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!



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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!

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A Visit to Conservas Ortiz

New at Great Ciao: Foodservice cans of Line and Rod-Caught Tuna!

After a few days in rainy Galicia, the warm sun in Basque country was a welcome relief.  In a car, we climbed through the mountains on a winding highway until we reached Ondarroa, a small fishing town on the Bay of Biscay.  With only 8,000 residents, fishing and canning are the life-blood of the town.  A sculpture adjacent to the the fishing port pays a haunting tribute to the fisherman’s wives, waiting for their husbands who would never return from the sea.

Ondarroako Neskatilla - Bronze Sculpture by Casto Solano

In 1891, Conservas Ortiz established their first cannery in Ondarroa, only a few blocks from the fishing port.   A hundred years ago, a horn from the docks would blast twice to signal the arrival boats carrying line and rod-caught Bonito del Norte tuna.  Today, the foreman can glance at the computer to see which boats have arrived with the day’s catch, but not much else has changed. The original factory is still operating and employs many of the town’s women, who set to cooking, cleaning, and hand-packing the tuna into jars and cans as soon as a fresh catch of tuna has arrived.

The Original Ortiz Cannery - Built in 1891

Bonito del Norte (albacore) is known for its white flesh, exquisite flavor and delicate texture.  This smaller breed of tuna is found in coastal waters of the Bay of Biscay in the Basque region of Spain during the summer season, when they swim north to dine on the Cantabrian anchovy. During the summer, they fatten up for their return journey south.

The best tuna is caught toward the end of the summer when the fish are nice and fat.  Each tuna is individually caught using a pole and line,  not with trauling nets or lines, making them fully dolphin safe.  Once the fishermen arrive at the docks with the day’s catch, the highest grade tuna are bought by Ortiz.  The fish are processed right on the docks within twenty four hours of being caught, cooked in seawater, and canned in olive oil.

Pictured above clockwise: Bonito del Norte tuna after being cooked in saltwater, a factory worker cleaning each fillet by hand, a worker hand-packing whole cuts of loin into cans, Ortiz’s destinctive colorful tins.

The Spanish are known for preserving their best foods in cans and jars, and tuna is no exception.  Unlike most mass-produced canned tuna, Ortiz makes their’s from the best fish they can source, within hours of being caught.  We love Ortiz because rather than getting mashed flakes of tuna you get big cuts of loin (pictured above).  When tuna is packed in olive oil, it actually improves with age, which is why Ortiz holds their finished product for at least three months before sending it to customers.  The price on Ortiz’s food-service sized tins is comparable to the Italian oil-packed tuna we’ve carried in the past.  For such a superior product, it’s really a no-brainer, and we are thrilled to have it to offer.

Ortiz Ventresca (belly-cut)

P.S. – If you are looking for a tuna epiphany, we have Ortiz’s ventresca (belly-cut) tuna in olive oil. Before the whole Bonito del Norte tunas are cooked in seawater, the bellies are removed and cooked separately.  Packed in olive oil, tuna belly is buttery and succulent.  The most prized Ventresca has been aged in tins between seven and ten years, but we can never get it to last that long before we break down and eat it.

Please call us at 612.521.8725 with questions regarding pricing or availability; we love to talk about food.  Happy Eating!


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This year: Resolve to Use More Fish Sauce

“A fish sauce by any other name would smell as…”

As a lover of both history and food, it really gets my gears turning when I find an intersection of the two.  A beautiful example is the French concept of terroir – the taste of place.  And although it typically is used in conjunction with wine, the principles of terroir can be broadened to all foods.  If anything, it is a marker of culinary anthropology; why people in certain regions made their gustatory decisions.  It blows my mind to think of alpine dairy farmers thousands of miles apart from one another, hundreds of years ago, who made remarkably similar styles of cheese.  But today we’re not talking about cheese – we’re talking about fish sauce.

Fish sauce is the byproduct from making anchovies.  Traditionally, anchovies are made by packing the tiny saltwater fish (bones, scales, and all) between layers of salt, in a barrel and letting them cure for several months.  During that time, the salt leaches the moisture out of the fish through osmosis, and the anchovies are transformed through lactic fermentation into what we commonly call “brown anchovies” (White anchovies, or boquerones are pickled rather than cured.)  After the several month long curing process, the fermented juice that collects at the bottom of the barrell is the fish sauce – or as the ancient Romans called it: garum.

Southeast Asian fish sauces and and Italian Garum Colatura have been made in nearly identical processes for hundreds of years, halfway across the world from one another.  In both cases, the best versions only contain anchovies (or sometimes other fish) and salt.  In both regions, they are used to bolster the flavor of food with their glutamite rich, umami boosting power.

Our Garum Colatura is from Delfino, a small producer on the Italian Island of Capri.  In Italy it is referred to simply as “colatura” which means “to drip.”  The word “garum” is a reference to its ancient ancestor, a pungent Roman fish sauce.  It used to be that every family in Capri had their own barrel of fermenting anchovies for making Garum Colatura.  In Capri, colatura is commonly used on a Christmas day pasta tossed with olive oil, chili flakes, garlic and parsley.  Our Garum Colatura tastes briney and brothy, with a meaty aroma that is unmistakably anchovy.

Fish Sauce is new to our warehouse, and came as a suggestion from our friends Bob and Kristen at Valley Cheese and Wine in Henderson, Nevada.  Owner Cuong grew up Saigon, but immigrated to the United States in his early adulthood.  He tried to emulate the cooking of his homeland, but the fish sauce he found in Asian markets left him with a bad taste in his mouth.  They were far from the full-flavored version he remembered from home, so he set to making his own superior version.  

In 2006 he started a small factory on the tropical island of Phu Quac, which is known for its phenomenal fish sauce.   Black Anchovies are harvested off the Phu Quoc island archipelago.  When they return to the port, the anchovies are cleaned, and packed in salt into tropical wood barrels.  The tropical wood barrels impart a vivid fruity sweetness into the fish sauce that we were shocked to find was not from added sugar (remember: only anchovies and salt.)  We currently stock the 40°N fish sauce from Red Boat.  Degrees N is an industry standard to measure the number of grams of nitrogen per liter of fish sauce which relates to the protein level.

Click here to watch a video of Red Boat’s fish sauce being made.

Have questions? Give us a call at (612) 521-8725, we love talking about food.

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New at Great Ciao: Bacalao from Alkorta

Click HERE to view Alkorta’s PDF of recipes in English

If you have any interest in Spanish food, you have more than likely seen pictures of jamonerias – shops where hundreds of dry-cured ham legs hang from the ceiling. Likewise, fish shops, or pescaderias, proudly hang whole sides of salt cod in their storefronts.


In Spain, jamon is used more as an ingredient than as a standalone dish.  Bacalao (or salt cod as we know it) is used in much the same way.  Before refrigeration, bacalao was the only fish available to the people who lived in Spain’s inland regions.  Basque fisherman travel to Iceland to fish for cod, cure it and return home. One saying I heard repeated several times during my trip was that, “a woman must know at least thirty ways to cook bacalao before she can get married.”  Outdated? Perhaps.  But also telling of how integral bacalao is to Spanish cuisine.


Any restaurant in Spain worth their salt has it speckled throughout the menu: sliced thinly into salads, as an appetizer in croquetas de bacalao, and featured in a myriad of entrees.  The unique gelatinous texture of the fish lends it regional dishes like Basque pil pil, where the slow poaching of bacalao in olive oil yields a thick, velvety sauce that is sopped up with crusty bread and washed down with Txakoli wine, or hard cider.

Bacalao will be arriving from our new producer, Alkorta, later this week.  Alkorta has a reputation for selling to the best restaurants in Spain, and we think its high-time that great quality salt-cod should be available stateside.  Alkorta is a small, family-owned business located in the mountains of Basque country.  They import line-caught, wet salted cod from Iceland and desalt the fish in cold spring water.  Salted cod loses 40% of its moisture content.  The process of desalting it can take several days and many changes of water.  The cod is separated into different cuts, the choice cuts being the loins and the tongues.  The cuts are then laminated in ice prior to shipping.

Once thawed, Alkorta’s desalted bacalao is ready to use; no soaking needed.  We will start by bringing in the loins and the less expensive flakes (used for making croquetas), but more obscure cuts like tongues and stomachs will by available by special-order.

Give us a call at 612.521.8725 to talk cod, or to inquire on pricing.

Happy eating!


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Not Your Mama’s Chicken of the Sea*

*Disclaimer: Ventresca is, however, the tuna of choice for Great Ciao mamas.

While bluefin tuna is the darkest and most commonly used for sushi.  Yellowfin tuna, “Atun Claro”, is the most commonly canned tuna.  The Bonito del Norte is known for its white flesh, exquisite flavor and delicate texture.  Bonito del Norte tuna is found in coastal waters of the Bay of Biscay in the Basque region of Spain during the summer season when they come north to dine on the Cantabrian Anchovy. During the summer they fatten up for their return journey south.

Just when the tuna are nice and fat, fishermen harvest them with fishing rods.  Each tuna is individually line caught and not netted; making them fully dolphin safe.  Once the fishermen arrive at the docks with the day’s catch, the highest grade tuna are auctioned off to premium canning companies like Ortiz and Arroyabe.  The big fish are processed right on the docks within twenty four hours of being caught, cooked in seawater, and canned in olive oil.  The result is the most tender, silky preserved tuna in the world.

Use these premium tunas for those appetizer presentations or tapas

Bonito Del Norte from Ortiz and Arroyabe

dishes’ where having a solid piece of tasty tuna is important.  One beautiful presentation is bonito del norte paired with thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, crunchy fleur de sel sea salt, and a drizzle of luscious Spanish extra virgin olive oil.  For a truly decadent product try the ventresca, (tuna belly) it is the softest, fattiest and most delicate part of the fish, referred to as the toro in sushi parlance.  It presents as lighter and sweeter on the palate than the loin.  A spoon is our preferred medium for ventresca tuna when we are looking for a transcendent tuna experience.

Flott Italian Yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Great Ciao carries the Bonito del Norte from Arroyabe and Ortiz, along with a family reserve Bonito del Norte from Ortiz that has been aged in the family cellars for an additional year.  If you are looking for a great tuna for more everyday use (because there’s nothing wrong with tuna salad) we also carry superb canned Yellowfin tuna in both retail and food service sizes from Flott in Italy.  All of our tunas are packed in olive oil, and sustainably fished using dolphin safe methods.
Happy Eating!

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Tasty Tuna

Bonito del Norte tuna is found in coastal waters of the Bay of Biscay in the Basque region of Spain during the summer season when they come north to dine on the Cantabrian Anchovy.   During the summer they fatten up for their return journey south.   Just when the tuna are in top shape, fishermen harvest them with fishing rods.   Within 24 hours they are cooked in seawater and packed by hand in olive oil.   The result is the most tender, silky preserved tuna in the world.

For a truly decadent and rich product try the Ventresca, tuna belly. It is the softest and most delicate part of the fish, referred to as the toro in sushi parlance.  It presents much lighter and sweeter on the palate than the rest of the flesh of the fish.

Use these products for those appetizer presentations or tapas dishes’ where having a solid piece of tasty tuna is important.  The jars of tuna and the canned Arroyabe have more uniform whole loin pieces.  The canned product has less consistency of size and can be a bit less tender due to the machine press.

Great Ciao carries the Bonito del Norte from Arroyabe and the Yellowfin tuna from Flott.  While blue fin tuna (thunnus thynnus) is the darkest and most commonly used for sushi, yellowfin, “Atun” (Thunnus albacares) is just slightly darker and more dense than albacore (Thunnus alalunga), the most commonly canned tuna. The Bonito del Norte (albacore) is known for its white flesh, exquisite flavor and delicate texture. Each tuna is individually line caught and not netted. They are fully dolphin safe.


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