Bernan’s Home Canned Foods offers Cuenca expats hard-to-find products made with natural ingredients

Jun 13, 2023 | 4 comments

By Stephen Vargha

It started out as personalized hostess gifts.

“I would come to someone’s house and they would ask me where I got them,” said Bernie Hemingway. “I told them that I made it.”

Bernie and Nancy Hemingway cook up everything in their modest kitchen.

Prior to moving to Cuenca in April 2014, Hemingway used to can at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. “In the very beginning, it was for us,” said Nancy Hemingway, his wife. “It was Bernie’s hobby.”

“I’ve always done some canning for at least 40 years,” said Bernie. “With six kids and working in the fruit harvest business, it got me going, especially since the fruit was free for us.”

Bernie started canning vegetables by happenstance. “We ran into a situation where one could buy 60 pounds of vegetables for almost nothing,” said Bernie. “It was surplus vegetables that the grocery stores could not use.”

The canning was complemented by Nancy’s experience in the spice world. “I managed the small spice company, Sahuaro, in Phoenix, for 30 years,” said Nancy.

Bernie Hemingway is proud of his “No Tell” Rotel, which he claims is a better version of the Texas tomatoes and hot peppers.

“That is why Nancy can smell a dry mix and tell you what is in it,” said Bernie.

Sahuaro offers more than 100 spices and seasoning blends. It is why Nancy came up with her version of dry Hidden Valley® Ranch mix.

“A pizza restaurant owner in Phoenix approached me and stated he was tired of paying high prices to Hidden Valley,” said Nancy.

It took more than googling the recipe for the famous salad dressing mix. “I made the faux recipe I found online and that was not good,” said Nancy. “I came up with a recipe that is better than Hidden Valley.”

All of this experience is the reason Bernie and Nancy formed Bernan’s Home Canned Foods just two months after arriving in Cuenca. Their initial offerings were baked beans, dill pickles, picante sauce, and what they call “No Tell” Rotel.

All of Bernan’s popular spaghetti sauce is cooked on a small Mabe range.

“No Tell” Rotel is a version of a line of canned tomatoes and green chili that originated in Elsa, Texas. There are different varieties of Ro-Tel in varying degrees of hotness and spiciness.

“In our nine years, we only had one item that has been changed,” said Bernie. “A Texas woman, who was in the restaurant business, told us to reduce the sugar in our “No Tell” Rotel.”

Bernie laughs telling the story of the woman from Texas, who went to Hawaii for a visit and brought back some Ro-Tel for her kitchen.

“She used some of the store-bought Ro-Tel and said she did not like it,” said Bernie. “Her husband explained to her it was because it was not Bernan’s.”

The Texan was not the only one to discover what Bernan’s cooks up is better than the original.

Nancy Hemingway is filling up jars for Bernan’s latest batch of spaghetti sauce.

“A man came back from the U.S. with lots of Pace® Picante Sauce. Then he bought some of ours,” said Bernie. “When the man had a yard sale, all of his Pace® he had brought back was out on a table for prospective buyers.”

The couple strongly believes in only using fresh ingredients. And everything they put into their products “you can read.” In other words, there are no artificial ingredients and multi-syllable chemicals.

Almost everything is just two minutes from their front door.

“I will go to our neighborhood tienda and tell her I need 60 pounds of tomatoes,” said Bernie. “And the next day, the fresh tomatoes are waiting for me.”

Over 100 items line the shelves of Bernan’s pantry. They are always ready for the next order.

Some items mean a trip to the mercado. “I have no problems now with a whole chicken,” said Nancy. “At first I did, but now I will cut off its head and take the guts out.”

There are over 100 different items filling their pantry room shelves. From dry mixes to jams to vegetables, sauces, and soups. With so many Americans living in Cuenca, plenty of peanut butter is on their shelves.

“We started making peanut butter about seven years ago,” said Bernie. “I started making it because what the stores were selling was so damn expensive.”

It took a while for Bernie to find just the right peanuts, but he eventually found them at Arándano, a store that has been said to be like Whole Foods, but a lot more affordable.

There’s always a plentiful supply of canned items on the shelves of Bernan’s, especially their tomato items.

“I grind the peanuts and add a bit of Stevia (a natural sweetener and sugar substitute derived from the leaves of a plant species, native to Brazil and Paraguay),” said Bernie. “No oil is added. No salt is added. The peanuts I get have enough oil and salt.”

Bernan’s has both smooth and crunchy peanut butter. The crunchy comes from the same batch, but chopped peanuts are added and blended in.

For a while, Bernie lived just north of Durham, North Carolina. Because North Carolina is rabid about its barbecue, Bernie learned to make the sides: potato salad and coleslaw. He honed his skills while cooking 100-pound pigs for two to three days.

The coleslaw’s cabbage is shredded. “More like KFC’s,” said Bernie.

Everything is cooked in the kitchen of Bernie and Nancy Hemingway. That includes their sought-after spaghetti sauce.

Cabbage is also fermented in the traditional German way. “People love our sauerkraut,” said Nancy. “Because of that we make 40 jars at a time.”

A new item Bernan’s makes has the expat community abuzz. “In just four months, our pot pies really took off,” said Nancy. “I am going to have to make 40 more tomorrow.”

They are so popular that one customer orders a dozen at a time. And special orders are no problem for Bernan’s as one couple wants no peas in their pot pies while another customer wants an extra layer of crust in the middle.

Nancy is very proud of her holiday special. “I make pumpkin pies that are mainly for Thanksgiving, but some of our customers want them for Christmas,” said Nancy. “Last year, one lady bought eight pumpkin pies for her holiday party.”

There’s probably something for every cook in Cuenca, but there are limits as to what Bernan’s produces.

Jars are properly sterilized for canning. Customers return their jars to Bernan’s, which helps keep costs down.

“There are some things I just won’t make. One of them is kimchi,” said Bernie. “And there are some things we made in the past that were just not right.”

Bernie and Nancy claim they are not chefs, but cooks. “I have a bible. I have every recipe in it,” said Bernie. “I will not make anything without my recipes.”

Word of mouth has been huge for Bernan’s. And it goes far beyond Cuenca.

“We have had several people make a big order from the United States before moving to Cuenca,” said Bernie. Their order would be waiting for them when they arrived.”

About three times a year, a woman in Pichincha province orders about $200 worth of products. “She really loves our spaghetti sauce,” said Bernie.

And a local expat couple who are sports nuts buy at least six jars of bean and dip every month.

Then there are people who make Cuenca one of their homes. “There are these twins when they are in town, buy three or four bags of pancake mix,” said Bernie. “I have no idea what they do with all that mix.”

Orders can be big, too. At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, a customer gave Bernan’s a $900 order.

A heart issue has slowed down the 79-year-old Bernie. His doctor has told him to take it easy for six months, so Bernie’s driver assists with the deliveries to the front door of every customer.

And Bernie has thought about selling the business. But it has to be someone who really wants to do it.

But today, he is not ready to close his kitchen.

“I’ll retire when I’m ready,” said Bernie. “Right now, I am enjoying it.”
___________________

Bernan’s Home Canned Foods, Bernie and Nancy, Edificio Mirador del Río #602, bernan_10304@yahoo.com, 096-714-6265

Photos by Stephen Vargha

Stephen Vargha’s book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information and photos by him.

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