Since moving to Spain my yearly Christmas shopping has been a breeze. I scoff at you, Black Friday. I slowly shake my head at you, epically long Target lines. I feel for you, family members who have no idea what to buy each other. Thanks to the inexplicable lack of exportation of Spanish goods, America in general and Texas in particular are completely void of the wonders that fill the shops, markets and stores of Spain.
One Sunday afternoon at the massive Rastro flea market and I could easily find enough scarves, paintings and knick-knacks to fill my family’s stockings. An evening strolling down Fuencarral and I could fill my suitcase with sufficient Calzedonia leggings (let’s admit, the Italians are just so much better at stretchy leg wear than Americans), Parfois accessories and Zara clothes to shower my cousins with Christmas presents.
But let’s be real. I’m not living in Spain for the clothes or the home decor. My Spain obsession centers squarely on the food. And therefore it is jars and bottles and vacu-sealed packages that fill my Christmas luggage. Unfortunately, U.S. Customs (like every country’s customs control) makes taking home Spanish deliciousness just a tad bit harder than gifting a heap of Zara shirts.
For the past two years I’ve guessed and hoped and stressed about the foodie gifts in my suitcase, praying that I wouldn’t open it at home to find TSA had confiscated all of my Christmas presents. This year, though, I’ve done my research.
With some help from the U.S. Embassy here in Madrid, my foodie Christmas gifts will (for the first time) be 100 percent U.S. Customs and Border Patrol approved! Adios nine hours of mid-Atlantic stressing! To see the full list of U.S. Customs cans and cannots click here. A quick note: tragically just about every type of meat product is forbidden, meaning no chorizo, no salchichón and no jamón.
Here are the Spanish food treasures that make for relatively easily packable and guaranteed delectable foodie Christmas gifts. (If you are a member of my family please stop reading here or at least pretend to be surprised when you open your Christmas presents this year…)
It has taken me more than two years of living in Spain to get over my bias against canned items. For my entire American life I have understood canned food to be the easier and significantly lower quality versions of things that could be either fresh or homemade. Canned tuna, Campbell’s soup, canned green beans… helloooo nasty.
But, as I’ve finally come to accept, the Spanish have a completely different view of my much-dreaded cans. After tasting the oily joy of mejillones en escabeche (pickled mussels) and zamburiñas en salsa gallega (small scallops in a Galician-style sauce) my ideas about food from tins were turned on their head. Here in Spain some of the best seafood goes straight to the can via artisanal procesees that date back centuries. Only the plumpest mussles, clams and octopus make into into escabeche. And because they are pickled, they last longer and will get through customs and are very unlikely to burst open when my suitcase gets chucked onto the conveyer belt! Stellar conservas can be found in most neighborhood markets, usually in the stalls that also sell olives. I’d recommend Mercado Barceló, a newly opened giant of a market right behind the Tribunal metro stop. This three-story markethas one stall dedicated entirely to gourmet conservas and another that has a variety of gourmet products including the fantastic conservas in the picture above.
This basic building block of all the wonderfulness of Spanish cuisine is as versatile as a gift as it is as a cooking ingredient. From my dad, who reads cookbooks for fun, to my I-have-no-time-to-cook-I’m-in-grad-school sister, olive oil has always been one of the most sought after gifts in my family.
Seeing as crappy olive oil is more than twice as expensive in the States as good olive oil is in Spain, I load my suitcase up with plastic bag wrapped liters of the stuff. For an inexpensive and still marvelous bottle, try the Mercadona brand extra virgin, which comes in both glass and plastic depending on how you’re doing with the luggage weight limit.
For a truly excellent bottle of extra virgin olive oil browse the shelves of the Fundacion Patrimonio Comunal Olivarero on Mejía Lequerica, 1 near Chueca. This foundation’s mission is to ensure and protect the quality of Spanish extra virgin olive oils, therefore the only oils present on their shelves meet their stringent quality and production standards.
The biggest advantage of this store is that it sells oils in tin containers, which as the extremely helpful shop attendant explained to me, is a much safer way of transporting olive oil since the tin can bend. With the changes in temperature and cabin pressure in the hold of an airplane, the oil will expand and contract. If it´s in a glass bottle all of that added pressure gets concentrated on the cork or lid. If the top has any defects that could mean a messy explosion of oil all over the innards of your suitcase.
Yes! You can bring cheese from Spain into the U.S.! Finally I can share the joys of aged Manchego and creamy Arzúa and pungently perfect Cabrales with my family in the States! Although the Carrefour conveniently located across the street from my apartment has a rather impressive international cheeses, if I’m going to truck a wheel across the ocean I’m willing to walk a few extra blocks for the fabulous stuff.
The experts at Quesería Conde Duque on Calle Conde Duque, 15 suggested choosing a more mature cheese or one with a harder crust so that it will hold up better during travel. Stick it in a tupperware and then wrap the tupper in newspaper to both insulate the cheese and to contain its smell from seeping throughout all the clothes in your suitcase. Quesería Conde Duque is a gorgeous haven of artfully displayed cheese and, in my opinion, the hands down best place to buy good cheese in Madrid. It is my happy place of quesos where the cheese experts are super friendly, the samples are plentiful and the cheese… well it’s just freakin’ great. Not to mention every cheese sold here is organic and produced by small artisan cheesemakers, almost all of which are in Spain.
Paprika, like turrón, is one of those perfect little packages to bring home for Christmas. It often comes in adorable tins decorated with all the typicalness of Spain, it’s super cheap (about 2 euro per tin) and there is very little chance of it exploding all over my suitcase. Not to mention it has about a thousand times more flavor than the paprika you can get in the U.S. Why? History of course.
The peppers used to make Spanish smoked paprika are actually originally from America, brought back by Columbus to the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella after his second voyage to the “New World.” This spice, known as pimentón in Spanish, is now so fundamental to Spanish cooking that the two regions that produce it are regulated under domination of origin controls, just like wine. Pimentón de La Vera, perhaps the most popular, was first produced by monks in the 17th century and is still grown and smoked in the same traditional method. You can find it’s small red tins in just about every grocery store in Madrid and (for twice the price) at the duty-free shops in the Barajas airport.
Could there possibly be a more cheer-bringing gift than wine? Particularly when that wine comes from one of Spain’s multitude of spectacular wine regions. My parents are big-bodied cabernet fans so for them I steer toward wines from the Toro, Ribera del Duero and Bierzo regions. My sister, on the other hand, tends towards frutier whites and lighter reds. For her I go for white Godellos from Galicia, Cavas from Cataluna or young Riojas. Hands down the best wine store in Madrid is Baco on Calle San Bernardo, 117. They have the best selection of Spanish wines at the best prices I’ve seen in the city, from a 4 euro joven Somontano to a 40 euro 15-year-old Rioja. The owner is a rather gruff looking man of few words but his recommendations are always spot on.
Turrón may just be the most perfect Christmas gift ever invented. It comes in more varieties than I can count including a ton of chocolate flavors, it is super easy to wrap and always looks pretty under the tree, and it is one of those “super typical” Spanish Christmas delights, meaning it’s authenticity factor is through the roof.
That being said there is good turrón and there is no so good turrón. Every supermarket in Spain is stocked to the brim right now with the classics: blando, which is kind of like an almond butter brick, duro which is basically hard toffee filled with almonds, and Suchard’s chocolate which, in my opinion, is the best of the grocery store bunch and the one that always sends my suitcase way over the 50 pound weight limit.
On the other end of the turrón spectrum are the works of art that are gourmet turrón. For these gorgeous bars of Christmas cheer, Casa Mira is unrivaled. This artisan shop has been at the top of Madrid’s turrón making game for more than 100 years. Beyond the classics they’ve also got a coconut turrón, turrón with fruit and a carmel-almond turrón that look heavenly.