The biscuits have left the building

And so six months of squeezing piping bags, banging trays, swearing at ovens and buying plastic boxes every time they’re on special has come to an end. Joys, travails and trivia of the adventure:

  • The mini-riot in the first week of sales at Liaison.
  • Overhearing someone complaining that my macarons had too much filling.
  • Watching someone yesterday taste one of every flavour before buying multiples of each.
  • Discovering that people are scared of nutmeg (it was the only flavour that didn’t sell fast), but unfazed by the woody unfamiliarity of licorice root.
  • Having customers carefully eat around my dot, mistakenly believing it to be a blemish of some sort.
  • Meeting some of the lovely regulars at Liaison.
  • Putting dots on macarons is almost as hard as making macarons.
  • Oh, and this:

Thanks for all your enthusiasm! Special thanks are due to Suzanne, Claire, Matt, Mark, Siâny and Danny. I wish everyone a great Christmas and a wonderful 2011. Perhaps I’ll see you next year.

Wave goodbye to my 2010 babies (the Octomum has nothing on me!)

ALEX dried cherry JULIETTE rose
ANTON pandan+coconut LUCA lemon (white, extradark, pepper)
BETH orange (white, dark) LUCILLE rose+lemon
BIANCA pure licorice root LUCY mandarin
CINDY nutmeg MATEUS durian
CLANCY fingerlime NUNO coffee
DARCY cocoa nibs (vanilla, orange) PERNILLA blackcurrant
DAVID raspberry (dark, white) RASA coconut
DIEGO cinnamon SHAREE cherry
GUSTAV Christmas spice STEFAN pistachio (white, salted)
HERBERT peppermint VIOLA violet+aniseed
JOANNA date+orange blossom YANNIC salted caramel
JUDY ginger ZARA passionfruit (white, effervescent)
JULIE mandarin+rose

Christmas week: ending my macaron season with a bang!

Every day in the week before Christmas there’ll be macarons at Liaison Café. And there’ll be quite a lot. And there’ll be pretty Christmas ones. I’ve been baking my buns off to get enough stock ready for this special week. [ALL GONE!]

[UPDATED ON: Thursday]

The macarons will usually be available from approximately 10am and should last until at least early afternoon. The café closes around 3pm. Please check back for any changes or notes (I’ll update this announcement when necessary).

Monday 20th:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry) / HERBERT dark (subtle peppermint) / GUSTAV milk (Christmas spice) / ANON1 (mystery flavour)

Tuesday 21st:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry), GUSTAV milk (Christmas spice), ANON1 (mystery flavour), ZARA white (passionfruit), HERBERT dark (subtle peppermint), and maybe JUDY dark (ginger)

Wednesday 22nd:

  • It’s MACAWRONG DAY! Most of the macarons on sale will be macawrongs, sold at two for $3. If you don’t know my macawrongs, read the announcement for my previous macawrong day here.

Thursday 23rd:

  • SHAREE white (delicate cherry), ZARA fizz (effervescent passionfruit), ZARA white (passionfruit), VIOLA white (violet + aniseed), ANON2/3/4 (mystery flavours)


Friday 24th:

  • None left, sorry!

This is the season finale for Macarons by Duncan! These will be the last macarons for a few months (returning at the earliest in March).

Where are the good kitchen scales?

How hard is it to make a set of consumer digital kitchen scales that are reliable? Too hard, it seems.

Exhibit A, below, is the most reliable, moderately priced (A$40) set I’ve found in recent years. The IKEA Ordning kitchen scale is simple, reasonably robust, and fairly reliable. I’ve had two in the last six years. The first broke because I have a habit of knocking things onto the floor. My parents inherited it because my father is nifty with drills and glue and stuff;) The second Ordning scale isn’t quite as good. No design changes, but the displayed weight seems to creep up or down a little sometimes. A pity, because the first one was really, really reliable.

Exhibit B, below, was a piece of junk I bought at BigW. I liked the idea of a solid flat glass surface, and bright display. Junk. It wasn’t enough that weighing something at different spots on the surface yielded different outcomes, but watching the display settle on a weight, then slowly tick upwards gram by gram over a period of about 30 seconds, then (if lucky) slowly tick downwards to (approximately) the original weight, was excruciatingly frustrating.

The design was clean and the display was bright, but that couldn’t compensate for the flaws. This device is sold under many brands both here in Australia and overseas. I don’t know if the one I bought was a one-off faulty unit. There are other scales that are of the same basic design but have a slightly different base or display, and these might behave differently.

Exhibit C (which I’m not exhibiting) was another type of scale (raised glass disc over a plastic housing) at a similar price point. It refused to register the addition of any amount under about three grams, so if you had 100gm of something already on the scales and slowly sprinkled on small amounts of extra ingredient, it wouldn’t notice. Dumb.

What’s a gram or two between friends?

If baking is your thing, and especially if you spend quite some time developing recipes, every gram can matter. For general use, it’s not so big a drama unless you’re adding small quantities of very potent ingredients (e.g. certain flavours, chemicals in avantgarde cooking, leavening agents, etc), or making a very small batch of something where the balance of ingredients is crucial (e.g. a ganache).

I began to wonder if the expensive digital scales sold in most cookware shops and department stores were, in fact, justifiably pricey. A quick look at the reviews on various Amazons left me sceptical, and the fact that the typical consumer probably trusts their scales without testing them for accuracy/reliablity certainly distorts the reviews.

So I wonder what my readers use and have found to be truly reliable?

A decent set of scales should, in my opinion, manage at least to:

  • measure up to at least 3 kg, preferably more
  • measure as little as 2 gm
  • measure in increments of no larger than 1 gm (there are cheap scales out there that only measure in 2 gm or 5 gm increments)
  • be zeroed/tared
  • measure reliably, without the figure creeping up or down, or the baseline changing
  • (added later:) perhaps measure lb/oz as well.

Reliability of scales is difficult to assess if you don’t have access to more than one set of scales. However, smallish weights can be checked by using multiple coins, as the weights of coins are meant to be reliable (e.g. an Australian 50c coin should weigh 15.55 gm; Wikipedia has useful reference lists for many different currencies).

Macawrong Day! Fri 29th Oct, 2010

Life can’t always be about beautiful things, don’t you know. Behind a beautiful façade can lurk many disappointments (as many a macaron-sampler will know, especially in Australia), so it’s time to turn the tables! This Friday is MACAWRONG DAY. What’s more, limited advanced orders will be possible (see below).

On Macawrong Day, the macarons will sell at two for $3 (or four for $6).

In any food production there are always a few strays that slip through the quality control, but I do try hard to round up all the little ugly ones and store them away for a special day. On Friday you can try a range of macarons that feature familiar, uncompromised fillings, but shells that could be:

  • a bit toasty
  • a bit wrinkly
  • a bit lumpy
  • a bit leany
  • a bit blimpy
  • a bit tiddly
  • a bit wimpy
  • a bit smeary
  • a bit holey
  • or actually quite beautiful, but for reasons you (and perhaps I) cannot discern, ended up in the macawrong box.

Most macawrongs are branded with a line rather than my usual dot on the shells. If you close your eyes, I would wager that 90% of them would seem like macarights in your mouth. So if you’re fussy, close your eyes, because customers will not be permitted to discriminate against flawed macarons! 😉

There’ll be almost twice the usual number of macarons on sale, and the flavours are mostly VIOLA white, HERBERT dark, and LUCA extradark, with one or two others in very small quantities.

Limited advance orders

For people who can’t make it to Liaison Café during the Friday morning macaron-rush, this week I can arrange to reserve a limited number for collection before 2pm on Friday.

If you would like to request some, send an email (contact page link above) between 9.00am and 10.00am on Thursday only (28th Oct), including your given name, surname and a contact number.* Do not send a request outside the above period. The lucky people will be advised by about 11.00am Thurs via email.

* The information you provide will not be used for any purpose other than to record your order for macarons on the day in question.

Can the honest reputation of foodblogs survive the PR-foodblogger relationship?

Let me start with a series of questions…

  • Did you hear about the Singaporean blogger who got entangled in a mess of accusation and counter-accusation about a free meal? At first it seemed like ego, but later facts indicate it was other people’s egos, plus some PR/restaurant dirty dealing.
  • Do you sigh with disillusionment when you discover yet another foodblog that now features effusive sponsored product or restaurant reviews?
  • Did you know that there is now a chocolatier (Melb.) and a patisserie (Syd.) banned from all mention on Syrup & Tang because of deliberate pseudo-genuine comments promoting (“shilling”) their products? (And a third (Melb.) will be if they try once more.)
  • Were you invited by PR company Media Moguls to an unspecified “blogger event”, but first had to provide your visitor stats? (In correspondence I described this as “rudely presumptuous”.)
  • Have you seen comments on other blogs protesting their “genuine punter” nature and recommending an establishment? Some of those come from the restaurant’s own internet connection… funny, that.
  • Have you received PR-spam because a Melbourne blogger working for a PR company appears to have added her private address book to the company’s database? (I’ll name her if I get one more piece of unsolicited garbage in my inbox.)
  • Have you heard about (at least one) Melbourne blogger who visits cafés, asks probing questions during busy service, and conspicuously takes flash photos without asking? (It’s about the lack of courtesy, not the photos.)
  • Have you noticed that bloggers are increasingly being invited to PR events for which there is an entry/attendance fee? (They wouldn’t try to pull that one on mainstream media!)

It seems foodblogging has matured far enough to be entwined in a pretty tiresome game of cat and mouse with restaurateurs and public relations (PR) companies, egos, money and more.

This article has been brewing for a few months, as I tried to reconcile my opinions about freedoms, community, advertising and blogging. Luckily for me, Brian at Fitzroyalty was perhaps the first to loudly object in detail to some recent developments while I was still vacillating, then Claire published an encouraging post reminding readers of how diverse and interesting the blogosphere can be. Ed also wrote a simple to-the-point post back in June.

I’ve rejigged what I first intended to write, but there will be some natural overlap with other people’s articles (some of which I may have overlooked or forgotten) or comments. As each of our readerships differ a bit, I hope some readers don’t mind the overlap.

When I started blogging, I knew there were different types of bloggers, variously wanting to share, inform, diarise, explore, think, make friends, review, cook, boast, show off, promote a business, etc. Sydney blogs were already known for a bit of a commercial tinge here and there. More numerous Melbourne blogs were generally a bit less “blingy” and there seemed to be more interaction across a broad range of people.

Our first three gatherings were open-invitation, sponsor-free, competition-free, prize-free, warm affairs, with a bit of trepidation but not much showing off. They were enjoyable. Reading reports of the recent commercially-coloured get-together, I was interested to see how few of Melbourne’s long-standing bloggers attended, and I’m guessing more than a few were put off by the change in tone (though I’m not claiming that the people who did attend were at fault, or didn’t enjoy themselves).

Blogs meet commerce

Just like magazines or TV shows, the publisher/producer of a blog chooses what to present and the readers can choose what content they consume. It could therefore be argued that any blogger can do anything they choose (a point made by a number of irritated commenters on Phil Lees’s post earlier in the year that (rather inconsistently) flagged supposedly commercialised bloggers).

Bloggers develop specialisations, styles, or find themselves growing business ideas out of their blogs. Many have successfully achieved a respectful (to the readers) balance between their new business and the original goals of the blog. For many bloggers, there are also external commercial temptations along the way and each blogger has to work out how or to what degree they embrace that.

Some people believe that all commercial interactions are in some way “compromising”, but I think that’s both rigid and rather unrealistic. It’s possible to run obvious ads, for instance, without that affecting your own content (though I think it can degrade the perceived quality of a blog — see some US blogs, for instance, plastered head to toe in banners and commercial bling). It’s also clear that foodlovers can benefit from access to events and information that they might not usually get, even if this is in the context of marketing activity of some sort. Mild bias might be inevitable, but it’s unavoidable under any circumstance as a consumer anyway. Managing the bias is a more critical issue as a blog owner.

As the years have passed, some people have joined blog networks, such as Foodbuzz, only to discover that these were intended in no small part as revenue generators seducing bloggers into a sort of interdependence with niche advertisers. And others have joined ad networks like the much mentioned Nuffnang, which is perhaps little different from Google as an display-ad provider, but has successfully persuaded many bloggers to compromise the integrity of their content by variously providing freebies for review, sometimes with editorial guidance, and arranging events or access to events where most bloggers feel obliged to write at least moderately positive things.

Meanwhile, PR companies have embraced blogs as genuine media participants and therefore fair game for a myriad of marketing approaches (Another Outspoken Female’s rants about this (1, 2) are excellent), but pay-for-attendance event invitations reveal that the respect is fairly limited.

At the same time, individual businesses and talentless PR people seek increasingly to manipulate blog readers by posting false or anonymous comments on blogs, willingly lying about their “genuine” nature, and too many bloggers let this happen (a fair proportion of such comments are quite obviously false, either through the wording or the technical info accompanying the comment).

Clean reputation matters, for everyone

Is all this a problem if bloggers and blog-readers get to choose what they write or read? Yes. There is an obvious risk that the hard-fought-for recognition of food bloggers as genuine and honest reviewers, writers or cooks is being directly undermined. Some bloggers who started to ride the PR gravy train have already reassessed their enthusiasm, becoming more careful in choosing the invitations or freebies they accept, and approaching reviewing opportunities with a far more critical eye. That’s a natural development, and I hope that trend continues.

Running advertorial content, sponsored reviews, or similar material can endanger the respect people have for your own blog, or for the whole spectrum of foodbloggers. Unfortunately, some comments on both Brian’s and Phil’s posts, show there are people who feel an entitlement to some sort of commercial reward for blogging or who will uncritically promote a product as long as it is a basic “fit” with their blog content, and I doubt they care if the scepticism they cause spreads to the large numbers of other bloggers. As the flattering PR attention increases, will we see a wave of blogging egos demanding privilege and special treatment? I’ve heard rumours that it’s happening here already.

Many bloggers have been trying for years to educate PR people about blogs, respectful engagement, and not filling inboxes with irrelevant rubbish. It would be a pity to see the public and mainstream media regarding foodblogs as untrustworthy PR mouthpieces, where previously the biggest battles were with restaurateurs who hated bloggers for telling the genuine everyday experience of a customer, and journalists who loathed the unedited and sometimes faster-to-the-news nature of blogs.

Will the good intentions and often noble goals of many foodbloggers be suffocated by tempations, egos, and the taint of careless commercialism? Many longstanding bloggers have been quieter than usual in the last six months, perhaps in part due to disquiet at the change in tone.

 


A note about my own sites:

I like reviewing stuff, and originally intended to do much more than I have over the last three and a half years. Only on very rare occasions have I received free samples or attended events, and usually they were too rubbish to write about. Nonetheless, I don’t oppose writing about things I discover as the result of recommendation or press release and genuinely find worth commenting on, but whatever the case, I review without fear or favour (which might also be why I’m rarely offered freebies;) ).

I deliberately separate most of my regular macaron-making announcements from the main Syrup & Tang site and RSS feed because I don’t expect my readers will want to wade through frequent commercial announcements. I think it’s a sensible, respectful approach which many other bloggers have also taken.

I own a book review website, The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf, and occasionally make announcements on Syrup & Tang about the reviews. The site was set up because there were so many crap, PR-driven book reviews out there. Blogs are particularly problematic, because most bloggers feel obliged to write positively about free books they receive (especially a problem in the US and UK). On The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf we tell all publishers that if they supply a book, they do so at their own risk, because we definitely publish critical reviews.

A note about comments:

Comments must be respectful and constructive, whether agreeing or disagreeing. There is no right to comment (this is my website), but most comments are usually published after checking. Anonymous comments for publication can be emailed directly to me (you have to identify yourself to me, but request public anonymity, with a good reason). Private emails which are rude to me might be published.

The flexible macaron Top 20 and why I’m off it

Many people have asked me why I’m not participating in the Melbourne Macaron competition, I’ve decided I have to write this article explaining my perspective. Despite my criticisms, please note that I do hope that event turns out to be fun and successful.

Mystery

Was it poor execution or a cynical PR-thing? First, Twitterers noticed they were being followed by @eatmacarons, a new account that announced the impending revelation of the “top 20” Melbourne macaron establishments and a competition event in October. The account profile pointed to a website “coming soon”. No identification of who was behind the list or the event. Nix. Tantalising tweets went out, tweet-incentives too (free tickets). Still no uncloaking of the organisers.

To me, it smelled like yet another public relations game among the many now playing in the food-internet/blog-world. Managing to follow over 1000 people on Twitter in less than a month is seriously impressive. After some technical research, I discovered that this “Food Designer” was behind it.

On the Sunday before the public announcement of her list, I got a call. (I don’t think out-of-the-blue non-crisis business calls on a weekend are polite, but clearly, telling me I was on her Top 20 list was so urgent that calling was absolutely necessary.) At the same time an invitation letter and entry form for the October competition arrived by email.

The Top 20 list was interesting (and still is). As someone giggled to me, “are there that many good macaron makers in Melbourne?” How did the list come about? As far as I can divine, personal recommendations to the organisers. (And I know who nominated me – thank you.)

Less than 24 hours later another organiser called asking me to verify my participation in the competition (the closing date was still four days away).

The invitation letter described the event as a “student-run initiative”, but the signatory to the invitation was the “Food Designer” Linda Monique Kowalski. She didn’t identify her business or that she (presumably) isn’t a student in this initiative.

Eventually, the website revealed that “A team of 15 volunteers directed by creative consultant & fooddesigner, Linda Monique, aim to promote this petit four as the next cosmopolitan cupcake.” Oh yay. It was still oddly unclear why the students/volunteers were involved (revealed only after I enquired directly to be a Melbourne University student entrepreneurship initiative).

Pay-to-play, and don’t read the rules

The letter informed me that a participation fee for the competition was due by Friday. $220 thank you. This sort of thing might be common in PR/industry competitions, but no thanks.

Reading on, the short set of competition rules finished with clause 6:

“Additional rules to the competition my [sic] be implemented by the Melbourne Macaron team”.

I see. So one agrees to compete and they can do whatever they want with the competition? Amateur or dodgy?

The flexible Top 20

I declined. So did Café Vue, it would seem. Both our names vanished from the “top 20” list tout de suite. We were promptly replaced with backups. I’ve just noticed that Baker D. Chirico is now also gone, replaced by Brunetti. And OMG ROFL the organisers even went so far as to purge their earlier tweets naming us on their list.


The website Top 20 list at the start, and today.


The Twitter feed for @eatmacaron seems to have suffered a deletion. Where’s no. 4? It used to be Café Vue.

There’s something inherently dishonest (or amateurish) in creating and publishing a Top 20 and then editing it post hoc to suit your needs. And it’s just a tad optimistic to assume every nominee would leap at the opportunity to compete (with or without a fee). There was no explicit linkage of Top 20 status and any requirement for participation in the competition (usually you’d name your flexible Top 20 after all the entry forms are in, if that’s how you want to play it).

I continue to hope that the lack of transparency and other issues are more due to inexperience than part of some ill-conceived marketing game, and that it can be a fun event for the participants in the end. I can see the attraction for others who might want a boost in business and I wish them success if they compete.

Finally, so that there aren’t any misconceptions, I don’t mind not being part of the event – while it was nice to briefly have been on the list, I chose not to be involved for the reasons above and events since then seem, for me, to have further justified that decision.