Monday, May 05, 2008

Crazy for Conservas


When I think of processed foods the first things that come to mind are newfangled convenience and artificial ingredients. But that's not the case with all processed foods. In Spain, preserving vegetables and seafood is a very traditional craft. Olives, piquillo peppers, anchovies and tuna are just a few of the most common "conservas" you'll find.

In Barcelona there is a famous tapas bar called Quimet y Quimet that specializes in using conservas and many shops are filled with precious treasures in cans and jars. I recently got a chance to try some of the products being sold online by AJ Gourmet and was really impressed. The father and son partners are passionate about Spanish foods and import a terrific array of olives, especially stuffed ones.

I talked to Andy Weiss to find out how his stuffed olives were different from the more typically available ones. He told me that the stuffed olives you find in most markets are for the most part standard queens, a large variety that is a bit woody and a tad bitter but easy to stuff (also known as gordales in Spanish) and standard manzanillas. They are generally stuffed with a composite paste that is chosen more for the ease of stuffing than for quality. Worst of all the pimiento in most stuffed olives is not pimiento at all, but a red gel.

AJ Gourmet uses manzanillas finas, the highest quality available, and stuffs them with real products to achieve a flavor balance between the natural nut like flavor of the olive and the unique stuffings. The blue cheese olives are stuffed with a Spanish Cabrales cheese. Other exotic flavors include olives stuffed with real piquillo peppers and olives stuffed with Valencia orange peel. Even the liquid bring is of artisanal quality rather than just plain salty water.

I was pleased to learn that Andy is working with his producer friends in Spain to introduce some new combinations including salmon, shrimp and tuna stuffed manzanilla olives. He willl also be bringing in grilled artichokes and other Spanish specialties including some more seafood items. I can't wait to try them!