Spain in the city

Specialty shops thrive in neighborhoods that were once delineated by the type of immigrants. In an age where every ethnic store is under attack from wealthier franchises such as Starbuck’s and Duane Reade, the survival of these shops is at critical mass. Imagine Arthur Avenue without Teitel’s, Washington Heights without bodegas, or Greenpoint without the local Polish kielbasa butcher. Curiously enough, certain countries appear underrepresented. Perhaps because a country like France is so diverse, items like olive oil is sold separately, so is chocolate, etc.

Nowadays a consumer can find ingredients over the internet, almost taking away from the pleasure of shopping in these types of general stores, where a family behind the counter and free samples are the norm.

Spain, however, has been well represented for over twenty years. Jackson Heights has been home to Despana brand products and recently has opened a Broome Street branch.

Jovial owner Marco and his lovely wife Angelica have created a slice of Spain, showcased in a trendy format, fitting for its new address.

The store is visually astounding, with black lacquered shelves opposite shiny white tiles, separated by an attractive glass casing displaying artisanal cheese and meat products. A fabulous collage of Spanish life centers the back wall, and a large leg of jamon Serrano keeps the eye on the prize. The shelves are stocked with everything from Arborio rice to honey to jams to olive oil to whatever the well-stocked Spanish kitchen should have, with little tastings offered along every step of the way. Towards the rear is a glass enclosed open kitchen where delectables are put out daily by Chef Ignacio, a great interpreter of Spanish cuisine. To the right is a small eating area, flanked by a cooler of wines, waters, and ciders. You can buy boquerones, the prized white anchovies from the Cantabrica coast, and even buy sangria pitchers or paella pans too. Whatever you don’t see on display, you can order from the Queens flagship store, and after a round of fried almonds, cheese, olives, and sausages, you’ll be hard-pressed to leave empty handed.

Aside from the traditional chorizo, there are other pork sausage products offered such as fuet, chistorra, butifarra blanca y negra. Don’t miss out.

Many tastings and classes are scheduled at Despana, and they usually are taught by an expert flown in from Spain. They should not be missed, as invariably there is a meal at the end of the rainbow, delicious and refreshing.

At a recent event, I learned much about Spanish olive oil. Categories include Hojiblanca, Picual, Arbequina, Greca Empeltre and Gold Empeltre. The Gold happens to be my favorite. It is an extra virgin olive oil that is even, smooth, silky and golden. The Greca was a bit harsh, but tasted of almonds. The Hojiblanca was strong and pungent, almost woodsy and raw. The Picual tasted of figs and was very fruity. Finally the Arbequina was medium bodied, herbal and grassy. It boasted a long finish and seemed to be the most balanced.

Then a repast followed. First a pea shoot salad with Serrano and melon balls. Then boquerones under tomatoes and anchovy paste. A stellar black mushroom risotto anchored the meal, followed by a salt cod with cured Serrano ham. A mousse in the shape of a chocolate pyramid capped things off with a few glasses of albarino as the paired wine.

Then the ham expert was on hand, giving a slicing demonstration, and offering delectable pristine, glimmering slices of jamon Serrano. He explained the slicing technique and preservation tactics. It was all quite fascinating. The ham was of course delicious.

The famous iberico de bellota (pata negra), or black footed pig will finally become available in the states, and Despana is the place to get it. These pigs dine only acorns, yielding a meat that is swirled with high levels of flavorful natural fats, tasting like no other ham in the world. The hams will prove to be very expensive, but call the store for scheduled free tastings.

Sometimes you stroll into Despana and you’re in the middle of a party, with people mingling, noshing and having a good time. That’s is what Despana is all about, promoting the culture, cuisine, and spirit of Spain, all from a modest ethnic shop.

Perhaps this is a model other stores can adapt to, keeping the claws of franchise at bay.