I visited Costco (Australia) and my blood ran cold

Many Australians are aware that the US behemoth Costco, bulk retailer extraordinaire, opened its first warehouse in Melbourne recently. Costco has received more than a bucket of free promotion through all the media attention it got (and I guess I’m not helping). I’ve been to Costco in the US and wanted to see what the Australian experience would be like. It’s striking how a novelty in one context (me being a tourist in the US) feels so different on my home turf.

In case you don’t know, Costco is a membership-only ($60/year) retailer specialising in large packages or multipacks of edible and non-edible consumer goods, plus occasional items like TVs or iPods or office chairs which are a little harder to sell in lots of ten. An enduring memory of my US visit was a large (two-pound?) bag of pine nuts and enormous trays of meat. The lack of diversity of brands was noticeable (there’s a house brand, and usually at most one or two competing familiar brands stocked for any product). The concept of buying very large quantities of, well, anything, seemed to work well with that USAmerican large-is-better approach to so many things.

But in Melbourne it seemed excessive, inappropriate and depressing. I’m not sure how many consumers can buy a kilo of soft goat’s cheese and eat it all before it goes off. Why do we need 15-inch (approx) ready-to-bake pizzas? They don’t even fit in the average Australian oven. Is it a good idea to only sell wholesale-size boxes of chocolate bars? Or one-thousand-ChupaChup containers? Why in hell do we need imported packages of “American cheese” slices (think fast food burger plastic cheese) or mixed grated cheese? How many people eat a sack of melons before they go off? A kilo of strawberries?

If all that interests you is cheap cheap cheap, then Costco might be for you (though not everything is cheap, some tech is actually uncompetitive). If you don’t mind a large company squeezing brand and product diversity in the Australian market even further (Coles and Woolworths do quite enough of that already), promoting the lowest-common-denominator approach to (in particular) food retailing, then I’m sure you won’t mind the place. But for me much of the experience stank of the same low-diversity, low-quality approach that strikes many foreign consumers who walk into average (not all, but far too many) North American supermarkets.

Whether the annual membership fee will be worth it for you depends on what you can save on (do you have space for 124 nappies or a bazillion rolls of toilet paper?). There will no doubt be specials and occasionally attractive products, especially as they stock tech, kitchenware, stationery, clothes and more. But for anyone who loves fresh food and brand/product diversity, it might be difficult, especially if your household is only one or two people.

What can Costco contribute positively in Australia? Despite importing crap American cheese slices, Costco Melbourne does have an impressive range of cheese (though no quality American cheese, unless I overlooked it). Good roquefort, poor quality gruy√®re, goat’s cheese, buffalo mozzarella (defrosting on the shelf!), some bries and camembert and some familiar local stuff. Also French butter! The meat looked decent (prices between Vic Market and horrendous Coles/Woolworths) and there was a good range of cuts. Costco might end up being the go-to place for meat amongst those who despair at our existing supermarkets. (But just take a detour to the Queen Victoria Market for goodness sake!)

Perhaps we’ll see a move by the local chains to lift their game and compete more on quality. But many Australian consumers have been successfully brainwashed into prioritising cheap at all cost by those same local chains, so I’m not holding out hope for positive developments.

Luxuriously fragrant baklava

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Do you think of baklava as a sweet that is tricky to make or time-consuming? I know many people have asked me questions along those lines in recent days. It’s easy. Really. And here’s a particularly refined version I made recently.

Nut pastries involving layers of filo pastry and ground nut are eaten all the way from the Balkans through the Middle East, the Maghreb, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and beyond, typically known as a type of baklava/baklawa. Rather than making one of the many recipes I have from different places, I decided to combine the essence of a number of traditions to produce something with a lovely complexity of flavour, using spices and scents typical of many of the cuisines of that very broad region.

For the filling, I’ve used walnuts and pistachios ground with sugar (about half the weight of the nuts) and scented with cardamom and rosewater. The base of the tray was covered with about eight layers of thin filo/fila/phyllo pastry, each buttered lightly. It’s helpful to let these bottom layers rise up the sides of the tray too, as this contains the filling better during cutting and later removal of the baklava from the tray. I then added half the nut mixture and flattened it out. A further four layers of buttered filo create a nice textural difference. Then the remainder of the nut mixture. I topped this with eight layers of buttered filo.

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Note that, as most trays nowadays have a delicate non-stick coating, I lined the tray with four pieces of baking paper to reduce the risk of damage during cutting and then a layer of buttered foil.

You should cut diamond shapes into the baklava before baking. Use a very sharp knife and press downwards rather than pulling the knife through the baklava. My pieces were a little larger than intended, as I spaced the long cuts too far apart.

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You also need to make a sugar syrup. I flavoured it with a little honey, lemon, cinnamon and orange blossom water. Simmer the syrup with flavourings (except orange blossom) for about 15 mins (it should still seem thin and shouldn’t have developed any colour). Add the orange blossom water at the end. Chill the syrup well. It is used after the baklava has been baked.

Bake the baklava for 30-45 mins at about 160C (for conventional oven), then raise the temperature to about 200C for a further 10-15 mins when you see the top pastry layers are beginning to puff up a bit. You don’t want the pastry to get brown (no darker than a roasted almond (yes, a blanched one!)), but you do want it to cook through. If the top layers are going brown, cover with foil.

Once you’ve removed the tray from the oven, pour the cold syrup over the baklava. It will sizzle deliciously. Let it cool for a few minutes, then use your knife to re-cut the diamond shapes (it makes separation of the pieces later much easier).

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You can serve the baklava as soon as it is completely cool, but you’ll find the texture is better about a day later, as the syrup will have been properly absorbed by the nut mixture by then.

I used 300 gm nuts, 150 gm pastry and about 200 ml sugar syrup (250 gm sugar, 150 ml water) to fill a 32 x 18 cm tray. You can scale up or down to other size trays.

There are many factors here that will influence the final flavour — different strengths of rose and orange blossom waters, freshness of spices, etc. It’s up to you to judge the flavour to suit you. I’d recommend being a little cautious at first.

By the way, although I usually make all my own pastry, filo is something I didn’t have time to try this time, sorry!

Now, baklava/baklawa is sweet. If you already know that the typical product in your Greek or Middle Eastern pastry shop isn’t to your liking, this version isn’t likely to be much more palatable for you, though my version is more fragrant and less sweet and syrupy than some.

As you can see, there are no real tricky bits to making baklava, and the preparation is pretty quick. The result is something nutty, perfumed and delicious that goes perfectly with strong coffee.