caramelized onion, brown butter and hazelnuts.  Aged Comté is perfect for enjoying on its own and pairs well with a glass of Chardonnay, moody poetry, and a cigarette for a uniquely French experience.  If you are not a smoker, you could easily sub out the cigarette with crusty bread, duck rilletes and a few cornichons.


Quattro Latti – A Menagerie of Milks

Our fearless leader, Scott, just got back from judging the World Cheese Awards in the coastal Basque town of San Sebastian… poor guy.  He came back to Minnesota laden with a few great versions of classic cheeses from new producers, as well as a couple of new cheeses we had never tasted.  The most peculiar of which was a mixed milk cheese from Caseificio Serpentino, a family owned creamery in Piedmont.

Mixed milk cheeses are nothing new, and are especially common in parts of Northern Italy.  Born out of utility, combining milks from dairy animals was a way to stretch what milk supply you had and turn it into tasty, nutritious cheese.  It’s not unusual to see two and three milk cheeses made from combinations of sheep, cow, goat, and even water buffalo. But when Scott told us he had found a cheese made with donkey milk… we all did a double take.

As far as milks go, Donkey is pretty unusual, but not altogether unheard of.  In Serbia, “Pule” is a fresh made from donkey milk that holds the record for being the most expensive cheese in the world, at auction commanding upwards of 1000 Euros for a kilo of cheese.  Donkeys only produce about 100 mililiters of milk a day (and fluid milk has only about a 10% yield in cheese making) so the scarcity of milk dictates the insanely high price of the cheese.  Fortunately, by mixing milks you can enjoy the uniqueness of donkey milk (and the joy of telling your customers that it kicks ass…) with a much, much more reasonable price tag.

Our new Quattro Latti highlights the best features of all four milks: buttery cow milk, sweet floral notes from the sheep, fresh lemony tang from the goat milk… and from the donkey – the aroma of fresh hay and a bit of wild gameyness.  Quattro Latti has a beautiful cave-aged wild rind that is speckled with spots of day-glow yellow and mottled gray molds.  The texture is semi-firm in the style of a good Italian table cheese.  Wheels weight approximately 8lbs, and are fresh off the plane.  Mangia!


New At Great Ciao: Fresh Chèvre From Cedar Grove Creamery

Bob Wills (not to be confused with the eponymous country singer) is legendary in his own right as something of a living patron saint to Wisconsin cheesemakers.  You might recognize some of his protiges: Mike Gingrich from Uplands Cheese (makers of Pleasant Ridge Reserve), Willy Lehner from Bleu Mont Dairy, and relative newcomers Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark from Landmark Creamery.  He’s literally had his hands in the vats helping smaller start ups around the state get their footing in the business.

Cedar Grove Creamery – his cheese factory in Milton, Wisconsin, produces several dozen varieties of cheese under the Cedar Grove name, but also serves as a small business incubator to up and coming cheesemakers in need of a state of the art facility.  Cedar Grove stopped sourcing milk from animals treated with RBGH and adapted to green energy sources in the early 1990’s before “humanely raised” “hormone-free”and “green” were buzzwords in our industry.  We love that Bob is a good steward to family farms, animals, and independent cheesemakers.

A few years ago, Bob opened a cheese factory in downtown Milwaukee, fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating an urban creamery in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Clock Shadow creamery was built in Milwaukee’s blue collar Walker Point neighborhood using almost entirely recycled materials, his new cheese factory is LEED certified with geothermal heating and cooling, a water re-use system, and a rooftop edible garden.  Visitors can taste and purchase cheeses made on sight while watching cheese being made in the factory through the floor to ceiling glass windows.

After tasting the fresh chèvre made at Cedar Grove Creamery a few months ago, we decided to make the switch.   Our signature  fresh chèvre is made using milk from a single herd at a small family farm in Wisconsin.  It is smooth and fluffy in texture with a goaty lemon tang that finishes rich and fresh (but never bitter or barnyardy.)  This is a big change for us, but knowing the work that Bob and his team do, and the quality of their cheese, we felt like it was a no-brainer.  Our new chèvre from Cedar Grove Creamery is available in five and ten pound bags, give us a holler if you need a taste, we would love to send a sample with your next order.