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On a road trip through the Spanish ecological map

There was an uncontained joy in the environment and very special energy. It was the first time in a long time that exhibitors participating in Organic Food Iberia left their virtual bubble to participate in a brick-and-mortar fair. Those fairs in which samples of wine and ham, are truly appreciated and networking is done in the old way: face to face. And I soaked up all these good vibrations instantly as soon as I crossed the threshold of pavilion 8 at IFEMA.

I had not heard of this exhibition until I received the invitation and searching for information about it, I understood why. It is a young fair, the first edition took place in 2019, which saw its steps truncated last year due to pandemic restrictions.

Organic Food Iberia is an international fair, organized by Diversified Communications UK in collaboration with IFEMA, and is also held in Australia, Sweden, and England. Currently, Spain is booming with organic agriculture and food production, so it was logical that it would have its event.

In fact, according to data from the organizers, Spain currently cultivates 2 million hectares of organic crops, the largest area in Europe and it is the fourth largest producer in the world. The consumption of organic products in Spain grew by 20% last year and we are already reaching the levels of other countries in the north of the European continent.

Spain currently cultivates 2 million hectares of organic crops, the largest area in Europe

In a fair of this type, the best thing is to walk and let yourself be carried away by your intuition, and this is what I did. In this time, I started in reverse mode, when my interest made me begin first with dessert and stop at the ice cream stand of the Runakay company, a pioneer in the production of artisanal and vegan ice cream. I have to say that the name is not the most accurate part of the product, since it is not very catchy and reminds you of a sports store, but the ice cream was delicious.

I was very kindly attended by Manuel Sanchez, the company’s delegate in Madrid, who gave me a taste of the mango sorbet, very rich, and the horchata with stracciatella that won my heart because it combines two of my favorite flavors. Luckily, I already can find it in Madrid so from now on it is included in my shopping basket.

Then I came across an interesting corner designated to “do a wine tasting yourself”, with a selection of organic wines. The most interesting of them was Granza Crianza 2015, made with Tinta de Toro grape by the Cyan winery from Matarromera group.

The DO Jumilla has played a prominent role in this fair, with a stand entirely dedicated to its wines. The answer is that its geographical conditions, in transition between the Mediterranean climate and La Mancha plains and its remarkable altitude, between 320 and 900 meters, and the climatic conditions give their vines a natural resistance to various pests, making it a perfect enclave for the production of organic wine. Currently, 70% of the wine produced in Jumilla is organic. A good example is Numun, from bodegas BSI.

My next stop was Dehesa de Luna winery, also located in the Albacete area. I must admit that I was attracted by the smell of the Iberico ham tasting. But this farm is much more than ham. Located in a unique enclave surrounded by 2,800 hectares of nature, it has been creating organic wines for 15 years from its centuries-old vineyards and protecting the fauna and flora that surround it.

Taking a break from wine, I came across a drink more unknown in Spain and full of healthy properties. Ginger beer, which is different from its companion ginger ale. Ginger beer is produced by fermentation like traditional beer. In California, ginger is a more than familiar spice, and an artisanal and fair-trade company from there, The Ginger People, has finally just arrived in Spain. In addition to this drink, they sell too really interesting products, such as ginger syrup, ideal for preparing healthy pancakes with a zen flair.

A farm as unique as Dehesa el Milagro requires a special mention. Behind a company with such a suggestive name is Blanca Entrecanales Domecq, who a little more than a decade ago turned a mix between dreams, utopia, and the search for a quiet life in what is now an established but innovative company. The project for this ecological farm was born in Alcañizo (Toledo) to treat Nature with the utmost respect so she, in return, returns us healthy products of the highest quality. On the farm, they try to be self-sufficient to the maximum through a closed production cycle in which the cattle are fed with their pastures and in which seasonal products are respected to the maximum.

The intention of its creator was also to make consumers participate in the excellence produced by the land. For this reason, its objective was to eliminate intermediaries in the distribution chain, and therefore its products can be purchased online. Their latest launches are a line of products already prepared such as meat for tacos, very rich, and also an ecological stuffed chicken with which they won the award for the best innovative product. We will have to have it on the radar for the festivities to come.

I still had two interesting stops to finish my tour of Organic Food Iberia. The ecological preserves Monjardin, a family business on the Navarra riverbank that has been producing quality products for more than 50 years. and another of my favorite products and which is now starting to hit the ground running in Spain: kombucha.

The first company in the country to make them by hand is Mun Ferments, created by Jordi Dalmau in Mataró in 2015. Kombucha, a common drink in yoga studios in the western United States, is a probiotic fermented drink made from green tea that improves intestinal flora and promotes the detoxification of the organism, and is also a guilty free soft drink since its composition of sugars and alcohol is very low.

In short, a very interesting route that combines tradition and innovation. Because they are not only compatible. They are a combination of success.

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Rice from Aragon, a high-altitude product

Not many know that Aragon, the Northeast under the radar Spanish region, has been producing rice since the 19th century. Although, indeed, its cultivation is quite a testimonial. Around 4,500 hectares compared to other communities such as Delta del Ebro, Valencia, Extremadura, and Andalusia.

Arrocera del Pirineo is one of its main producers. It is a second-degree cooperative made up of three other cooperatives in Aragon: Virgen de la Oliva, in Ejea de los Caballeros, San José in Sadaba, and Osca in Alcolea del Cinca. It is precisely in Alcolea where they have the mill that processes and packages the rice produced by the farmers of the cooperative exclusively.

70% of this rice is distributed in bulk, containers such as a big pack of 1,200 kilos or sacks of 25 kilos. This year it has been commercialized only in Spain, although normally a significant percentage is exported mainly to Middle Eastern countries: Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. “We produce a variety called Guadiamar, of crystalline semi-long rice that is highly appreciated in these countries,” explains Susana Hernández, director of the cooperative.

But the jewel in the crown is its own brand, Brazal, sold directly to consumers. It currently accounts for 30% of the production, although the cooperative’s objective is that in the future it will be the major form of distribution and sale. Brazal is a well-known brand in Aragon, but it can also be found in supermarkets in other cities such as El Corte Ingles and Alcampo.

We asked Susana Hernández what is special about Brazal rice and why the people that taste it become faithful followers: “Mainly the growing conditions. We are 500 meters above sea level. This creates challenges when it comes to cultivating because we are in a limit zone, we can only cultivate two or three varieties as we only count on 150 days from sowing to harvest”, she explains. “But this makes the maturation of our rice take place in September slowly, and this gives it a lot of quality. It absorbs the flavor a lot and it holds up very well without costing the consumer as much as Bomba rice, a variety that is widely used to cook paella”.

That´s why this product is highly valued by the hospitality industry and by a loyal public who, if they try it, don´t buy anything different. But it is difficult for this brand to make itself known outside of Aragon because Arrocera del Pirineo continues to have the limitations of a medium-sized entity to promote its product. “There have been promotional campaigns for Alimentos de Aragon in generic terms, but that does not mean a direct benefit to us,” she complains.

Another difficult challenge is the sharp decrease in cultivated hectares in recent years. According to official data, 4,500 hectares were cultivated last season. Ten years ago, the figure was around 12,000. One of the main causes is that younger farmers are not attracted to this crop, which requires more pampering and care than other cereals, especially during the summer.

The maduration of our rice take place in September slowly, and this gives it a lot of quality because it absorbs the flavor very well. Our rice is perfect to make paella

Another problem according to the director of Arrocera del Pirineo is that every year phytosanitary products disappear from the list of allowed products, without finding too many viable alternatives. Susana Hernández thinks that the rural and urban world continue to mutually turn their backs on many, despite what might seem a change of perception after the arrival of urbanites to the countryside after the Covid confinement. “Agriculture has to continue to be the main economic engine for the small villages, and our farms need to be economically viable. Add to this the bad reputation of rice for being a crop that consumes a lot of water. But this is not the case, because it is planted in clay fields. You put the water in, and it won’t go away”. On the other hand, rice crops take advantage of land that would be unviable for other crops, because they are very saline areas. “If there were no rice, it would be desert, with the consequent damage to the native fauna,” she says.

For her, the future is not particularly optimistic, but at least she does believe that the hectares cultivated today can be maintained. What her main objective is to grow the volume of their own brand. “It is a slow and continuous work, but we trust that consumers will continue to believe in the quality of our product”.

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Teruel: The High Desert Magic of Spain

Elena F. Guiral 

Teruel has a millenary agri-food culture developed in an arid, cold and hard land with the particular characteristics of the High Desert: heights estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 ft (600 and 1,300 meters) with short and very hot summers and summers cold and sunny but with presence of snowfall. This climate gives its cuisine a very particular personality reflecting those its inhabitants and their extraordinary ability to adapt to the territory.

In recent decades, farmers and producers in the province, mostly small farmes, are struggling day by day to preserve this millenary tradition. This is also the best way to fix population in a desertified territory, with 9 inhabitants per square kilometer, and to protect and care for the environment against the threat of climate change.

On the occasion of the XXV Teruel Cured Ham Fair, the Chamber of Commerce of the city organized a conference and a press visit last week to publicize the most representative food products of this area of ​​Spain in which I was fortunate to participate .

Here a review of its star products to interest your palate.

Cured ham

Eclipsed outside Spain by the famous Iberian ham, Teruel ham also has much to offer the most exquisite palates. Teruel ham is produced from the Duroc pig variety, native to the province, at 800 meters of altitude and after a curing and drying process that always exceeds 14 months. All the pieces keep the hoof of the pig, a numbered label and the Mudejar star engraved on fire as a guarantee of quality and distinction.

The first museum in the world of Ham of Teruel, Aire Sano Experience in Puebla de Valverde, has been recently open to inform the general public about the process of making such a special product. It gives you the opportunity to enjoy an interactive experience around this product thanks to the latest technologies, learn to cut ham virtually and finish your tour in the Museum store and restaurant that stands out for its careful preparation of local products such as cured ham, trout, peach and saffron.

Foto Jamon aire sano

Bajo Aragon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Centennial olive groves spread out through the province of Teruel, especially in the area of Bajo Aragón, Bajo Martín and Matarraña regions accustomed to the hard and generous winters in their production of local Empeltre, Arbequina and Royal olive varieties. More than 8,000 families are dedicated to grow it since it is a Denomination of Origin: its production has to meet a series of criteria established by the European Union. In fact, their producers are small and are grouped in cooperatives.

Juan Baseda, its technical director defines this Extra Virgin Olive oil as “soft, sweet, bit bitter and quite fruity, so it fits with everything.” Curiously, although in Aragon its consumption is very common, the denomination of origin finds it difficult to compete with the rest of olive oils in Spain since its price is higher and the consumer is accustomed to a more intense oil such as the picual, apart from the fact that its production is modest, between 5% and 10% throughout Spain. It is currently exported to the US and Asia, and is especially appreciated in Japan for its more subtle organoleptic qualities that harmonize perfectly with the delicacy of japanese cuisine.

Calanda Peaches

Yellow, large, soft and at the same time full of flavor for growing in dry land of hard and cold winters. This is a late summer crop due to the cold climate of the area.

They are really unique because of their large size, never less than 73 millimetres. Each box is composed of 20 pieces. This is achieved with a technique in which 70% of the tree’s production is eliminated when the fruits are the size of a tennis ball. In addition to this, the fruits that remain in the tree are pocketed in bags one by one to protect them from pests and maintain all the aroma and flavor that makes them an extraordinary product. In fact, only 10% to 15% of the production is certified as Calanda peach.

melocoton calanda

Aragon Ternasco

The ternasco of Aragon, a kind of lamb meat, was the first fresh meat recognized with a specific denomination in 1989 in Spain.

Lamb has a vital historical tradition in Aragon, where its consumption doubles that of the rest of Spain, since it is very important to fix the population in the rural environment as well as sustainable since sheperds labor helps fight wildfires.

The ternasco weighs between 8 and 12.5 kilos and has been exclusively fed with cereals and breast milk, so its meat is soft but tasty and also very healthy since it has a high protein content in vitamins of B3, B6 and B12 and is a source of zinc and phosphorus.

You could also say that it is a product that has become fashionable due to its versatility and the modernity of its new cuts and presentations.

ternasco de Aragon

Bajo Aragon wines

The climate and the cold and hard land also characterize the wines of Bajo Aragon area, many of them made from centuries-old vines and are already part of the history and landscape of the area.

This is a small group of only 20 wineries that have decided to bet on quality  to be able to compete with other production areas in Aragon as powerful as Borja, Cariñena, Calatayud and Somontano, recognized throughout the world.

Teruel black truffle

The black truffle is the best kept secret of Teruel, one of the world’s leading producers and is one of the best survival guarantees for the province, being a highly prized crop that grows precisely in the poorest soils in mountainous areas very limited for extensive crops such as cereals.

Truffles arise from the symbiosis with native trees such as holm oak, oak or hazelnut. Until a few decades ago they grew wild underground and were collected thanks to the help of truffle dogs. Nowadays it is possible to grow them in a controlled way.

In Teruel, the black truffle stands out in winter and the summer truffle, less intense in aroma and flavor but also very appreciated in the kitchen and that is increasingly causing more interest since its collection takes place in summer and is a good reason to attract tourism to the area during vacation time.

The Truffle Growers Association of Teruel (Atruter) was created in 1996 to advise and help the pioneer producers of this crop, although at present it focuses a good part of its activities on the promotion of this crop still relatively unknown to the gastronomy of Spain. In fact, they have prepared the world’s first tasting tab, which serves to distinguish Teruel Trufer melanosporum black truffle from the Trufer indicum that is imported from China and has a much simpler and less intense aroma and composition but is used sometimes instead of the black truffle because of its lower price.

That is why education and training is such an important task. That is why Sarrión, a town in Teruel known as the world capital of black truffles, organizes each year an Annual Fair and numerous activities to discover one of the wonders of the Spanish High Desert.

perro trufero sarrion

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Culinary collective: 15 years offering Spanish gourmet food all around the US

Elena F. Guiral 

Catalonians have always been great traders thanks to their geographical position in the NE of Spain in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. From one coast to another Pere Selles arrived to the Pacific NW more than 15 years ago to bring a piece from Spain to the US.

He began his company, today Culinary Collective, as many things happen in life, in an informal and adventurouos way. “A friend asked me if I could sell his olive oil here in Seattle so I began to see chefs all around the city with all my warehouse in the trunk of the car,” remembers.

One of his first clients was Tom Douglas, who loved his olive oil and his romantic way of working with a high dedication to an artisanal and high quality product. Soon the chefs asked for more products for their restaurants and Pere decided to incorporate more gourmet foods to his portfolio and to rent his first warehouse.

Today Culinary Collective is the most important Spanish gourmet food importer, with more than 150 references, and they deliver delicacies all around the US. Here in Seattle you can find their products at PCC, Metropolitan Market, Whole Foods, The Spanish Table and De Laurenti in Pike Place Market. But La Tienda.com, the most important on line Spanish food seller make them available to every corner in the country too.

When Pere looks for new products his criteria is clear: small-scale production of flavorful heritage food using traditional and environmentally friendly techniques and high quality.

Pere SellesThat´s why wandering through his Lynwood warehouse was something similar to walking in heaven for a Spaniard food lover like me: piles of paella rice bags, chicken broth, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, chocolate, canned vegetables and fish, Sherry Vinegar… and anchovies stuffed olives from L´Escala, one of the most beautiful towns in Catalonia, a flavor really difficult to find here in the US. And It´s fun to realize how The Culinary Collective is based in Seattle, the paradise of local, fresh and sustainable ingredients in the US.

Some of the products keep the original brand as in Spain, others are gathered by the brand “Matiz” created by the company. “We wanted not only to offer high quality but a beautiful package customized for the US consumers”.

A few years ago the company began to work with the Andean Region to bring diferent flavors mainly grains and flours know for being healthy, flavorful and gluten free, offering an amazing carbs alternative to people with gluten intolerance. These products are reunited under the label Zocalo.

One of the new brands that Culinary Collective are working with is Aneto 100% natural, a Spanish Company who is specialized in offering chicken and paella artisanal broths. They participated as sponsors in the International Food Bloggers Conference celebrated in Seattle last September to show how to prepare a tasty paella saving time and effort.

In fact, this is the main challenge for Pere Selles, co-founder of the company. “Our main clients are US citizens who have visited Spain and love our food and our traditions, but sometimes they don´t have the knowledge or experience to take full advantage of our products because there is nobody in the aisle of the supermarket to help them,”, explains.

The lack or Spaniard´s restaurants in the city, compared to French and Italian ones, don´t help to make seattlelites feel more familiar with our country´s cuisine too. “As I have experience working in restaurants in Chicago, sometimes I think I should go on that direction one day”, concludes Pere with a mysterious smile. I have to say It wouldn´t be a bad idea at all.

bodegon culinary collective

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Jump into the legumes lovers club with PNW Farmers Co-op

Legumbres modificada

Elena F. Guiral 

January, legumes time. Anyway, every month of the year. Legumes are a essential ingredient of Spain culinary heritage, due to their high content in proteins and carbs and to their affordability.

Legumes were associated in my country during a long time with fat, high cholesterol and unhealthy meals due to their traditional association with pork ingredients as tocino, chorizo and morcilla. Luckily this myth is down nowadays and bean, garbanzo beans and lentils are recovering their role in our cooking dishes again as a realy vesatile ingredient that will fuel you for hours.

I´m happy to see that legumes are more common nowadays into the American diet too although I see them most of the time in Hummus and Lentil Soup.

Luckily a few months ago I found through Twitter PNW Farmers Co-op Specialty Foods, a  cooperative based in Spokane that sells Eastern Washington and North Idaho production. Legumes are winter crops, resistant to ice and drought, so they are perfect to that area agricultural idiosyncrasy

I´ve always thought that the best way to be respectful with Mother Nature is to eat less meat, more veggies and local production. PNW Farmers Co-op mission fits perfectly with my idea, as Kim and me have discussed many times.

So I´m proud to share with you our particular collaboration with this cooperative. They will provide me ingredients to play in my kitchen and I will provide them new recipes most of them from our traditional Spanish heritage. And both of us will show you that preparing new dishes from dry legumes is easy, fun and healthy.

Ironically, many of the products that PNW Farmers Co-op has sent are new to me, like caviar lentils, so It´s going to be a trip full of discoveries for everybody. Do you want to join me?

Where you can buy PNW Farmers Co-op legumes