Spring in Spain with Our Amazing Gourmet Producers

This is one in a series of re-posts from past travels by Culinary Collective team members. Culinary Collective travels the world to find the very best gourmet traditional foods, supporting small producers who have strong ties to their lands and their communities. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination – delicious food! 

By Marion Sproul

I have a confession to make: Over 25 years in this industry and 10 years of helping to build Culinary Collective and the “business of doing business” had pretty much left me exhausted and rather jaded about the specialty foods business and the way it is conducted today.

The thought of another “business” trip to Spain didn’t bring up the same feelings of excitement and adventure that it would have years ago, but something about this trip did grab me, it was not another show or business trip, it was an invitation from a number of our producers who really wanted to be able to share their stories, history and families with us to help us understand what they do and why they do it.

Us meant myself, Eric Davis our Regional Sales Manager and two of our brokers, Sara Nakata from McKenna Marketing on the West Coast and Alexandra Sofis-Hudson from Luke/Mckenna on the East Coast.

It was a trip whose mantra each day became “how can it be any better than the day before?” But, every day was better. It was a trip of such personal warmth and hospitality that at times we found ourselves literally speechless, not just from the graciousness of our hosts and the people that we met every day, but also from the beauty of the places that we saw and the history in the stories we were told. It was a series of very, very wonderful experiences:

Our trip began with Rosa and Paco at Castillo de Caneña, located in Andalucia, in the province of Jaén, the world’s leading region in the production of extra virgin olive oil. The Vaño family’s relationship with olive groves and the extra virgin oils began centuries ago, with documents of the Register of Úbeda showing land ownership dating back to 1780. Rosa and Paco’s Great-Great-Grandfather continued with the family tradition and methods and they in turn are maintaining the traditions of olive oil production of their ancestors.

We spent the first two nights at the Castillo de Canena, the castle of Canena that was built in the sixteenth century and subsequently purchased, restored and preserved with the utmost care by the Vaño Family. We toured the region and the extensive olive groves by day and by night we dined on a regional rice specialty prepared over an open fire in their “hunting Lodge” by arguably the best Cook of this dish in the region. Over dinner, Rosa and Paco shared their family history with us.

Next came a walking tour of Seville, one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain. We had lunch prepared for us by a very well-known local chef who treated us to an assortment of local regional dishes. Our hostess, Cristina Bilboa, was extremely generous with her time and translations.

Cristina took us on a tour of the vineyards Jerez, famous for its sherry and sherry vinegars.

We met the farmers that make up the cooperative that produces the lovely grape must and sherry vinegars for Aecovi, our source for these distinctive products. The farmers showed us how they graft the famous buds onto root stock and we experienced what makes this land so special and why the products from here are so unique. This land was once under the sea. We found seashells in the midst of the vineyards!

We toured the facility where the sherry wines and vinegars are produced and learned about the Solera system of casks that they use. We tasted the Sherry wine during during different times of its life.

We drove to Castilleja de la Cuesta where Francisco, the owner of Prieto Gordillo, the small bakery where since 1870 his family has hand-crafted the Tortas de Aceite that our customers love so much. After our tour, I couldn’t help but feel blessed as we sat in the town square surrounded by trees bursting with oranges, drinking coffee that their neighbor who owns a café brought to us to enjoy on this warm and sunny day and listening to the stories of the town’s history and how it was when Francisco was growing up and his grandparents were running the bakery.

Next up was a drive through the beautiful countryside Zahara de la Sierra which is one of the villages along the “White Villages Route”. This village is located in the Sierra del Jaral, a mountain range in the northeastern tip of the province of Cadiz and right in the heart of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, which has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO for its outstanding ecological value.

Here we visited the olive mill of Oleum Viride and learned how the outstanding quality of this organic XV olive oil made with Lechin and Manzanilla de Zahar olives is due to the unique climatic conditions and the higher altitude of this unique region with the greatest rainfall in Spain. Standing on their veranda tasting their oils and looking out to the village of Zahara de la Sierra, we truly felt the essence of this most wonderful place.

We then met with the fifth generation beekeeper who walked us through the entire process of process of collecting the honey from the bees that run free in the Grazalema & Alcornocales natural parks of the Cadisz region of Spain. He showed us the building, maintaining and harvesting of the honey boxes and honey.

We visited the Salina, the salt marshes, outside of Cadiz, where we get our sea salt. Seeing the salt beds that were dug in Roman times, walking along the cobblestone roads and listening to the history of this fifth generation salt harvesting family as well as being served lunch by the matriarch of the family left us all feeling embraced by this wonderful family. We were truly thankful that we had this opportunity to meet them.

Really, for me this trip was all about WHY we are in this business, the wonderful products, the fabulous people who produce them, their history, their traditions, their culture and realizing how truly blessed we are that we are in a “business” where we can bring these products, the producers and their stories to all of our customers here in the U.S. This trip was an embodiment of all that is important and special about Culinary Collective.

It made me stop and think and re-evaluate the importance of all of this in my life. It’s not all about our sales projections or free fills or marketing programs, it truly is about Luis and how he grafts the buds on the root stock to bring us our sherry vinegar, about Francisco and how he knows each day what portions of ingredients to put into his dough based on the weather, about the agony that the Ruiz Family goes through when they are about to have the highest tide in 75 years that could wipe out their salt beds for this Season..It’s about the food, the people, our “community” and how we live our lives….I am truly thankful that I’m able to experience this.