Monday, August 31, 2009

Virgin Voyages

One girl. Three days.
A first time purchaser’s trip to the Fancy Food Show.
By Susan Ederer

The Javits Center is two full levels jam-packed with a thousand or more vendor booths. Some are organized by country or state and other aisles put a packaging vendor between a ham distributor and a chocolatier. Traveling companions: Brad and Eric. Also there: Ari plus folks from the Deli and Bakehouse.

Day One
10:30 a.m. Attavola, one of our import vendors who represents a host of producers themselves. We sampled (pretty much in this order): food allergy friendly biscotti, fruit spreads, preserves, lemon blossom, sulla, rosemary and thyme honeys, more preserves (sweet and savory), roasted mushrooms, artichokes, balsamic onions, rolled eggplant and tomato, pesto rosso, and olives.

Zuercher, one of our cheese wholesalers. I meet Jason Hinds, our Neal’s Yard Dairy contact. We sample Ticklemore, Stratham Blue and Ogleshield. Then Landoff, Crawford and Cabot cloth-bound cheddar aged by Jasper Hill.

Kitty Keller, whom I can only describe as a sort of Julia Child of food importing. She’s outspoken, passionate and infectiously funny. We sample flavored salts, mustards, hard candy caramels, olive oil banyuls vermouth vinegar and vin agrodolce.

Nueske’s is next, where I meet Tanya Nueske. We taste bacon and talk about the bacon book. Brad heads off for a meeting with Grace and the Italian Trade Commission while Eric and I keep walking the aisles.

Manicaretti, another importer of Italian products. Eric & I sample some new sauces being produced by the woman who makes our Mugolio. While they’re all green, the flavors are disparate and delicate. Problem is, these have not yet gotten through the USDA approval process.

3 p.m. We meet with Jason Hinds to talk about our Neal’s Yard order process to gear up for the holiday. It seems a little strange to talk about Mail Order’s holiday cheese needs in the middle of a convention hall in New York City at the end of June, but there we are anyway. Since we’re sitting in the Larkin booth (they’re a big importer and warehouser), their staff keep slipping us samples of cheeses. We call it a good day’s work at about 4:30 p.m.

Day Two
10 a.m. Essex Street Cheese Company. Daphne, who you may have met on one of her regular visits to Ann Arbor, meets us at the booth. While we talk about holiday cheese volumes, we sample our way through a 2-year aged Gouda, an 18-month Comte and a 2-year Parmigiano Reggiano.

Licorice is next, at Gerrit Verburg’s booth. Gerrit talks to Brad about how he thinks we should market licorice while Gerrit’s wife is plying me with tastes. Anise is not my favorite flavor, but I can’t say no. Into my mouth go sample after sample of soft and hard, chewy and sticky licorice bites.

I spot Herb Eckhouse form La Quercia next. We talk about his new pre-sliced packaging while I sample some prosciutto Americano and speck.

12:15 p.m. William Wallo from the Deli introduces me to Thibaut from Euroco. They’re another one of our importers, this one French. After chatting a bit, we taste some preserves, including a cashew one. Immediately followed by Corsican goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Next up, a meeting with Grafton Cheese folks, the Deli and me. We talk about some staffing changes at Grafton and new packaging opportunities for the 1, 2, 4 & 5 year cheeses we sell.

2:30 p.m. At the Hammonds Candies booth, I talk with an eager staffer about how they’d like to do private labeling for us. I look around the booth for a possible substitute for the lollipops we buy.

Vosges. I can’t help myself, I have to sample a little of a bacon chocolate bar while I’m chatting with them. Wait until you see the cool containers the chocolate dipped tortilla chips will be in come fall.

French Farm. I try the caramel sauce Giselle offers (don’t worry, Beth, it isn’t as good as dulce de leche) while we talk about honey forecasts for the holiday. I follow that up with a salt taste.

Virginia Diner tells me how much they love our new private label while I sneak a peanut or two.

At the Edwards booth, I meet Sabra, our sales rep, who reaches beneath a table draping to offer me a sample of the surry-ano ham (think really good American prosciutto from Surrey pigs) we’ll be buying starting in the fall.

Rick’s Picks is next. I’m plied with pickled products a-plenty.

Peeled Snacks is in the adjacent booth. We already carry their mango, but I taste my way through three of their five other flavors.

4:30 p.m. Cheeseworks. Raymond Hook, our new sales rep, offers up a really great blue cheese.

We finish the day back at Kitty Keller’s booth, where she is pouring cava and has assembled a little spread.

Day Three
10 a.m. Creminelli’s wild boar salami is the first thing I taste. Brad and I talk with Scott Frank about their plan to distribute this product nationally in mid-November. They’d like to work with Zingerman’s on an early launch.

Back to Manicaretti with Brad, who wasn’t there with Eric & me on Sunday. He samples the Primitivizo sauces and then we both try a hazelnut oil plus the hazelnuts. We end this visit with olive oil and chocolate-hazelnut biscotti by Mattei, who makes our blue-bagged biscotti.

We reconnect with Raymond Hook at the Cheeseworks booth and taste our way through membrillo, a sugarplum and walnut log, Morello cherries in syrup, and boquerones from Ortiz. At the Seitenbacher booth, I meet Debbie Roberts while we taste a few new flavors (raspberry jets, peach chicks, green apples) plus a chocolate-nut spread they’re now carrying.

Aaron at the Forever Cheese booth offers us samples of buffalo and goat milk cheese. Some harder, some softer. In between cheeses, we comparatively taste a couple varieties of almonds.

Askinosie, where I meet Shawn Askinosie in person (we talk by phone every time I order) and get a sneak sample preview of their holiday peppermint bark. It is the perfect mix of white and dark chocolate – and won’t disappoint!

The gastronomic and introduction tour ends at the Ritrovo booth, where I meet Catie. After sampling a pomegranate confit, she introduces us to a man who makes confetti. Confetti are a candy coating (some were lustrous like pearls while others were bright and shiny) covering delicious chocolate, which enrobes a center made of a nut, raisin, bit of orange peel or some other bite of flavor.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

TV & Caffeine

The TV show Top Chef started last night. If you didn't know this already, there's an Ann Arbor restaurateur in the group: Eve Aranoff, of Eve restaurant in Kerrytown. She just avoided the axe. If you don't know what Top Chef is you can probably move on and not lose much sleep. Instead, I suggest you stop by Eve on a Thursday evening when the restaurant turns into something more and Aaron Lindell and his partner spin good music late into the evening.

And a not too serious graphic on caffeine vs calories for your refrigerator, sent by a loyal reader. Thanks, Tom!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Italian Coffee: Truths & Myths

Café at the Rome airport.

I first went to Italy almost two decades ago. Back then there was only one café in Ann Arbor, Espresso Royale on State Street. It was half the size. As students we all called it Café Pretentious and you could smoke there. This made it an instant substitute for the library. It was always busy.

Things are a lot different now. Yet while cafés have become a fixture across America, there’s still an aura surrounding Italian cafés and, along with it, a lot of myths and legends. It got me thinking and observing on my last visit as I made the trip to an espresso counter three or four times a day. Since American cafés have basically copied a lot of Italy’s espresso style and culture I thought it’s worth it to check in on some typical myths — and truths.

Myth or Truth: Italians only drink cappuccino in the morning, after that it’s espresso only.

Myth! Italians order every coffee drink every time of the day. At the end of dinner, though, espresso is definitely the norm.

Myth or Truth: Italians never order coffee To Go.

Truth. I’ve seen it once, maybe twice in a thousand coffees. There are no paper cups at an Italian cafe.

Myth or Truth: Italians drink coffee really fast.

Truth. I sipped a cappuccino at normal speed and the counter turned over three times. Once I was on a bus that made a stop at a red light and — no shit — the driver got out, bought and drank an espresso, and got back on the bus before the light turned green. The whole bus burst into applause. In Italy this is considered an act of athleticism.

Myth or Truth: Italians drink their coffee standing up.

Truth. Most cafés have no seats. If they have them, no one is sitting at them. (The coffee costs more when you’re seated.)

Truth or Myth: Italian coffee is affordable.

Truth. A shot of espresso runs about a euro ($1.40). A cappuccino, 1.40 ($2).

Myth or Truth: Italian espresso drinks are the best in the world.

Myth. This may have been true twenty years ago. Perhaps even ten years ago. But in the last few years I’ve had better coffee in London (Monmouth), Portland (Stumptown), Chicago (Intelligentsia), New York (Gimme!) and Ann Arbor (Zingerman’s). I would say, on average, you can get a better espresso drink in Italy than America. But the best cafés in America beat the best in Italy. And I hear New Zealand beats all of us, though I’ve never been there.

Truth or Myth: Italians don’t order coffee at a restaurant. They go hit a café after dinner.

Myth. Six Romans ordered espresso at a pizza joint next to me. Then three more next to them. They’re ordering coffee all over the place, all the time, restaurant or not. That said, an Italian may still hit a café on the way home for a post-espresso espresso. The shots are all singles.

Truth or Myth: Italians don’t drink drip brewed coffee.

Truth. In restaurants and cafes it’s not available. If an Italian doesn’t have an espresso machine at home they have one or two of the ubiquitous silver Mokha makers.

Truth or Myth: the foam on an Italian cappuccino is different.

Truth. They don’t heat the foam as much. It’s lighter and cooler than ours. Because of this and the fact that they use less milk overall, coffee lines in Italy move super fast. You never wait more than a couple minutes.