Meet the Maker: Nicolo Verrini for RITROVO Italian Regional Foods

When I reached RITROVO’s Ilyse Rathet, we talked while she squeezed in a walk on a crisp Seattle day. Ilyse easily shared her quick wit and purposeful approach to food and life, emanating belly laughs that almost instantly made me feel as if we were old friends. Although a New York native, she is fluent in Italian, so everything Italiano she pronounced was imbued with the casual elegance of the language and culture.

RITROVO (from the Italian ritrovare, to find or find again) is a Seattle-based company that imports a unique line of artisanal, regionally-focused, and predominantly organic Italian food products—often from generations-old and family-operated farms and production facilities. Co-founders and partners in life Ilyse and Ron Post are passionate about sharing the stories of their producers. Many of their product lines were hand-selected during the six years that the couple spent in Italy and Europe. As their interest for local foods and wines grew more serious while living abroad, they studied over a two year period to become sommeliers. Aside from running RITROVO, Ron and Ilyse teach enogastronomic classes (eno—wine; gastronomic—about the art or science of good eating), including wine appreciation at various levels, wine/food pairing, and olive oil tasting. 

  Ritrovo fruit balsamic vinegar collection

Ritrovo fruit balsamic vinegar collection

I was curious what Ilyse most wanted customers to feel and understand when they choose one of RITROVO’s award-winning balsamics, sauces, salts, or honeys from The Savory Pantry. She lamented, “Many people say, ‘Oh! You’re just an importer’ . . . but RITROVO is so much more than that. We are regularly in Italy, finding producers that are the best at what they do because they’ve spent their lifetimes doing it, and in many cases, we are working with them to develop products until they fulfill our very exacting specifications.”

Since spring salad and grilling season are upon us, Ilyse and I began talking more specifically about RITROVO’s organic apple, raspberry, and citrus balsamics, which RITROVO has developed with Italian maker Nicolo Verrini.

Ilyse reflected on the origins of the citrus balsamic, born of a stay in coastal Sorrento, Italy. “We were seated at a table, our bodies warmed by the sun, overlooking the bay of Naples, sipping cold spremuta—the fresh lemon and orange juice mixed together in a tall glass—feeling like we could live forever. It was glorious! I looked at Ron and said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to bottle this moment. Let’s call Nicolo and see if we could do a citrus balsamic.’”

“Nicolo had the know-how to capture that special moment in a bottle, so we worked with him, sampling and tweaking, until we pulled it off. We have so much confidence in Nicolo. In his 30s, he represents a new generation of balsamic makers. He is innovative, but also doesn’t stray too far from tradition simply for the sake of creating something trendy, and he’s not commercial. As sommeliers ourselves, Ron and I are very choosy about flavor profiles. Nicolo was also trained in wine school, and brings that training to this line of organic fruit balsamics. Fruit balsamics tend to be an American thing and many times are overly sweet, and not balanced, but we wanted to push against that.”

In RITROVO’s organic apple balsamic, the trio earned the prestigious Gold Sofi Award from the Specialty Food Association. “We loved this project because it bottles everything we, as a company and as individuals running that company on thoughtful standards, are looking for. It has a known terroir—or source for the apples; the Trentino region of Italy is in the northern part of the country, not far from Austria, and is renowned for its juicy, tart apples and fruit juices. This means that what you’re tasting is something very unique from a particular region in a particular season, a centuries-old Italian value that is sometimes not as valued in American culture. The balsamic is also composed of organic grape must from Modena. We choose products that represent the Italian cuisine and culture—clean, simple, not thoughtlessly spiced, not disguised. This apple balsamic has a beautiful acidity, not too heavy, not too light. I think all these features play into why it has been so well received.”

“Visual appeal is a quality that is very important to us, because it lends to the essential enjoyment. To create density, many balsamic makers will add xantham gum, which is easier and cheaper, but at RITROVO, a leading value is that ingredients must be all natural, and therefore the element of density must rely on natural fruit pectin. The right density is what lends its visual aesthetic as well as its feel in the mouth and the way that it works with other ingredients. You’ll notice the clarity of these balsamics.The grape must is cooked at low temperature so the caramelization of the sugar is avoided, and the product maintains a great clarity. Then the juice of the fruit gives the color to the base white balsamic. Nicolo is conscientious as he works to establish a balance of density, acidity, and sweetness.”

Ilyse was eager for me to be in conversation with Nicolo. Through the photographs he sent, it was easy to imagine him tasting from his balsamic barrels and sharing sips with customers.  “My grandfather started making balsamic vinegar back in the 60s, and he passed down to me this passion. I started very early in my age and I think I will never stop. There are many good balsamics out there, but I really love my job and somehow this gets translated into my products, and people can taste this. I predict that in the future we will see more and more balsamics made in the States. The trend will be the same of what happened in the wine business in Napa. But for now I think what makes Italian and American balsamics different is the culture that we have in Italy towards food.” It seems somewhat ephemeral, but Nicolo is right—almost magically, you can taste the reverence, the love of living and profession, and, somehow, the generational history of Italy in these balsamics.

I ask what the basic steps are in making a good balsamic, thinking Nicolo will have a list of 10 or 15 tasks. Instead, he says, “There is only one rule, you need to have very very good raw materials, and do your best not to ruin what nature already gave us.” And that’s the very thing that Ilyse was getting at earlier—to be good, food doesn’t need to be complicated, it needs to honor pure and natural ingredients in their highest form. There’s a spiritual process operating at the core of RITROVO, no doubt.

Nicolo’s favorite thing to do with balsamics? “Just put one spoon of citrus balsamic or white balsamic in a big glass of sparkling water with ice. Refreshing!” Does he ever tire of tasting or smelling vinegar? “Only when I taste repeatedly my competitors’ balsamics!”

Well of course.

Ilyse and Nicolo describe a new balsamic they are eager to roll out—a tomato vinegar, which balances sweet and savory. The Savory Pantry will proudly be one of the first stores in the US to carry it. Regarding the process, Ilyse said, “This one was our hardest yet because it is both sweet and savory, so you have to be careful. We went through a handful of prototype recipes. The first was far too sweet, with a hard candy quality. One tasted great but it wasn’t clear, so it wasn’t beautiful. We work together with Nicolo until we make a product in the form we think the idea on which it is based is best expressed. We’re really excited about the final result.” Nicolo shared, “I listen to the request of my customers, and I try to find the right ingredients that can match their needs. I go through a process of trial and error until I find something that works.” Nicolo’s words make the process sound simple, but the most incredible thing is, when you taste the vinegar, you get all the iterations, all the hard work, all the care that went into every round—distilled into the final result.

RITROVO: Simplicity, delight, and community. “Cento de questi giorni”! May you have a hundred of these days.

 

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Meet the Maker: Patagonia Bee Products

Flavors of the Rainforest?

Ever imagined the lush rainforests of Patagonia as a taste? If making this sensory translation seems challenging, dip your spoon into Patagonia Bee Products’ honeys, and you’ll get it. Like wine, honey imbues flavors and aromas from the flowering trees visited by the bees who make it, imparting luscious floral properties into the honey. Since the hives that yield Ulmo, Tiaca, and Tineo honeys (named for the flowers pollinated by the bees producing them) border the pristine, native, largely untouched rainforests of Chile, a single taste instantly transports you. Because these flowers are endemic to the virgin rainforest, Patagonia is the only place in the world these honeys are found. All this is another way of saying that even if you commit your lifetime to doing so, you’ll be hard pressed to find honey more delicious and pure.

  Jacob Perry of Patagonia Bee Products

Jacob Perry of Patagonia Bee Products

When native Arkansan Jacob Perry went to South America for a backpacking trip in 2011, little did he know that he’d taste a honey whose flavor would captivate him so significantly that he wouldn’t be able to get it out of his mind for years to come. Not only would he launch Patagonia Bee Products to share geographically unique “hive to hand” honeys with the world, but in the process, Patagonia Bee Products would be the impetus for the revision of Chilean law to better support the livelihoods of small beekeepers and food producers, as well as providing economically sustainable support for rain forests. All-in-all, this graduate of Little Rock’s Clinton School of Public Service is pretty proud of what can happen when you insist on the highest standards in taste, beekeeping, and personal relationships.

“Hive to Hand”

When I talked with Jacob by phone in Fayetteville, he was anxiously awaiting his next shipment that evening—the first jars to bear new labels. His exuberance shone through in everything he shared. Fascinated by the new-to-me “hive to hand” description, I had to know more about what it means.  

“I made it up to describe our honey! We’ve of course heard ‘farm to table,’ and ‘bean to bar.’ I wanted something quick that accurately described what I see as the role of Patagonia Bee Products—bringing honey from the hive of a beekeeper to the hand of the consumer without much involvement other than jarring and shipping it. Our honey is in the most unmolested, unadulterated form possible.”

For Patagonia Bee Products, what does hive to hand look like in practice?

“Every jar comes from a single beekeeper, preserving the uniqueness of a place and a harvest season. We source from a cooperative, composed of beekeepers committed to high standards. Each takes their honey, when ready, to a small plant registered with the Chilean government, where it is simply placed in a jar. It is not pasteurized, ultra-filtered, or homogenized. Also, nothing is added to it. Many America consumers don’t realize that most of Chile’s honey goes to Europe, which has higher quality standards than the US. The FDA doesn’t regulate honey, and the US accepts what Europe rejects. In the US, to be labeled honey, the product simply has to have pollen in it. Over 3/4 of the honey sold commercially in the US has gone through a process that involves filtering out much of the pollen and adding junk like corn syrup, rice syrup, other stuff that isn’t honey. They aren’t required to put anything on the label besides ‘honey,’ so consumers don’t even know what we’re getting!  

Aside from that, so many of our global food sources depend on bees—they pollinate 1/3 of the world’s food supply. If you’ve heard about the devastation of hive collapse or Colony Collapse Disorder in the US, you may already understand why it is happening, but if not, basically it is because of poor and risky beekeeping standards . . . most commercial beekeepers in the US hire out their bees to pollinate crops and to chase big agricultural crop blooms. Moving bees from California, to Oregon, to Washington, etc. spreads disease among bees. Honeybees are also weakened and even killed by the harsh chemicals that are used on the crops.

In US, the rate of colony collapse is a staggering 50%. With our beekeepers, one or two hives may collapse out of a couple of hundred. Our beekeepers use only organic practices and personally attend to the health of their hives. They never chase pollination, and keep their hives in a single location.

Beekeeping is one of the few ways that makes it profitable to preserve rainforest. Since by preserving the rainforest, we are preserving Earth’s greatest example of biodiversity, this is something to seriously consider.”  

Local Honey Helps Allergies: FALSE!

When Jacob revealed a truth I’ve never doubted as false, I’m floored. “It’s actually a total myth that local honey helps allergies. What is supposed to help allergies is having small doses of local allergens contained in local honey. Bees typically go to brightly colored flowers whereas humans are typically allergic to weeds and grasses. Bees aren’t pollinating weeds and grasses. It doesn’t bear out.” Oh. I see.

Also in health benefit news, Patagonia Bee Product’s Ulmo Honey was declared by an Irish university to have greater antibacterial properties than the previous holy grail of antibacterial and medicinal honeys, Manuka. From New Zealand, the same sized jar of Manuka costs $40–$50, or about 3 times as much as Ulmo, and has long been used as a medical remedy, especially for the healing of wounds. This Irish study revealed Ulmo as having greater antibacterial activity, including against MRSA and E. Coli. Plus, it tastes better.  

Personal Connections Cultivate Fair Trading Practices

Jacob has said elsewhere that as part of his business practices, he considers it “vital to connect with people.” I was curious what personal connections mean to him, and in Chile, whether making them involves speaking Spanish. “I do! That’s part of working with Chilean beekeepers because they don’t speak any English. Patagonia Bee Products is my first excursion into the for-profit world. I’ve previously been with nonprofits. What I wanted to carry through was a model with people at the center. It has been essential to me to build personal relationships with beekeepers. When I go to Chile, I stay with them and their families in their houses. I harvest the honey alongside them. When I return to the US, I do samplings with customers and imagine that as completing the circle—sharing the stories of the honey that are important to all of us for so many reasons.

This also means paying beekeepers a dignified wage, which is higher than fair-trade-established prices for honey in Chile. Fair trade prices are set by the World Fair Trade Organization, which sets prices internationally based on many factors. Before Patagonia Bee Product’s first jar of honey was sold, I met with the beekeepers up front to decide if they wanted to officially have the Fair Trade designation. There were costs to them, and ultimately, they decided it wasn’t worth it, especially since they would be getting wages higher than those set by the WFTO. However, the principles we rely on are similar.”  

What was it like to start a new, international business?

“Patagonia Bee Products was challenging from the start because although I knew I wanted to share this product with the world, I had no business experience and didn’t know where to start. I was so in the dark that I literally got online and Googled ‘beekeepers in Patagonia.’ I was overwhelmed trying to figure out labels and prices. In Fayetteville, there is a company called Startup Junkie, which offers free services to startups, and they helped me make a plan and got me out of my state of complete ignorance. From there, it just took a lot of tenacity. I called the US Embassy and made contacts there.

I set up visits. What took my breath away was the lack of competition and jealousy among the beekeepers. They have a camaraderie and supportive nature, reminiscent of bees working together! It’s really something to emulate, when we realize that we don’t have to undercut our competitors or diminish their work to thrive.

Once we decided to pull the trigger, took a long time to get approval from the Chilean government. They literally had to write legal procedures to help small businesses with the process of exporting, because previously they were forced to sell to huge exporters at reduced prices. So an unexpected, but fantastic, side affect is that this endeavor helped initiate laws that will connect Chilean small business owners more directly to the consumer, and even improve their lives.

Now, it feels so good that the business is self-sustaining and growing. As I try to bring this honey to more people, I just go to store owners and buyers and say, ‘Let me tell you this story.’ As they’re tasting, they realize they are used to all honey tasting the same and this tastes totally different. The honey is so good, and its story is authentic, so it sells itself. People fall in love with it quickly, just like I did, and most find that from then on, no other honey is good enough.”

I, for one, can attest that I’ve been caught creeping down the stairs in the dark for a spoonful of the Ulmo. Tasting what I taste and knowing what I know, I might be willing to sample another of Patagonia Bee Products’ honeys, but it’s hard to imagine myself straying from their hives.   

 

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Meet the Maker: Gilda's Biscotti

When Gilda Doganiero says biscotti, you want to ask her to repeat the word, because her voice already has you dreaming. Bite, and you’ll see why it isn’t bombastic to toss around reviews like “best cookies in the world” and “best biscotti this side of the Atlantic,” nor to marvel “it’s a wonder that anyone can keep them in stock.”

You’ll be captivated by every flavor, including Chocolate Espresso, Lemon Fig, Almond Anise, Cherry Pistachio, and Vanilla Bean.

Gilda's Biscotti flavor lineup

Amidst the mid-90s coffee boom, herself enjoying the buzzing excitement and proliferation of European-style coffee shops around Philadelphia, Gilda noticed the lack of authentic biscotti. (She was attuned to its dearth because her previous undertaking as a Vail hotel pastry chef had been to perfect an incredibly light, butterless biscotti that was used to accompany all coffee service.) In 1994, lured by the intoxicating coffee scent streaming from the storefront of Philly’s La Colombe Torrefazione, Gilda entered, met the owners, and departed on a mission to bake them a batch of her chocolate hazelnut biscotti. They were happily convinced, and La Colombe became her first client, bartering espresso for biscotti. As the biscotti’s popularity grew, Gilda knew it was time to leave her job as pastry chef at the Four Seasons and to begin making her artisan biscotti by hand, every day.

  Gilda Doganiero of Gilda's Biscotti

Gilda Doganiero of Gilda's Biscotti

The burgeoning company quickly outgrew the 800 square foot Haddonfield, New Jersey, apartment in which Gilda’s Biscotti began. Recognizing that the city was also a challenging place to raise a family, Gilda and her husband began looking for an old farm that needed restoration, and 12 years later, the major work is done on the farmhouse in Salem, NJ, where Gilda lives with her husband and daughter.

Gilda jokes, “Have you seen the movie The Money Pit? That is our life! We were actually attracted by the renovations if you can believe that. We were much younger end had more energy!” But they enjoy living a quieter life on the farm, still proximate to the cities of Philadelphia (about 35 miles) and New York (a couple of hours away).

“This is so different from my city life. Nearly every day, I come home for lunch. I’m 2.5 miles away from the bakery. My daughter’s school is 10 miles away. Everything is very convenient. Most decisions are based on maintaining a balance of work and not work. I am always faced with how to grow and still maintain flexibility for my daughter and household.”

The family’s 5 acres are surrounded by 200 undeveloped acres, and their working farm is alive with sheep, chickens, and bees. You’ll find the farm-fresh eggs from her own flock of chickens in your biscotti, part of Gilda’s commitment to using the most wholesome, finest, and freshest ingredients possible to make her authentic biscotti.

Where did the passion for biscotti enter? “I am Italian-American and I grew up eating some pretty lousy biscotti. You know when you have that experience where you eat something, and you just know the moment you taste it that the rest of your life is going to be spent trying to match it? That’s how I felt eating biscotti in Italy. I understood that what we had in the US was a sorry substitute. Experiences like that calibrate, or re-calibrate, your taste. We go back to Italy once a year. I love getting into the small towns, meeting people, eating their foods, really getting down to the authentic things that make a place special.”

  Gilda's Biscotti labels feature portrait images, based on family photographs

Gilda's Biscotti labels feature portrait images, based on family photographs

You’ll notice that Gilda’s Biscotti labels are made from black and white portrait images, which I discovered are based on vintage family photographs.  With the exception of Dad’s Midnight Stash, they depict a woman standing stoically, her right hand grasping her left elbow behind her back. “My father, Antonio Doganiero’s, mother was named Gilda. I was named after her. She was born in Teramo, Italy, in the mountainous Abruzzo region near the Adriatic. People may recognize the name from the recent terrible avalanche. Gilda’s marriage was arranged and my grandparents wound up in Camden, NJ.”

Her father, Antonio, appears on the Dad’s Midnight Stash tin. The tin’s contents are biscotti “ends,” and are a mix of all the flavors. Gilda reflected on the birth of the idea: “When we cut the cookies from the logs, we always have the end pieces. A couple of years into my business, I started saving the ends in little bins and giving them to my father. My dad is that guy who always wants the end of the bread, the end of the roast beef—the hard, crunchy, burnt parts of things. As I got busier and had more and more ends, this guy Mr. McNally who owns an Irish Pub in town said, ‘You should bag these up and I’ll sell them in the pub!’So I did. For the label, I found an old picture of my dad from when he was in the service in 1953.  Dad just turned 89 and is hilarious. He’s an attorney and always jokes with everyone about the cookies, saying ‘I am still waiting for my daughter to pay me royalties for the use of my image!’ Turns out, it’s our most popular product! You never know which flavor you’re going to get, which people find kind of fun.”

Gilda's Biscotti

Although Gilda’s has grown tremendously since she began baking her biscotti in her little Haddonfield apartment, she still operates most aspects of the business. “I did it on my own for twelve years and my mom handled the books. When I had my daughter, it forced my hand and I found a baker, Glen, who now does all of the baking. I come after I drop my daughter off at school and help with packaging, invoicing, social media, etc. There is always plenty to do!” Gilda’s has operated for a decade in its current bakery, which was an old 70s barbershop bought from the city’s economic redevelopment committee. Gilda’s enthusiasm leads her to many new ideas, and she is currently at work on making a bittersweet bark that incorporates biscotti crumbs—a combination of leftovers from her Chocolate Espresso Biscotti and the readily available post-baking crumbs.

Throughout our interview, I knew that Gilda had been out walking. As our phone call came to a close, she revealed that as we’d conversed, her dog had jumped in a pond and come out a muddy mess. Following a dirty cleanup, she was on her way to the bakery. I had no idea what had taken place, and she’d never let on or missed a beat. This do-it-all and do-it-all-well woman is just as authentic as her biscotti.

 

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