The first item in my gift basket, of course, had to be olive oil. Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oil in the world, according to the Olive Oil Times. In 2010 it produced 1.4 million metric tons of olive oil; Italy, its nearest competitor, produced 460,000 metric tons. My olive oil is from Pago Baldios San Carlos, which won the Gold Medal at the Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil contest in 2011. The contents of my bottle, however, are from the first harvest (Primera Cosecha) of 2012. This is a real premium product. I have to admit that it is not the olive oil I use in my daily cooking, or even for my usual lunchtime salad dressing.
Also in the category of expensive liquids is a Tio Pepe Jerez (Sherry); Palomino Fino, Fino Muy Seco. "A classic bone-dry sherry," according to La Tienda, a U.S. importer of "the best of Spain." I became intrigued with sherry production in Spain when we passed by the city of Jerez de la Frontera on our way home from a Thanksgiving Day in Cadiz a few years ago, without taking the sherry tour. Ever since, I have been making plans to go back to this center of sherry production to learn more, tour the bodegas, and try some samples. It used to be that large Tio Pepe bottle sculptures dotted the roadsides throughout Spain, but a law banning such ostentatious advertising has eliminated most of those today. The bottle of Palomino Fino in my gift basket doesn't look much like the bottles along the roadside anyway; it looks much more refined, just like the one in the manufacturer's website ad.
Finally, there is cava, that wonderful sparkling wine that Spaniards drink instead of champagne. I have a small (375 ml) bottle of Freixenet Carta Nevada Brut. Fortunately I thought in time that I had to get my treasures through U.S. Customs, and that there is a limit on how much alcohol one can bring in without paying duty.
What would Spanish food be without saffron, or azafran, as it is called here? I put in a package of azafran hebras, saffron threads. One of the attractions of this particular package from Azafranes Sabater was that it contains instructions for use in four languages. Here's the English:
(GB) INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE: To best using the saffron threads, roast them still protected by their paper envelope, by placing them onto the hotpot. Then grind in a mortar and add the ground saffron to the food you are preparing.This small, lightweight package the size of a deck of cards (but mostly filled with empty space) contains four envelopes. Nowhere does it say anything about how much food you should prepare for one packet, so it's a good thing I also bought a package called Paellero, from a local spice company called Carmencita. This package contains five packets, each designed to flavor enough rice for six servings (600/700 grams of rice). It also has instructions in English, though the basic instruction is "Before adding the rice, pour the contents of one sachet into the paella pan. Do not add any other spice." The ingredients list reports garlic, salt (25%), paprika, corn flour, colour, E-102, pepper, clove, and saffron (2.5%). If I had been able to read the ingredients list in the store, without glasses, I probably would not have bought it, especially since it goes on to say that E-102 may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.
If you're making paella, you need to have the right rice, so I included a 1 kg. package of Fallera D.O. Arroz de Valencia de grano grueso especial para paella. This is the large, round rice that is grown in the region of Valencia, where the conditions of heat and humidity are just right for rice, according to the package. Paella Valenciana does not have seafood in it, by the way; it has bits of chicken, duck, and rabbit.
Another main dish that requires saffron is fabada, a hearty white bean casserole from Asturias, in the northern part of Spain. A couple months ago I went to three different stores and found three different sizes of alubia fabada, or favas, the special white beans. For my basket I chose the medium-sized beans, from El Granero de Levante in Bigastro, a small town just 10 or 15 minutes away. In addition to favas and saffron, this dish needs chorizo and black sausage, and lacon, or salt pork, but none of those would pass through Customs, I'm afraid.
Also in my basket of great tastes from Spain is a small tin of bonito del norte en aceite de oliva, an excellent tuna fish in olive oil, and mermelada de tomate, this tomato marmalade from the province of Cantabria. These, plus olive oil, are excellent toppings for a toasted bread, or tostada, that we often eat when we are out for a late morning snack.
Last, but not least--certainly not least by weight--is the kilogram of Mediterranean sea salt I tucked in the basket at the last minute. I really didn't want to take a whole kilo, but that is how it is packaged. We live in the Torrevieja area, which is famous for its salt lakes, but the salt processed here is the type that is often found on the roads of northern Europe in the winter. You have to go a bit farther north on the coast toward Alicante to find the huge mountains that eventually turn into table salt. We see them on the way to and from the airport, and stopping at the salt museum is one of those things I mean to do some day when there is time. But there won't be time when I head up that way a couple days from now to catch my morning plane to Indianapolis. I'll be bringing some great tastes from Spain in my suitcase with me.