Because a bare cupboard and an empty fridge are sad sights to behold, the Urban Forager hunts through food & wine shops bringing home tasty morsels that make your kitchen table the best place to eat in town.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Milking It

I have to admit the first time I bought Straus Family Creamery half and half, it was the cute factor that got me. Who can resist a tiny glass milk bottle with a picture of a little cow on the front? Pouring cream into my coffee from a bottle like this one just makes me feel good, and it also makes me feel nostalgic; for what, I don’t know, since I’ve never lived on a farm and grew up in an era when the Milk Man left plastic jugs that didn’t have the satisfying clink of glass bottles. But charm isn’t the only thing glass bottles have going for them. Glass is easier on the environment than plastic or paper cartons. The bottles can be recycled, or, if you buy a brand like Straus, return it to the store and it will be returned to the creamery, sterilized, and re-used. Glass does not impart any flavor into the milk, like a plastic bottle might, and glass stays cold longer than a paper carton does, which keeps your milk colder and fresher when it’s traveling between the store and your home (or sitting out on the counter). It is true that light causes a chemical reaction in milk that diminishes some flavor and nutrients, but I’ve decided to file this information in the “life’s too short to be worried about everything” category. Maybe milk in glass bottles loses a few vitamins, but I like to think that the milk from Straus Creamery (a family-owned company with completely organic practices) has more nutrients to begin with; if it loses a few, its still healthier than most of the milk out there from god-only-knows-where. Parents who are buying glass bottles for themselves are also buying glass baby bottles for the wee ones. Increased sales in glass baby bottles can be traced to alarming (but still potentially unfounded) fears that hard plastic baby bottles release the chemical bisphenol into milk. It wasn’t this complicated in the good ol’ days. My Mom remembers being a kid on the farm and squirting milk directly from the cow into her mouth. She swears that no cream she’s had since has been as good. As much as I love Straus Family Creamery’s half and half, I have to say that my Mom probably has a point.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Viva La France

Two days ago I returned from an eleven day vacation in the South of France, where The Husband and I drove our little rented Citro├źn through the winding cliffs of Cote d’Azur and the tree-lined roads of Provence. The last time I was in France was ten years ago and my impression then was the same as it was this time: There’s something great about being in a country where non-fat milk doesn’t exist, smoking is still acceptable, wine flows like water, and a bakery is on every corner. What really hit me this time, however, was not how far ahead the French are, gastronomically speaking, but how far we’ve come. An overwhelming amount of the same brands of products lining the shelves of food stores in France are readily available here in the States (salts, butters, cheeses, chocolates, oils, etc). I thought I’d come back with a suitcase full of culinary finds, but it was silly to pack food back from France that I can just buy at the gourmet market here in the States. The beauty of France, however, is that there aren’t “gourmet” markets, there are just markets. What we consider “gourmet” food is seamlessly integrated into their daily eating habits. In the medieval hill town of Castillon du Gard, The Husband and I wandered into a tiny store that was essentially a neighborhood mini-mart, but in addition to toilet paper and potato chips and canned soup, there was also a selection of local produce, handmade cheeses, and these delicious little Kalamata olive crackers.
Thankfully, there are more and more store owners in the U.S. that are getting the hang of this idea, which is not at all a new one, not even in the States. It is, essentially, the return of the corner grocer, or, if you will, a re-imagined version of a 7-11 convenience store. The growing wave of convenience stores on the West Coast all share the same traits: They are small, locally owned, and most importantly, located in the heart of a residential neighborhood. They lack the snobbery that a strictly gourmet store can have, and unlike the 7-11 stores we all grew up with, they sell real food, not just junk food. These stores are not afraid to sell Saltine Crackers and toilet paper next to Italian Olive oil and brie.
At Robin’s Nest in Los Angeles you can buy kitty litter and Heinz baked beans as well as Mushroom Truffle Risotto puffs and a divine cappuccino. At The Icebox in Seattle, residents of the Queen Anne neighborhood can stroll in for fresh herbs and wine or a gallon of milk and a box of cereal. In Spokane, WA, Rocket Market is a gas station convenience store that has grown into a "small market of epic proportions." In addition to gas, Rocket Market offers a stellar selection of wine, artisan cheeses, and fresh baked desserts.
Like the French, these little stores have figured out that good food can and should be sold at the same place where you pump gas and buy a bar of soap. In an ideal world, there should be a pleasant little store close to your home where you can pop in on a Saturday night for a bottle of excellent wine and the dog food you just realized you ran out of. Food magazines will be telling you next year what I'm telling you now: In 2008 fancy-pants gourmet stores will be out and the new breed of neighborhood convenience stores will be in.