Despaña: A Slice of Spain in SoHo

Find bacalao and hand-packed piquillo peppers amidst line-caught tuna and elvers.

With shelves this neatly stocked, it’s hard to tell there are over 400 fantastic foodstuffs in the slim space that is Despaña, Angelica and Marcos Intriago’s Spanish gourmet market. No matter: With a carefully curated collection of products from artisanal farmers and cooperatives, quality reigns over quantity here–and savvy cooks know it.

The goods on offer include vibrant olive oils, smoked paprika- spiked sea salt, a serious selection of sherry vinegars and sweet, hand-packed piquillo peppers you can stuff with the prized Basque-country dried salt cod, bacalao. Paella purists might pick up hand-cultivated Bomba rice from the village of Calasparra in Murcia, prized for its flavor and texture and one of only two denomination of controlled origin–the terroir certification known as DO C–rices from Spain. Candy lovers carry off Marcona almond-studded turrón while homesick Spaniards go crazy for Cola Cao (Spanish “Quik”), fruit-flavored Kas sodas, Chocolate a la Taza for making thick hot cocoa, and ready-to-fry churros for dunking.

This is also a shop for those who love to throw a party but are less inclined to cook. In the click of a castanet, a lively assortment of tapas can be tossed together from the delicious, ready-to-eat jarred and canned comestibles that are so popular–and sofisticado– in Spain. Mildly pickley boquerones, (those addictive white anchovy fillets); velvety belly meat from line-caught tuna; and tasty fish pâtés–including sea urchin, lobster, crab–need little more accompaniment than a hunk of crusty bread. Manzanilla olives come unadorned, marinated or stuffed with lemon, cheese, garlic, nuts or tuna. Elvers, or baby eels, and squid in their ink can be just warmed and served with simple toasts.

Should all this shopping pique your appetite, order a sandwich, called a bocadillo; a few pintxos, little snacks served on Grandaisy bread; or a fritatta-like Spanish tortilla from the counter at the back of the shop. Just don’t skip Despaña’s soul: “Whatever you do, don’t miss the chorizo,” Angelica beams. “The heart of our business is our chorizo.”

Chorizo is where Despaña’s story began, back in 1991, when Marcos and his partner and friend José Pernas purchased 86-17 Northern Boulevard Corporation, a 1,200-square-foot sausage plant in Queens named for its address. The men, from Spain’s neighboring regions of Asturias and Galicia, shared a focused mission: to make and introduce high-quality authentic chorizo and Asturian-style morcilla (blood sausage) to the American market.

“In the first years we sold 2,000 pounds of chorizo per week. Now it’s 12,000 to 15,000 pounds,” Marcos says, smiling wistfully as he remembers his former partner, who passed away in 2001.

Today the Queens address is more than just a factory: Marcos, Angelica and their 5-year-old daughter, Cecilia, live above it and the importing company and tiny tienda they launched a little later. In other words, they live their business: “When our eyes begin to water, we know the fresh onions are being chopped for the morcilla,” laughs Angelica, proudly explaining why the sausages taste so good. “We purchase the smoky pimenton de la vera from a cooperative in Extremadura and import the spice in small quantities to keep it fresh and flavorful.”

As their business slowly grew from solely sausage to importing, the overwhelmingly positive response–and demand from chefs–convinced the Intriagos that they had hit the bull’s eye. They changed the name of their burgeoning business to Despaña and began plotting a punctilious expansion, opening the SoHo Spanish-eats showcase in 2003.

A shopping excursion here is special: Leather-handled market totes replace the usual baskets or carts for collection of Despaña’s goods, which are individually wrapped for you in classic brown butcher paper. Hams hanging from their hooves include Serrano, Iberico and the famous, acorn-fattened Iberico Bellota–its shiny, sweet fat melts on the tongue. (And, with no minimum purchase required, you can and should afford yourself a slice or two of each.)

If you have a question–maybe how to put together a stellar Spanish cheese plate with a few of the 50 different sheep’s, cow’s, goat’s or mixed milk cheeses, say, or the origin of Spain’s best paprika– by all means, ask. The staff is knowledgeable and samples are always on offer: “I can talk about how delicious our products are,” says Angelica, “but you need to taste them for yourself.”

The Intriagos’ legion fans include restaurant-industry heavy hitters like Daniel Boulud, who stocks the Bar Boulud larder with an assortment of Despaña meats and finishes dishes with a drizzle of their Castillo de Canena olive oil. “The SoHo location allows us to set up tasting appointments for chefs,” Angelica says. “They are too busy to trek out to Queens.”

The Intriagos’ aim has always been more than just to put Spain’s delicacies on the American plate, and chefs get that. Alex Raij, chefowner of Txikito in Chelsea, who sources homemade fresh sausages, cheeses, piquillo peppers and olives through Despaña, considers the Intriagos her “partners in showing the quality and variety of regional specialties coming out of Spain,” she says. “Plus, I love that I can send my enthusiastic patrons to such a chic one-stop shop.”

José Andrés, award-winning chef and host of the PBS show Made in Spain, agrees with Raij: “By telling the story of Spain through our country’s farmers, our cheeses, our spice- and winemakers, Marcos and Angelica have done something that is very powerful. More then simply shopkeepers and importers, they are our gastronomic ambassadors.”

Photo credit: Jacob Pritchard

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Food editor of La Cucina Italiana magazine, Mindy Fox writes articles and cookbooks from her home in Washington Heights. A fervent fan of the foods of the Mediterranean and Middle East, Fox first met mastiha at the Worlds of Flavor conference at the CIA in Napa Valley, and she’s been smitten ever since.