Category Archives: local

Real life on the ground. Anywhere.

Imported pastries at Woolworths/Safeway

Woolworths clearly weren’t satisfied with importing “artisan” bread all the way from the other side of the Pacific (see my article here), but are also selling a diverse range of pastries imported from Europe. They’ve been doing for at least a few months, but I’ve been slow to write about it.

Interested in the (slightly underbaked) maple/pecan plaits, or the attractive hazelnut twists, or the Portuguese custard tarts at Woolworths/Safeway? Look carefully at the price label. Although I’ve noticed a change to omit the country of origin recently, this is what I was able to snap back in July.


I recognised the maple pecan plaits… I’d seen them in Danish supermarkets. So what are they doing here, about 10,000km away? While novel product is appreciated in our distinctly unnovel major supermarkets, I can’t help but wonder, yet again, WHY Australian businesses can’t supply product of at least similar middling quality, and WHY Woolworths is happy to source such product from overseas — if you’re going to buy egregiously imported stuff, you might as well promote the product as something special (at least then it would look like the importation was justified and it might motivate local businesses to do better).

Note that I don’t know if Woolworths is responsible for the importation or if a third party is bring this product in and wholesaling it.

And in case you’re interested, the plaits are very sweet and moderately pleasant, while the Portuguese custard tarts look like crap and are unlikely to be a happy experience.

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.

Masterchef Australia’s macarons: bad crunch

Macarons should not be crunchy.

There, I’ve said it loud.

Every contestant in Masterchef Australia episode 61 had crunchy macarons. (Ok, except Andre, who didn’t have macarons at all.) The microphones captured the powdery crunch of their “Masterchef macaroons”.

Crunch is a result of dehydration. You achieve it in two ways:

  1. You cook them too far (and hey, the colour quickly tells you it’s happening unless you’ve coloured them strongly).
  2. You leave them to stand for hours before baking (great for reducing product loss cos the shells don’t break easily; not so good for retaining the subtleties of texture).

A good shell is crisp and fairly fragile. It should offer resistance to the teeth, but should not make crunchy sounds. In a bag of macarons transported carefully, it’s a miracle if some don’t break. Fragile. Understand? Not bakery-meringue robust. Not looking good after cutting with knife!

Some professional bakers in Australia should keep that in mind, as I’ve noted elsewhere before.

Contestants Poh and Chris did well to produce such visually attractive ones first time round. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t mind betting that this line in the recipe they used was what led them to overcooking the shells: “cook until macaron is able to be lifted from tray“. Ovens vary so much that this instruction is fairly pointless, especially for novices. My home oven would turn macarons to rusks if I had to wait until they lifted off the tray without coaxing.

UPDATE: Scroll down for another piece of silliness, discovered after publishing this earlier today.

macs_july

Australian Gourmet Traveller has a big fat French wank edition this month (some nice recipes, a little food wisdom). The front cover features pink macarons. Behold the following lines in their recipe (French meringue version, by the way):

gourmetmacrubbish

The first highlighted sentence is simply rubbish. The second highlighted sentence will most likely give you a nice, thick, powdery, crunchy shell. Delicious! Ha.

What is your supermarket importing now?

Continuing my occasional quest for examples of disappointments in supermarkets, I have found a new example of the import-cheap-product-at-all-costs approach to retailing.

What do you think I found?

1. Canned corn
2. Artisan bread
3. Exotic mushrooms
4. Rubbery balls of mozzarella
5. Tomato sauce

Can you guess? Can you? Can you?

In Australia, we’re familiar with US cherries out of season. We know some local brands of chocolate are imported in part from New Zealand. And some local biscuit products now come from factories in China.

I’ve got past my surprise at seeing that Woolworths/Safeway “Select” chocolate biscuits are from New Zealand (and I think the Coles supermarket house brand biscuits are from Scotland). Such a pity the supermarkets’ drive to stuff higher-margin house branded goods onto their shelves is so clearly at the cost of local manufacturers and producers.

So what next?

Ladies and gentleman, I present my first piece of evidence.

usbread1

A seemingly innocent display of fancy breads. They look quite appetising.

usbread2

They come to you direct from the USA.

I don’t know about you, but at first sight, my brain refused to process the label. “Why are they bothering to tell us the origin of the cheese?” I thought to myself. Nope. Silly. The bread. Woolworths/Safeway is importing its “artisan bread” from across the Pacific Ocean. I wonder how many cents the USAmerican manufacturer managed to undercut a local baker by in order to win the contract! Was it really worth transferring business to an overseas producer for a product we can make very well at home?

Do any readers have other examples of stunningly stupid imports? (Please ignore (un)seasonal fresh produce issues, as they already receive a fair bit of attention.)

Olive masterclass

Olive lovers might be interested in the olive masterclass being run by The Princess and the Providore on March 26th in Melbourne (you need to book). Simon Field is the olive man and I’ve been to one of his classes before. Very enjoyable and informative. I also buy olives from him cos they’re delicious.

When? THURSDAY 26 March 6.30pm to 9.00pm
What? MINERAL water, glass of wine, yummy antipasti and recipes
http://www.princessprovidore.com/