Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Non-required Reading

In the last couple weeks I read two articles I felt were worth sharing.

The first — and most pertinent to ZMO — is How David Beats Goliath. Malcolm Gladwell describes how underdogs can even their chances when they're fighting the big guy. It's mostly about sports but the lessons can easily apply to, say, a small food company in the Midwest. He also manages to squeeze in an interesting diversion about batch vs flow that's kind of interesting. If you like what you read I'd be happy to share some more things penned by Gladwell, who is a damn compelling writer.

The second isn't related to ZMO but affects us all. It's an article called The Cost Conundrum. The author compares two towns in Texas, one of which has the highest health care bills of any city in America but doesn't seem to get any better health care. I read a lot of this kind of stuff and this is the best article I've ever read on America's health care system by far. It's so good Obama made it required reading in the Oval Office. I'm not requiring it at ZMO of course, but if you're interested in the subject I highly recommend it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Harissa, Lemon, Olives & Olive Oil

When Majid Mahjoub was here last week, I asked him what's the simplest way he likes to eat harissa. He made a little picture. It's a dish with some harissa in the middle, surrounded by some sliced preserved lemons and olives, all swimming in some of his olive oil. Serve at room temperature, eat with a bit of bread.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Visiting Ortiz in Spain

Packing tuna tins by hand at Ortiz

I caught this quote last week in a review of a New York restaurant: Spain is "perhaps the only country in the world where it is desirable to serve food that comes in a can." The author was talking about tuna and kind of poking fun at the restaurant where, in her mind, the chef should be more ambitious about cooking than being a good shopper. Well, be that as it may, chances are the chef couldn't make tuna better than what you get in a tin from Ortiz. If you've had Spanish tinned tuna before, you'll know it's something very special. It's not a poor substitute for fresh tuna. It's got it's own thing going on. For me, it is more rewarding and interesting than the fresh stuff. Given the choice, I'd eat from a tin of Ortiz's tuna instead of taking a bite of tuna sushi any day.

It may be hard to think of tuna in a tin being worth eight or nine bucks when you see them at the supermarket for a buck. I think we should all be a bit more weirded out by the dollar tins, though. After all, fresh tuna is expensive. They're only caught wild (we haven't domesticated them yet) and tuna goes for $20-$30 a pound and more. It's almost always one of the most expensive fish in the case. Why should it be the cheapest food on the shelf?

Vanessa Sly just spent some time in Spain visiting food makers. One of her stops was at Ortiz, the tinners of our excellent Spanish tuna armada (for what it's worth, the Ortiz folks tell me we're the biggest seller of their tuna in America). Vanessa is taking her turn as guest blogger with some notes she made from her visit. Take it away, Ms Sly.


Ortiz is a Basque company of 5 generations. They have several small factories along the northern coast of Spain near San Sebastian, as well as one in near Barcelona.

In Ondarroa there is a tuna factory in the oldest building they inhabit, circa 1891. Very nearby is the victim of the most recent bombing in Basque country, the Ondarroa Police station. The bombers called to inform them of their intentions, so the building was evacuated before the explosion, but it blew out the windows on the nearby buildings (including a school). It is currently being rebuilt- much progress made in the 6 months since the occurrence.

The tuna factory, unmarked from the exterior, is a multi story building. The foreman, a stern but good man, lives on one of the upper floors. One of the owners of the company was there, and elder woman. She greeted me with a smile and stated in Euskera that their goal was to have a tin of Ortiz tuna in the house of everyone in the world.

At street level the tuna are unloaded via truck from the Cantabrian sea's main port, Getaria. First they’re cut with a table saw, removing the heads, tails and separating the ventresca, the belly section, which is the finest cut of the entire fish. Yellowfin tuna can grow to upwards of 150k, but the smaller the fish, the closer the meat is to the ventresca, the better the overall quality is. They were working with yellowfins that were about 20-22k. The Ventresca is separated out and sent into a separate, quieter room for special processing by woman who skillfully clean each piece. The quiet is to facilitate their focus. It’s very detailed work. It’s one of the top tier jobs because of the value of the meat and the skill required.

The remaining fish bodies are first steamed and scraped to remove the skin, than sent via conveyor belt up to the second floor. They’re cut into sections with a guitar that is adjustable for varied sizes of chunk. From there, an assembly line of women pack tins and jars by hand, (pictured) discarding the flake for food service packaging. All waste is collected and sold to another company to make ‘farina’, flour, that serves various different purposes. Once hand packed, the jars are placed on a series of machines that fill them with oil and affixes the lids. They’re washed and the lots are recorded on the jars/tins just as before. From there they’re cauterized in a large steam chamber, and moved into an area for 40 days of quarantine to make sure the canning is up to standard. Labels are applied only when the orders are placed, to allow for the various different languages (Spanish, English, French, Italian, German) in the packaging.

Additional information:
• The yellowfin in oil jars come either kosher or not.
• Txakoli (cho-col-li) is a young white wine native to the San Sebastian region.
• There are about 2 million Basque in this region.
• There is a large Basque population in Boise Idaho, former sheep herders that came over 100 years ago. The mayor of Boise is Basque.