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15 years experience growing peppers and cucumbers

Christmas Paprika at the Ferry Plaza

The Pepper People

Family Farming Specialty Peppers in the San Francisco Bay Area Since 1980

The Reign of Spain

Specialty Spanish ingredients are spicing up kitchens throughout the Bay Area

Now that you've made a permanent place in your pantry for balsamic vinegar, Arborio rice, Tuscan olive oil and other Italian essentials, you'll need to clear space for the next must-haves: the flood of fine ingredients from Spain.

 

They aren't all new to the West Coast -- local stores have long stocked sherry vinegar -- but the availability and prominence of first-rate Spanish groceries has skyrocketed in recent years. Imported chorizo, serrano ham, pimenton de La Vera and piquillo peppers have captured the attention of Bay Area chefs and home cooks, boosting sales at specialty retailers like the Spanish Table and LaTienda.com.

The marketplace "has changed completely," says Penelope Casas, whose influential first book, "The Food & Wines of Spain," (Knopf, 1979) had to guide readers in making paella without the right Spanish rice, and romesco without the appropriate dried peppers. "It's easier to get the proper taste now," says Casas.

Spain now rivals Italy as a food lover's destination, with tourists lured by the gastronomic renown of towns like San Sebastian. Steve Winston, who opened the Spanish Table in Seattle in 1995 and now has four stores -- including one each in Berkeley and Mill Valley -- attributes much of his business growth to the fame of avant-garde Spanish chef Ferran Adrià. "El Bulli (Adrià's restaurant) changed everything," says Winston. "It made people really aware of Spanish cooking and raised its image a huge amount."

Each year, more than a million Americans visit Spain, says Winston, and they come home with the desire to duplicate the dishes they tasted there, especially paella. Any ingredient related to paella sells briskly at the Spanish Table, from Valencia rice, saffron, paprika and chorizo to the wide-bottomed paella pans themselves. Today's customers, to Winston's astonishment, are buying one pan for their kitchen and another, bigger one for cooking outdoors. "I never expected to sell more than one pan to a person, but we do," says the retailer.

With the imminent arrival, anticipated for May of this year, of the first imported jamon iberico -- Spain's most esteemed air-dried ham -- the Spanish pantry in America will be all but complete. If you haven't stocked up yet, the following guide will steer you to some of the best foodstuffs from Spain.

Boquerones: These vinegar-cured anchovy fillets are typically packed in olive oil, sometimes with seasonings like garlic or hot pepper. Unlike the more familiar salt-cured anchovies sold in cans and jars, boquerones are snow-white from their vinegar marinade and have a pronounced pickled taste.

A single boqueron on a slice of baguette "is one of the original tapas," says Kevin Hogan, wine buyer for the Spanish Table in Berkeley. Spread aioli on the bread first, if you like, to balance the anchovy's tartness. Boquerones also play a role in banderillas, the colorful toothpick tapas that typically include olives, pearl onions, shrimp, piquillo peppers or other cold ingredients skewered together.

Unlike salted anchovies, boquerones are never cooked or chopped. "They tend to be laid on top of things," such as salads, says Hogan. Although they are already marinated, you can enhance them by bathing them for an hour or two in extra virgin olive oil, finely minced garlic, chopped parsley and a pinch of hot pimenton (Spanish paprika).

Chorizo: Palacios, a firm in the Rioja region, was the first Spanish pork sausage producer to satisfy U.S. import requirements, and its chorizo began showing up in Bay Area markets a few years ago.

Unlike Mexican chorizo, a fresh sausage that must be cooked before eating, Spanish chorizo is fully cured and ready to eat. Seasoned abundantly with paprika and garlic, the Palacios product is available in both hot and mild styles and in two different formats. The longer link, weighing almost half a pound, is hard and dry, intended for enjoying like a cold cut.

 

"It's almost sacrilegious to do anything other than slice it up and eat it," says Hogan. Bring it to room temperature, slice it thinly on the diagonal, and serve it as a tapa with red wine. The smaller links, weighing about 1 1/2 ounces each, are a little softer and a better choice for use in paella and other cooked dishes.

Jamon serrano, jamon iberico: In 1996, Don Harris, a retired Navy chaplain who had lived in Spain, launched LaTienda.com to sell Spanish tiles. The following year, he added jamon serrano, air-dried mountain ham from Spain, a delicacy unavailable in the United States before then because Spain had no USDA.-approved slaughterhouses. The serrano ham that Harris and others began selling in the late 1990s survived USDA scrutiny only because the Spanish curing plants had agreed to use non-Spanish pork.

"We built our business a lot on jamon serrano," says Harris. Similar to prosciutto but dryer, nuttier and more intense, jamon serrano is cured with salt, then air dried for 12 to 18 months. The more mature it is, the more concentrated its flavor. Few tapas bars in Spain are without a jamon serrano, the whole leg resting in a cradle on the bar. The barman slices it to order by hand with a long, thin knife and serves it without adornment.

Harris still has occasional difficulties with import inspectors, who don't understand the nature of the product. "We're educating them, but it's been a long process," says the online merchant. One inspector initially demanded that La Tienda put cooking instructions on packages of sliced jamon serrano because the product was technically raw.

"When we brought in jamon serrano with the bone in, they didn't want to let it in because it was moldy," recalls Harris. "Mold means it has been cured. It's a plus, not a minus. So we went to the undersecretary of agriculture and put one of these things on his desk, along with an Italian (prosciutto), which is moldy, and a Smithfield ham, which is moldy. Finally, they decided mold was OK."

Andy Booth, a partner in the Spanish Table in Mill Valley, keeps a whole bone-in jamon serrano at home for entertaining. "It definitely gets everyone's attention," says Booth, who stores the ham in his unheated spare bedroom and brings it out for guests. After slicing as much as he needs, Booth lays scraps of fat over the cut surface to keep it from drying out. It will last for at least six months without becoming moldy if kept in a cool place, says Booth; a wine cellar would be ideal.

Later this year, serrano ham will likely be upstaged when the first Iberian ham arrives in the United States. Made exclusively from the pata negra (black-foot) pig, a Spanish breed renowned for its richly marbled meat, the silky jamon iberico elicits rapture from those who have tried it. Even more sought after is the bellota ("acorn") ham, an Iberian ham made from a pig that was fattened on acorns. "There's nothing like it," says Winston. "It melts in your mouth. The fat in particular is really buttery."

Currently, several thousand Iberian hams and several hundred bellota hams are aging at Embutidos Fermin, a small Spanish curing house with that country's only U.S.-certified slaughterhouse. Taylor Griffin, president of a Maine import company that is a partner in the venture, says he expects the first shipment of jamon iberico in May, with the bellota ham following a year later. Both will be gold plated -- about $75 a pound for the boneless iberico and nearly twice as much for the bellota -- but will not lack takers.

More than 200 La Tienda customers have put down $200 deposits to secure one of the first Fermin hams, despite estimates of $750 for the Iberian ham, $1,200 for the bellota.

"It doesn't faze them," says Harris. One California customer chided him for not offering a nicer slicing stand. "She said, 'You don't expect me to put my ham in that cheesy thing,' " recalls Harris, who previously offered only a $59 model. "So now we have one that's mahogany so you can spend another $700 to $800 on your stand."

For ordinary mortals, Harris says La Tienda will sell packages of sliced Iberian ham for under $40.

Pimenton: Spanish paprika, or pimenton, adds a warm, earthy fragrance to paella, bean soups, potatoes, lamb and seafood. Manufacturers package mild (dulce), medium (agridulce) and hot (picante) styles, depending on the peppers used, but the real excitement in recent years has centered on pimenton de La Vera, a paprika made in the Extremadura region from oak-smoked peppers.

According to Winston, pimenton de La Vera was little known outside its sparsely populated region until about a decade ago. In the past, the area's tobacco farmers would keep their harvest dry in Extremadura's damp climate by storing the tobacco in a barn heated with a wood fire. Peppers, hung in the flue to dry, were merely a sideline. Now all Spain has embraced this smoky seasoning, and La Vera has largely shifted its farm output from tobacco to peppers.

"In the last year, sales have doubled for pimenton," says Harris, who mostly sells the smoked La Vera variety. "I don't know what (people) do with it all."

Sprinkle pimenton de La Vera on chicken, steamed cauliflower, braised pork ribs or buttered potatoes. Add a dash to homemade mayonnaise or a dusting on deviled eggs. Most first-time users quickly decide it's indispensable.

Pimientos de padron: In Spain's tapas bars, these tiny green peppers are blistered in olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served sizzling hot. Diners pick them up by the stem and consume them in one bite, a salty nibble as irresistible as French fries. Most of the peppers are mild, but a random few are spicy, which raises the excitement quotient.

David Winsberg, proprietor of East Palo Alto's Happy Quail Farms, planted a trial plot of pimientos de padron about six years ago, encouraged by a friend who had encountered them in Spain. The harvest from those first 100 plants found an audience, and demand has soared since. "We're up to 10,000 plants," says Winsberg, who sells the specialty peppers at farmers' markets and to restaurants such as Zarzuela, Delfina and Boulevard in San Francisco; and Cesar in Berkeley and Oakland.

At the going rate, pimientos de padron are not an everyday vegetable. A small plate of them commanded $12 at Bocadillos, the San Francisco restaurant, last fall. "We have to get a premium price," says Winsberg, who cites high labor cost. The peppers are so small -- about 200 to a pound -- that it takes two people almost two days to pick 300 pounds. Interested tasters have time to start saving: This year's harvest won't begin until June.

Piquillo peppers: Prized for stuffing, petite piquillo peppers have sweet red flesh and a wide-mouthed heart shape. They are imported from Spain in jars, already roasted and peeled.

Connoisseurs say the finest ones come from the town of Lodosa, in the region of Navarra; check the label for the Lodosa name. They are expensive -- about $9 for an 8-ounce jar -- but beware of cheap brands, some of them from Peru.

The peppers in the low-priced tins are often not as meaty or nicely shaped, and some taste strongly of citric acid.

How to use them? "You name it," says Hogan. "Everything from half a piquillo slapped on a hunk of tuna with a toothpick in it, to salt cod mousse-stuffed peppers with pepper coulis," the latter a creation of Basque chef Gerald Hirigoyen, at San Francisco's Piperade.

Spanish cooks stuff piquillos with salt cod or ground meat and bake them, or fill them with tuna salad and serve them cold, a favorite staff lunch at Berkeley's Spanish Table.

They can be emptied straight from the jar into a frying pan with olive oil and garlic to make a quick side dish for roast lamb.

Dice them and add them to rice salad. Slice them and arrange on paella. Or slit them and lay them flat in an egg salad sandwich or on a hamburger.

Happy Quail Farms began growing the peppers two years ago, so Bay Area shoppers may encounter some fresh piquillos this summer.

 

Rice: Successful paella requires a short- to medium-grain rice that absorbs a lot of liquid and produces a slightly clingy texture when cooked. In years past, American recipe writers, including Casas, often suggested Italian Arborio as a substitute for the Spanish rice that was unobtainable here. No longer.


Today, American paella enthusiasts can easily purchase the same Valencia rice that is used on paella's home ground. More particular cooks seek out rice from Calasparra, a growing region south of Valencia with a denominacion de origen, or protected-name status, similar to a wine appellation. And some paella enthusiasts go one step further, insisting on Calasparra-grown Bomba, a short-grain variety renowned for its absorptive capacity. Whereas most paella recipes suggest using twice as much broth as rice, Bomba can soak up 2 1/2 to 3 times its volume. "More broth in, more flavor out," says Hogan.

America's paella aficionados have embraced the costly grain. "The Bomba is around twice the price of the Calasparra, and we have twice the sales," says Harris.

Tuna: High-priced Spanish tuna packed in olive oil has burnished the image of canned tuna in this country. Spaniards have never looked down their nose at it, and rightly not. The firm, meaty and mild North Atlantic bonito packed by the Spanish firm Ortiz merits showing off in tapas and composed salads, such as Salade niçoise.

For a transcendental experience, open a tin of Ortiz ventresca, the pricy tuna belly, which is as unctuous and silky as foie gras. In Spain, ventresca is used in ways that are "simple, simple, simple," says Hogan. "It's like a beautiful piece of serrano ham: The less you do, the more people are happy. Present it on a plate of dressed greens, or on a plate by itself."

Vinegar: Aged Spanish sherry vinegar contributes a nutty, mellow note to vinaigrettes, gazpacho and braises. Add a splash to roasted beets or braised red cabbage. Deglaze the pan with sherry vinegar when sauteing chicken or pork chops or roasting pork tenderloin. Some producers maintain their vinegar in a solera similar to that used for sherry, so each bottle is a blend of many vintages. Others, like the exquisite Toro Albala, are the product of a single vintage.

New on the American scene is Moscatel vinegar, made from the Spanish Moscatel (Muscat) grape. Some versions are dark and sweet, not unlike balsamic vinegar. The Mas Portell Moscatel vinegar, labeled as bittersweet, has an amber color and a more subtle sweetness, ideal for enlivening glazed carrots, parsnips or beets. Chef Hirigoyen likes to reduce Moscatel vinegar by half to give it the texture and concentration of balsamic vinegar.

Despite the warm reception for many of these Spanish products in the United States, Winston is not convinced that there is still more to plumb. His own recent buying trips for the Spanish Table have taken him to Latin America in search of new food items.

"I think we've exhausted what's unique about Spain," says Winston, "but it doesn't keep us from looking."