Archive for the ‘General’Category

Tips for packing food and wine in a suitcase

bubble wrap packing for wineWhen we posted What to buy in an Italian grocery store and What to buy in a Spanish grocery store, we neglected to mention how to get those delicacies home. International airline security restrictions limiting liquids, gels, and pastes (including most soft foods) to 3 ounces in carry-on luggage means entrusting your goodies to the gorillas who slam around checked luggage.

Leaving home, we try to fill our checked bags only halfway, taking up the extra space with bubble wrap and really large plastic bags. (A friend once suggested we have a bag fetish.) Hefty One-Zip 2 1/2 gallon bags are ideal. A few 1-gallon sliding zipper plastic bags are also handy. Small items like jars of anchovies, truffle oil, or pistachio butter from Sicily can go in the gallon bags after each is padded with some bubble wrap (the smaller the bubbles the better).

Bottles of wine and olive oil are a little trickier, since they’re bigger and make an unholy mess if they break. We haven’t had a suitcase ruined, but we did manage to saturate a Spanish rental car trunk with two liters of Núñez del Prado olive oil.

We tend to wrap each bottle in a plastic laundry bag (thank you, hotel), then in bubble wrap before inserting into a Hefty. Each of these mummy-wrapped bottles is packed strategically in the suitcase padded by lots of dirty clothes. Practically speaking, this means no more than 3-4 big bottles per suitcase to stay under the airlines’ increasingly strict weight limitations.

If you’re flying an airline that allows two pieces of checked baggage, you can also ship wine in its own box. Ideally, that would be a box with styrofoam shipping inserts (sometimes called a “wine shipper”), but we’ve had good success with a standard wine case and lots of bubble wrap (limiting you to about 8 bottles per 12-bottle case). Attach a secure handle, which can be made from strapping tape, and pray you’re not flying Alitalia, which requires you to sign a waiver before they will accept the box as checked luggage. (They won’t guarantee safe arrival–or even arrival at all.)

30

12 2009

What to buy in a Spanish grocery store

SpanishpimentonWe love visiting fresh markets when we travel. But except for dried herbs and spices, most of the goods won’t make it through US Customs. Once we’ve snapped dozens of photos of mounds of vegetables and tables of glistening fish on ice, we head to a neighborhood grocery store (the kind where homemakers, not tourists, shop) to stock up on food essentials to bring home.

Here’s our Spanish grocery list:

Saffron

Spaniards claim their saffron is the world’s best and price it accordingly. The larger the container, the better the deal. We usually purchase saffron in 20-gram boxes or larger. (A half gram is sufficient for a 15-inch paella.) Stored in an airtight container out of the light, it will keep up to seven years—or so we have been told. It never lasts that long for us.

Pimentón de la Vera

It’s hard to resist the colorful tins holding smoked paprika from Extremadura. The earthy red spice with a mild hint of smoke seasons chorizo and most forms of paella. It’s most commonly available as dulce (sweet) or picante (hot). Dulce, which is slightly hot, adds a touch of warmth and deep coloring to rice dishes and soups. It is the main paprika used in Spanish sauces (including Bravas). Use the picante sparingly. It heat approaches as most Mexican chile peppers. If we plan to make a barbecue dry rub, we look for the less common ahumado, which has a strong smoky component.

Sea Salt

Flaked sea salt is a current foodie favorite, but we prefer the coarser Spanish sea salt sold for roasting fish or fowl. It can be ground in a salt grinder to use at the table or tossed into liquids as a seasoning. Our favorite brand, Sal Costa from the Costa Brava, costs less than a half euro per kilo.

fishtins

Canned fish

Spaniards are canning geniuses. Their tinned anchovies, oysters, squid, octopus, clams, and sardines supply half the tapas served in the bars. White anchovies, in particular, taste so good that the Italians import them.

Olive oil

Olive oil is a matter of personal taste. But Spaniards concur that the best in Spain comes from Andalucía—either from Núñez del Prado, or from hill towns around Úbeda. Best bet is “bionatur” oil packaged in tins rather than bottles.

Bomba rice

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This heritage strain of rice introduced to the Valencia area from North Africa around 800AD is the premium rice for paella. It’s twice as expensive as “Valencia” rice, and worth every cent for its ability to absorb flavor and maintain its toothy texture.

Manchego cheese

This aged ewe’s milk cheese is the pride of Spanish cheeses. We sometimes bring an entire three-kilo wheel home, but big vacuum-sealed wedges are also available in most grocery stores. It keeps fine for several days without refrigeration.

Pouringhotchocolate

Valor chocolate

Anyone who visits in cool weather soon discovers the soothing pleasures of Spain’s unusually thick hot chocolate. Valor is a common supermarket brand for recreating the treat at home. It’s even good without the accompanying churros.

09

12 2009

Bringing food through US Customs

Sometimes you can’t bring the taste of travel back home. We learned the hard way by trying to bring in a large block of mountain ham from Spain. Mind you, this was the choicest grade of jamón ibérico (from acorn-fattened black-footed pigs), and priced accordingly. The salesperson at the factory in Jabugo assured us that it would go right through U.S. Customs because it was vacuum-sealed.

When we declared the ham, Customs promptly confiscated it as if we were smuggling uncle Guido’s homemade country sausage. You can argue the validity of the policy all you want, but Customs people do not make policy. They only enforce it. One of us was already tired of pungent Spanish ham anyway.

To avoid disappointment, costly or not, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of the USDA and FDA regulations that U.S. Customs will enforce.

Meat is not welcome. In theory, this even extends to canned meat and meat derivatives, like sausages in tin cans, soup mixes, bouillon cubes, or jerky snacks. By contrast, most fish and fish products are welcome—even dried salt cod, should you wish to really foul up your luggage.

The regulations on bringing cheese into the U.S. are complex, but in the absence of extensive paperwork, Customs officials use a rule of thumb: Firm and hard aged cheeses are fine. Soft and runny cheeses are not. Fresh cheeses like ricotta and feta are out of the question.

Most fresh fruits and vegetables are no-no’s at Customs. In theory, many of them are permitted if you can prove where they were grown. In practice, they are almost universally confiscated. An interesting exception are fresh truffles. Truffles are OK—as long as not a speck of soil clings to them. Soil is strictly forbidden without a special import license.

In theory, the restrictions on food are supposed to protect American agriculture and ensure that foods meet U.S. health standards. Dry goods in general are OK, and they are the easiest to pack. Spices and condiments take up little space in your luggage, and they often concentrate some of the essential flavors of a cuisine. Customs frowns on rice from Asia and Africa, but we have never had a problem bringing home Italian and Spanish rice for making risottos and paellas. Specialty flours are no big deal. Ditto dried mushrooms and chile peppers.

This being the government, the rules are subject to constant change and there are many, many exceptions. For a full run-down on the regulations on any given day related to any product and any country of origin, see the databases at the Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service of the USDA.

07

12 2009