Saturday, June 13, 2015


I’m packing my bags for a visit to see my family in the US! I need to find gifts for everyone. The grandkids, 7 and 10 years old, are easy—Barça soccer shirts and shorts, maybe a bag of ChupaChups, lollipops, as well. For everybody else, I’m doing my gift shopping at the grocery store, market, and olive oil mill.

Packing my bags! Food gifts for everyone.

Do I dare to pack up a 2-liter jug of extra virgin olive oil? The oil comes from a small, local mill and, in theory, contains molecules of oil from my own land, because that’s where I took my olives for pressing.

Ann Larson, a friend who has an olive farm near the inland village of Yunquera (see her blog about the campo life at told me she packs her own oil when she travels, funneling it into silver 2-liter Pepsi bottles. She assures me oil is not a problem for US customs. She shared this link that tells you what you can bring into the US.

Olive oil, OK. Ibérico ham--absolutely forbidden!

My son Daniel, who lives in Atlanta, orders his Spanish ham from, so I’m taking him a proper ham-slicing knife. Not in the carry-on bag, of course.

Here are some more ideas for gastronomic souvenirs from Spain.

Saffron and pimenton.
Saffron and other spices and herbs. Almost as precious as gold, saffron (azafrán) will please your gourmet friends and make your own paella authentic. Saffron with the La Mancha DO (designation of origin) is especially esteemed, but it’s not to be found in ordinary supermarkets (look for it at El Corte Inglés supermarkets and specialty shops). I also pack lesser-grade saffron for making paella in my hosts’ homes.

Pimentón de la Vera, smoked pimentón (paprika) from Extremadura is another great spice to take along. In Spain it can be found in three types, dulce, sweet; agridulce, bittersweet, and picante, hot.

Almonds, raisins and candied almonds from Spain.

Dried fruits and nuts. Figs, raisins and almonds are some of Spain’s finest produce. Dried, pressed figs are often sold in woven baskets. They’re also used to confect pan de higos, a spicy, sweet fig roll studded with almonds, which can be found in shops around Christmas.

Raisins (uvas pasas) are dried muscatel grapes, the plumpest and sweetest of raisins. They come prettily packaged and are found in supermarkets everywhere. The ones pictured have D.O. Malaga.

Spain is the world’s second producer of almonds (almendras). I like the ones that are lightly toasted. Purchased in markets from open stock, they are cheaper than packaged ones. Other good buys are pricey pine nuts (piñones) and hazelnuts (avellanas).

Olive oil. Olive oil has attained gourmet status in international cuisine and Spain is the foremost producer of this fine oil.  Gift shops sell prettily packaged oils—I watched a group of Japanese tourists today mob the olive oil and saffron shelves in a village shop. Supermarkets offer a range of extra virgin oils. Try some of the varietal oils—Hojiblanca, Arbequina; Picual. Look for oils with D.O,  denominación de origin, such as Baena, Sierra de Segura, Siurana; oil grown organically, or, the latest trend, flavored oil. 
A selection of olives and capers.

Olives. Spanish olives are world famous. Best known are the fat, Sevilla manzanillas, which are widely exported. On their home ground, olives come in many more varieties. Try the ones stuffed with anchovies, almonds, red pepper, or home-cured ones redolent of herbs and garlic, tangy with lemon, red with pimentón (paprika) or zingy with chile pepper. They come bottled, canned or sealed in plastic envelopes. In markets you can buy olives from open stock. For packing in your luggage, drain off all the liquid and put the olives in plastic containers. When you get them home, put them in jars and cover with a strong brine. Refrigerate and they will keep for months. Though you’ll probably find your friends will devour them long before.

Capers. Capers (alcaparras) are the pickled flower-buds of the caper bush. Cooks love them for their zesty flavor. Spain is the world’s biggest producer of capers, so they are less expensive here than abroad. The tiny ones are the most appreciated.  Fat caper berries, alcaparrones—the seed pods that form after the caper flowers--come with stems and can be served like olives.

Gourmet gifts in cans.

Canned foods. Friends abroad are always delighted to receive a little “taste of Spain.” Try them on something a little unusual, like squid in its own ink or octopus in tomato sauce, or choose pickled mussels, tuna or bonito in sauce, brined cockles, sardines in piquant sauce. I used to tuck cans of mussels in escabeche into my suitcase when visiting the US, because my mother loved them. I’ll take some along on this trip to see who is a fan.

Other goodies come in cans. Piquillo peppers, those tiny whole piquant red peppers are a real treat.

Conserves and preserves. It wouldn’t be proper English marmalade without the wonderfully aromatic, bitter oranges of Sevilla. Though marmalade and other jams are by no means an exclusively Spanish product, some really good ones can be found here. Look for new flavors like onion, tomato or eggplant jam.

Another gastronomic treat is dulce de membrillo, quince paste or jelly. It is sold in large tins, from which squares are cut and weighed, or in sealed, plastic packets. In a covered container, membrillo will keep for a long time. Serve quince jelly as a sweet course accompanied by a slice of white cheese and a few almonds or walnuts. Or, puree it into garlic mayonnaise for an extraordinary sauce to serve with grilled foods.

Valencia rice for paella. Not taking the pan. 

Rice. Medium short-grain rice, essential for paella making is not always easy to find abroad, where long-grain rice is preferred. Buy real Spanish rice, such as with denominación de origin Valencia or Calasparra. Bomba rice is one especially esteemed variety.

Cheeses. Once, on arriving at Seattle International Airport, I was approached by a customs officer with a beagle. The officer said, “M’am, would you set your bag on the floor so Buddy here can sniff it?” I did. The dog had a good sniff. “What kind of food do you have in there?” asked the officer. “Cheese from Spain,” I declared. “That’s just fine. But, you don’t happen to have any of that good Spanish ham, do you?” “No sir.”

Cheese is legal, thank god. And Spain has some fabulous cheeses that would make a welcome gift for your hosts. Manchego, a ewes’ milk cheese from central Spain, is the best known. It is marketed semi-cured and aged. Aged Manchego is splintery, with a tantalizing bite to it. Wonderful for tapas. Some other good ones: Cabrales, a blue cheese made of cows’ milk, creamy, sharper than Roquefort; Gallego, a plae yellow, mild cows’ milk cheese; Idiazabal, a smoked and cured sheep’s milk cheese, smooth and pungent; Roncal, sharp but mellow; San Simon, a cows’ milk cheese with a mild, smoky flavor.

Charcuterie. If you’re traveling to the US, just skip this section, lest a sniffing beagle run you to ground. But, if traveling within Europe, consider packing a whole Spanish ham, serrano or the exceptional ibérico. Or, ask a good butcher to hand-slice ham and seal it hermetically in packets.

Besides ham, Spain produces some very distinctive sausages, such as chorizo, butifarra, longaniza. Something to flavor your memories of Spain for quite a long time.

Olive oil cookies.

Pastries and sweets. Visitors to Spain are tempted by the aroma of sugar-coated almonds, garapiñadas, confected by street vendors who proffer free samples. They are wonderfully addictive. Buy quantities of them to take back for friends.

Another famous almond candy is turrón, nougat, which can be found in food shops and at open-air stalls at village fairs.
Turron, almond nougat, and lollipops.

I'm taking a couple packets of authentic tortas de aceite. These are crisp, not-too-sweet cookies made with olive oil. The originals have anise and sesame seeds. But newer varieties are flavored with rosemary or almonds. Too fragile to pack in the luggage, the tortas go in my carry-on bag. Then, if I need a snack at an airport layover, I can enjoy some flavors of Spain.

Olive oil to go.


  1. Before I fully understood the rules/restrictions, I tried to bring back some morcilla to make Fabada Asturiana. The USDA beagle busted my sausage! His handler took it and was holding it under her arm as they inspected other suitcases. Every time the handler would stop, the dog would sit and look longingly at my sausage....

    1. David: Oh, that must have been disappointing to lose that morcilla! I always wish I could bring in iberico ham, but never tried. Happy to announce that everything else cleared customs (including 2 liters of olive oil)--except for one home-grown nectarine in my packed lunch, that I had to forfeit.

  2. Hi Janet. I'm overwhelmed by all the different jamons and olives. Which brand(s) do you recommend? Are canned olives as good as fresh? Thanks!

    1. KW13: Are you looking at olives in Spain or in another country? I don't recommend specific brands, but you'll find a lot about Spanish olive varieties and methods of processing on this blog post "Fresh" olives, straight from the tree, are too bitter to eat. They have to be cured.The brine-cured ones aren't usually canned, but stored in their brine. Canned ones are almost always industrially cured in an alkaline.
      Jamón--ham--basically is either serrano or ibérico. Ibérico, made from ibérico breed of pig, is way more expensive than serrano. They are both salt-cured and consumed raw.

  3. Hi Janet! I have always enjoyed reading your blogs. Traversing through this blog has inspired me to undertake a gastronomic escapade to Spain with my husband, who is an absolute food-lover. Will be applying for Tourist Spain Visa from UK soon

    1. Andy: I hope you enjoy your gastronomic discovery trip to Spain.