Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Trip to Sunny Spain...via Williamsburg VA

When you think of cured Spanish olives, or sun-dried saffron, or thin-sliced Iberico ham,Toana, Virginia wouldn't normally spring to mind, but the truth is, it should. Nestled a mere twenty minute drive from me is little bit of Spanish heaven in the form of La Tienda, Don Harris and his family's living tribute to the flavors of Spain. Prompted by a post from fellow Virginia blogger Veronica of Veronica's Test Kitchen, I discovered that this internet purveyor of the very best Spain has to offer was in my own backyard, and I was immediately intrigued. If you have been reading my blog, you know that at our house Wednesday night is tapas night, a Spanish tradition of eating"little dishes" and so having the very best of Spain available was very exciting. My visit there was so enlightening and interesting that it fueled an article in the Taste section of our local paper the Daily Press, and I will be posting multiple entries here to capture it all for you.

I started by checking out the La Tienda website where I began to see not only the wonderful foods and other products that Don Harris imports from small farmers and producers across Spain but the love and respect that Harris and his family began cultivating from the time he was a Navy chaplain and was stationed there. By the time I had read some of the articles on the site, his product guides (which are an incredible resource) and Don's Reflections, I wanted to make a trip to the La Tienda retail store as much to meet him as to see and experience the tastes and sights and smells Spain here in Virginia.

I called ahead and made an appointment so that I could talk to Don and learn the story behind the foods he imports, how he became enthralled with Spain, and how he ended up locating his business in Toano. And of course, I was anxious to check out the products that I saw online. As I was ushered into La Tienda's corporate offices, I was impressed right away. I had to sign in and be issued an ID badge since they have very stringent rules for monitoring anyone who might come in contact with the food they import. Don explained that this was important to comply with Homeland Security regulations and ensure standards of safety for all the products they sell. I am not sure what impressed me most about Don Harris, his warmth and congeniality or his skill as a story-teller. This is clearly a man who has his priorities straight."I fell in love with Spain right away", he says,"It just felt like home" But what was it that attracted Don? He explained that he was impressed with the way Spanish life is focused around children. Not only one's own children, but all children are cherished, and family is everything. Don goes on to tell me that he was stationed in Spain during his time as a Navy Chaplain and that his oldest son was born there. When he retired, he wanted to use the contacts he made in Spain to start a business and began by importing tiles, but found that they often were broken and were hard to ship,so he began by importing some Spanish foods that he became familiar with. He built a clientele, and started polling his customers, many of whom are Spanish expats or people who have travelled to Spain for business or pleasure and want to recapture their experience there, about their interest in buying Jamon Serrano or Jamon Iberico, the famed hams of Spain. The response was overwhelming and Don began a ten year mission to import these unique hams that for years have been banned from import into the US. His business has expanded over the years, outgrowing first his basement, then a storefront, then warehouse before locating in his current facility.

As we wandered through the retail store, Don had a story for almost anything in his catalog. While his business has grown, one thing has not changed at La Tienda. The Harris family works with small producers and farmers all across Spain to bring the very best of Spain to his customers. It is something he is very proud of. He had me smell the deep rich scent of bittersweet pimenton, smoked paprika that is a staple in the Spanish kitchen. I tasted artisan olive oils,one with a peppery finish and another that was rich and buttery. He explained that the redness in his chorizo was from the addition of pimenton. The more he shared his enthusiasm and love for Spain and the products he hand-selects for his customers, the more I wanted to learn. I gathered up items from the store to make in my home kitchen, and reluctantly said goodbye to Don and La Tienda, ready to take what I learned from him, about food, life and family back to my own kitchen. And the best part, is that no matter how far away you live from Williamsburg, VA, the tastes of Spain are only a click away.

Next...Essentials for a Spanish pantry


jesse said...

Amazing! What a gem you've managed to discover, thanks for sharing!

Jane Gregg said...

Yes, La Tienda has wonderful Spanish products for those of us who need regular Spanish food infusions. I am also a Virginian (Charlottesville), and starting in late August I will be hosting a Spanish food/wine/culture series at Spain on Main, a language school here in town. We would love it if you came on over, even though it's a little further from you.

I organize culinary tours to Spain also. The website is epicureanways.com.


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Spanish Food