Too often when something new arrives, it’s celebrated for a short time and then forgotten. “[P]esto is the quiche of the 80’s,” went the wonderful Bruno Kirby during the awkward blind date scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” While not known as a food movie, this scene always stuck out in my mind when thinking about food because at the time, I didn’t understand food trends.
During the month of November, while the city prepped for turkey and its tryptophan aftermath, something happened quietly and deliciously over and over again at restaurants, retail venues, and even at a gallery space. It was officially called “Taste of Valencia” and was sponsored by food importer Solex Partners, food distributor JDY Gourmet, and the government of Spain. Unofficially, it was something that smacked of trend but promised something much more lasting.
“The main concern for this campaign is that people try things they’ve never tried before and that they understand the things they can do,” went Ana Cabral, chef and representative with JDY Gourmet. Instituto Cervantes hosted the first event as the preamble to the entire month of “Taste of Valencia.” From there, restaurants all over the city featured items prepared with these imported Valencian products along with retail stores that are now carrying the products. Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park is one of these spaces, and on an overcast night last November, Ana Cabral could be found explaining away not just these amazing foods but the culture of Valencia, Spain, as well.
“Olisoy Extra Virgin Olive Oil is derived from a single olive,” explained Ana. “Think of it as a wine made from a single grape. Most olive oils are blends; Olisoy is not. Its olives are very delicate with a mild and lean profile.”
From there Ana talked about 12-year Reserva Sotaroni Moscatel balsamic vinegar, that its aging imparts a creamy texture and sweet, rich complexity. She spoke in stories of sherry casks and Pedro Ximenez grapes, and for awhile, I forgot we were talking about something you actually eat. “And because of its acidic base, you can use it to brine meats!” she added, bringing me back to a place of not just eating but cooking.
Life in Spain is often referred to as manana culture. While Americans espouse the “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today” mentality, the Spanish channel a little more of the “put off for tomorrow” sentiment. Years later, our haste can help explain much of American cuisine with its insistence on instant this and microwavable that, time saved at the expense of not just flavor but health. In Spain, while they continue the tradition of leisure and put off those big meals for tomorrow, they tide themselves over with small, easy to prepare meals that many of us know as tapas.
Ana held out a small bread stick wrapped in Serrano ham. “Here. Try this.” I took a piece of ham, wrapped it around a tomato flavored breadstick, and popped it in my mouth.
“This looks devious, like any unhealthy snack you could find at any grocery store. What makes it different?” I asked.
“Besides no butter and that it’s baked, I think the flavors. The Spanish eat everything with bread sticks.” Ana then wrapped a piece of Seranno ham around one of the little bread sticks. “It’s a vehicle. In Italy, they have crostinis; in Spain, they have this. And it’s so crunchy. It tastes like it has cheese on it!”
Like a strange case of synethesia, all my senses were curiously entwined culminating in the place of Valencia. Olive oil on a piece of bread became an afternoon siesta. Dark chocolate amidst candied Valencia oranges – another treat Ana was offering – evoked a nighttime treat accompanied with some red wine loveliness even though it was just barely dusk, and I was in Chicago.
Fortunately, memories and imagination don’t have to be enough to rediscover or even discover for yourself the food treasures from this culinary mecca because they’re now available year-round at retail stores like Marion Street all over Chicago.