A LITTLE VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY

Tempus fugit gains truism as time passes us by, and I have been guilty of not writing for quite some time. There are myriad reasons, but then it's always easy to find excuses. I apologise - I have none.

Recently Valda and I took two weeks and a coupe of days to visit our daughter, Maxine in the UK, and have a week in Israel. This was a culinary adventure that helped re-balance our perceptions and expectations.

Our first meal was at Momo, and was great.

Dessert table

Dessert table

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Elegant Moroccan food in the heart of London, great service and reasonably priced ! http://momoresto.com/restaurant/london/momo/restaurant/

Next stop, Dominiqe Ansell for breakfast !

Cronut -the real deal !

Cronut -the real deal !

Perfect Little Egg Sandwich (VG) £ 5.00 £ 6.00 Steamed farm fresh eggs, herbs and Gruyère cheese, served on a mini brioche bun

Perfect Little Egg Sandwich (VG) £ 5.00 £ 6.00 Steamed farm fresh eggs, herbs and Gruyère cheese, served on a mini brioche bun

Food, service and ambience all top notch  http://dominiqueansellondon.com/

We spent the day around the markets - so many pictures to choose from !

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What cheese would you like on your burger ? 

What cheese would you like on your burger ? 

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Nitro Ice Cream !  

Nitro Ice Cream !

 

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Dinner ended up at an American restaurant called Dirty Bones at Carnaby Street.

DEEP FRIED MAC BALLS 6.5 With Dirty Bones sweet chilli sauce

DEEP FRIED MAC BALLS 6.5 With Dirty Bones sweet chilli sauce

BEEF SHORT RIB 16 Tender beef short rib with a salted caramel & burnt onion BBQ sauce, crispy shallots and spring onions

BEEF SHORT RIB 16 Tender beef short rib with a salted caramel & burnt onion BBQ sauce, crispy shallots and spring onions

Great meal - top quality food - reasonably priced.

http://dirty-bones.com/food

No visit to London would be complete without Borough Market   http://boroughmarket.org.uk/

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The duck breasts are enormous, these were smoked and succulent.

The duck breasts are enormous, these were smoked and succulent.

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Largest oyster I have seen - twice my handwidth !  

Largest oyster I have seen - twice my handwidth !

 

Lunch at Social Tapas. We had eaten at Social on Pollen previously, so there was a certain expectation.

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The food was well plated, but there was about as much love as a MacDonald's Cheeseburger. Fine winelist. Very expensive for a poor experience. Sorry Jason Atherton, this one was a fail for us.  http://www.socialwineandtapas.com/

 

And so ended our few days in London. Off to Maidenhead to see Maxine and prepare for our dinner at The Fat Duck.

How to be a better customer

It's bloody cheeky at best for a retailer to offer advice about how to be a better customer. Actually, the real title should be "how to achieve more from your encounter". We regularly send our shop staff to the customer's side of the counter to see what it looks like from their view. I have often toyed with the thought of having really impossible customers around to the service side to enable them to see what they are doing.

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT.

In essence that is the mantra of any successful business. give the customer what they want, as they are paying your wage. What they want, however, may not be what they need. As a service person, one can only know that if it is clearly articulated.

Service people are always taught to smile at the customer with a cheery greeting. After that it is in your park. smile back, explain what you would like, have a little patience, and it will bring it's own reward. If you are short of temper (not in stature), aggressive, angry or just mutter, you have not got off to a good start. And if you answer your cellphone while we are serving you, we will adjourn the service to assist the next customer waiting.

At On Trays our Saturday servers are all bright youngsters starting their way into the world of tertiary education. They really are fast learners, and very good with regular customers. When engaging with them, it is valuable to explain that your partner has a dinner party for sixteen people, and would like some cheese to accompany the bubbly before the meal. The resulting cheese, and accompaniments will be far different from the cheese that your server would suggest for after the meal!

Information is the crux of this encounter, so telling the server about the food at the dinner party will help them to direct you to the best choices. For instance, more about the guests attending. Knowledge is the best way for your server to guide you to find what the guests are more likely to enjoy. Are they staid and conservative? Outgoing, adventurous, likely to try something new? The same goes for quantities. Your server will be able to calculate how much of each you are likely to need. Too little makes you look like a scrooge, and a huge excess just looks vulgar!

At this point you will have established a friendly rapport with the server, and they will start empowering you with tidbits about the product. In our case, for instance "this cheese was adjudged the best in the world at..." or "this was served to the Royals at the last visit." They will provide more information about the cheese, where it was made, from the milk of which animal, affinage, and so forth.

HONESTY

Often on tasting a product you will find that it is not appealing, but feel that there are others waiting to be served, and may be judged for that. This is wrong. The very reason we give to taste is so that the customer may acquaint themselves with the myriad products available. The beautiful thing about artisan products is the fact that each one is so different. By rejecting what you did not like, and tasting until you hone in on what you do, you will walk out with a far more pleasing purchase, a better knowledge of your own likes and dislikes, and you will have armed your server with the information to give you better service at your next visit.

The same approach works well in restaurants, and a few minutes well spent with the wait-person will help you make your choices. Ask them what their favourite dishes are, and why. Ask where the fish comes from, how it is cooked, and even about the sustainability. You will be pleasantly surprised. The sommelier can be equally engaging, and will be likely to know some of the local winemakers, which vintages are best, and which wine will best match the dishes your table have ordered. Once again, it pays to give feedback. By saying which styles of wine you did and do not enjoy, you will be guided in the direction of wines that you will come to love.

By necessity some service takes a little longer than others, and it is important to exercise a little patience. We have a trio of meat slices lined up, and even with three active slicers on a busy Saturday the queue easily builds up. Prepare yourself for a five or ten minute wait, it could be worth it. You will probably be able to have a few more tastes along the way, and perhaps an enlightening conversation with the next customer at the same time. Slicing meats perfectly takes skill, time, and care. At busy Australian outlets the slicing queue on a Saturday is often 45 minutes. If you place your server is under extreme pressure it is likely that they may slice a little thicker to be faster which is never a good end result.

Ditto for your restaurant experience. A risotto takes between 14 - 18 minutes to cook, so allow that time, and understand that the kitchen is under pressure to get your food out. If your wait person has told the pass that the guests at table 5 are really impatient and demanding, you may get your food five minutes quicker, but most likely undercooked! If it does seem to be taking too long, engage with your wait person about it. The wait person may be under considerable stress because of it, so asking in a friendly manner will most likely yield good results. You may even get your food before the table who ordered ahead of you.

Communication, a friendly demeanour,  and willingness to learn will always help, on both sides of the counter, and make your shopping, or dining, experience that much better. Give it some thought, be a better customer, and reap the rewards.

The Cost of Kai

We often get asked about the cost of products we sell, some customers perceiving them as expensive. I thought I would start with biltong. The base product for biltong is good meat, usually silverside, which costs around $12, plus GST, per kilogram. After curing, spicing and drying the loss is 60%, which leaves 400 grams from each kilogram. The cost is then around $30 per kilogram. This leaves the butcher to sell wholesale at between $39 -  $45 per kilogram. Out of this, they have to cover their rent, other ingredients, wages, electricity, and sometimes transport.

As a retail outlet we buy in at that level, and still have a drying factor. Biltong just received will lose another 10% in the first 48 hours, up to about 30% after 10 days. After adding GST it is clear that the margins are thin selling the product at $59 per kilogram. And we happily remove the fat, slice it, and will package it to requirement. The same goes for cured meats such as prosciutto. In the case of Parma ham, around 25% are rejected by the inspector after a 300 day drying period. 

Wine production is a great example too. Great wines, many of which are AOC or DOP, are governed by the yield per hectare. Reduced yields will lead to better quality wine, while there is no restriction on many cheaper New World wines. Then many are blended by great experts, aged in expensive casks, and so forth. So there is good reason that when you buy a higher priced wine the cost of production will have been substantially more.

The cost of cheese depends heavily on the choice of milk. Cows produce substantially more milk that sheep, goat, or buffalo. Sheep only produce about 1.5 to 2 litres daily, while goats produce more. Despite this, because sheep milk delivers a higher yield in the cheesemaking process because of its structure. Goat milk has a lower yield, in addition to what  has to be discarded due to taint. To make a 40 kilogram wheel of Parmiggiano Reggiano will take over 400 litres of milk. Processes such as microfiltration also increase yield, so we see Danish White Cheese, aka Feta selling for around $13/kilogram. Processed cheese makes use of emulsifiers to increase the water content, and can also appear to be cheap.

Fruit and vegetable prices are very volatile, based on supply and seasonality. What is often overlooked is that many products have to be harvested by hand, and so they appear to be pricey wherever you may shop. Those that come from countries with cheap, or exploitative, labour will always be more competitively priced. 

As with everything, economies of scale also plays a role. Huge factories churning out tons of product daily have a significant price per unit advantage. That is why a kilogram of processed Edam can be sold for under $10, and caged chickens are half the price of free range.

Compounding the issue is distribution costs. The further the product has to travel, the more expensive it will be, and there is a deterioration factor if it is fresh. As an aside, let us debunk the "food miles" myth. The carbon footprint of the transport factor, on most foods, even imports is less than 10%. New Zealand Lamb, sold in the UK, is more environmentally friendly than their own.

In New Zealand, the major food distribution channel is the supermarkets, and no good has come from having a duopoly. Supermarket floorspace in New Zealand increased by over 30% between 2008 and 2013. The population did not, and this excess increases the cost of distribution, and it relates in the price of the food we buy. Markets, farmers markets and independent retail outlets are often priced well below the supermarket chains as verified by their ever increasing popularity popularity.

The increase in globalisation also means that the products we eat as part of a so called western diet are being taken up by a burgeoning middle class in China and India, so much so that demand has soared for some products. We have seen Goat Milk cheese prices rise by as much as 25% in the past few years, and expect to see more of the same.

The only conclusion I can safely give this piece is to encourage you to always buy the best possible quality that your budget will afford. Often you will find you're spending less!

On Lactose, Raw Milk Cheese, and Gluten Too!

I had a fabulous hour or so last week talking cheese with the superb front of house crew at Logan Brown. It is always great when you have lots of questions and discussion in these settings, and as a supplier we don't do this nearly enough. We will certainly ramp it up next year!

One of the things that came up was the question of which cheese is safe/unsafe for pregnant ladies, and having promised some notes I thought it prudent to write about this, and a little more.

So to start off, gluten free and coeliac disease. Only a small pecentage of the population test positive for coeliac disease, but up to 15% suffer intolerance to varying degrees. Only one of our cheeses has wheat in it, to the best of our knowledge, but it is important for coeliacs to take note of lactose intake as well.

Sadly there are so many people who have never taken the trouble to identify whether they are allergic to dairy products, or lactose intolerant. There is no excuse for this, especially with so much information on the internet. Suffice it to say that we have an epipen available in the shop at all times. When somebody inquires about an ingredient that may harm or upset them such as gluten, lactose, MSG, or sodium nitrate, we always advise to stay away. Labelling is not always perfect, especially regarding compound ingredients.

Lactose intolerant persons will usually be fine with sheep, goat, and buffalo, milk products. Cow's milk cheese which is older than two years is also likely to be lactose free. Because of the confusion between allergy and intolerance, it is important when customers ask, to elicit the information concerning their condition.

When we serve soft, or blue cheese, made from raw milk, it is vital to issue the standard warning that pregnant ladies, frail people, those with compromised immune systems due to medical instability, should avoid consuming these products. Ironically, the last two recalls we were part of, both came from cheese made from pasteurised milk. As such, it is important to make sure the customer is well informed (our pregnant customers certainly always seem to be), and make their own decision about what to eat, or not.

The advertising about this is probably much like quit smoking material: preaching to the converted.

The other issue which pops up regularly is the request for vegan cheese. We can only point them in the direction of the tofu. There are, however, numerous cheeses made with vegetarian rennet, which is pertinent to vegetarians, Jewish, and Muslim customers. We have this information freely available, and expect to see it on most menus in 2015.

I hope this is succinct enough to convey the basic information clearly and easily. It is already difficult enough for front of house staff, who need to be jugglers, athletes, psychologists and more, in addition to food and drink specialists, and attentive, competent and friendly servers.

For more information please don't hesitate to contact us.

Waste not

Evidence has been mounting over the past decade that the amount of food wasted around the world is roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption. This is approximately 1.3 billion tons of food each year! (Source UNEP). The great majority of waste occurs in pre-production, and household waste, with major differences in developing and developed countries.

This has long been a point of conflict for us, both as a wholesale supplier, and a retail outlet. As a retailer we are faced daily with products which are past their indicated best before date, and how to deal with them. New Zealand consumers are reasonably informed as to the difference between use by and best before, the former referring to safe consumption, the latter to product quality.

In fact, by local law shelf stable products are exempt from carrying a best before date if the shelf life is more than two years. Manufacturers however have no choice but to date these products in order to have major retail stores stock them. Some investigation revealed some amazing shelf lives though:

Honey may crystallize over time, resulting in a heap of thick, sugary gunk at the bottom of containers, but in terms of safety, the golden liquid is practically immortal.

Honey can last for centuries if stored in a sealed jar, according to the National Honey Board.

In practice, hostess twinkies have been seen to be shelf stable for as long as 30 years.

In practice, hostess twinkies have been seen to be shelf stable for as long as 30 years.

Both canned and dried beans are also known to be able to last for over 30 years if kept properly stored and sealed.

Both canned and dried beans are also known to be able to last for over 30 years if kept properly stored and sealed.

Rice can last for 25 years, while instant coffee, milk powder, jams, and hard liquour have an indefinite shelf life. Dried pasta is good for years as well. Specialty hams and cheese are often prized for improving significantly with age.

Human nature being what it is, customers will sometimes accuse a retailer of poisoning their family, but on being offered a discount inquire as to how much may be available!

Major markets are often to blame, especially where they have over ordered and then have a special on another brand, leaving surplus stock at the the time of the date indicated. This first troubled me when I started merchandising into the chains in the late 1990s. I would see reps from the major companies pushing trolley loads to the dumpster at the back of the stores.

Supermarket departments also keep a dump record which would shock most people. Suppose the deli has a guideline that an antipasto mix should be used within eight days of opening, then they are compelled to discard whatever they may be holding, regardless of if it is still fit for consumption.

In New Zealand we have seen supermarket floor space increase by 29% between 2009 and 2013, while the customer base has not increased by anywhere near that much. The first consequence is higher price to cover their fixed cost, and the second is lower volume sales, resulting in more waste! This also leads to environmental consequences, such as the extended use of landfills, and increased methane production.

As eating habits change and time becomes more precious, we see far more processed foods and "ready to eat meals" in the marketplace, and these do not allow for the same kind of creativity that our parents and grandparents had for leftovers.

Last year we happened to be at a very popular new eatery, breakfast time, and it was packed. We watched the chef trimming the meat for gourmet sandwiches, and throwing all the off cuts into the bin. A young chef in front of us was cubing cheese for melting, and throwing the broken bits into the bin.

As a product of boarding school I make it my business never to leave food on my plate, which I readily admit does no good for my battle (losing) against obesity! However, it is a big no in the hospitality industry to have staff eat anything off a returned plate. Many establishments have organic waste disposal these days, and great if they happen to know a friendly pig farmer. Again, strict laws of traceability and input mean that the greater quantity of this will still end up in the landfill.

One of the results of having so much more food, as well as cheaper food, becoming readily available is that attitudes towards food have changed. Even if one is not of a religious demeanor the food on our tables should be regarded as a sacrifice on the altar. Not literally, but with the same gravity. It is a privilege to be able to eat some of the fine food that we do, and should not be regarded as a crappy commodity.

Bare a thought for the feelings of the craftspeople making those products, cheese makers, butchers, and bakers who put passion into them, often working in the early hours while the rest of us are snug in bed. It has to be an insult to them to handle the food with disdain.

I guess that a caveat is in order for what I have just written - that if you are reading this you already care deeply about food, and have recognised long ago how bad the waste factor is, and much like seat belt adverts this is not reaching the people it should.

Locally there are organisations doing great work in this field. Kaibosh food rescue aims to make the most of food that would otherwise end up in the tip.

 

 

 

On mediocrity

Some weeks ago I was making a delivery into a commercial kitchen, outside of normal operating times for our wholesale, and the chef says "sharpen your pencil, mate." I have heard this a million times before, over many years in this business. It is said that Winston Churchill  asked of a lady "Would you sleep with me for a million pounds?", to which she answered in the affirmative. Then "Would you sleep with me for five pounds?", which brought forth "No, what do you think I am?". To which he replied "We have already established the principal, now we only need to haggle about the price!". 

We regularly talk to industry students in a group setting, and I find that the emphasis of what we pass on is about the quality of ingredients. A good chef knows where to source, and look out for, great product. Good chefs will come in and have a cheese, or olive, or charcuterie, tasting to decide what they will be using.

Many years ago, new to the business, we purchased some Parmiggiano Reggiano from an Italian importer, who failed to tell us it was reject product - it had crosses stamped all over the rind! We have since learnt that you get Parmiggiano Reggiano in varying quality from different sources. The same goes for Parma Ham - in some instances, up to some very high percentages, according to whom you are to believe, the ham is being produced from imported pork, from as far as Hungary, Albania and elsewhere. The point of this is that the only way to assess a product is by tasting it! Yes, that thing that good chefs always do, and lazy chefs don't bother about.

Somehow many new start ups begin using only the finest ingredients, and they will be really busy for the first few months. Then the owner calls the chef in and complains about "food costs!" Next thing you have the same menu laced with second rate ingredients! The owner wonders why less customers are coming through the door and so the downward spiral goes.

Now, you are probably thinking that I am pushing the expensive stuff to make more out of it. You are so wrong - the first thing is about perception - the best product is not always the most expensive. It will mostly never be the cheapest either. The essence of product selection starts with the proviso that the chef actually cares. Then product knowledge and skill play a part. Rely on the knowledge and care from your providore. Be it meat, fish, fruit and veg, cheese, charcuterie, dry goods, or whatever other ingredients you are working with.

Every day there are places serving top class food at all levels, and yet sadly far more serving mediocre slapdash offerings...

"There is always someone who is prepared to be cheaper and nastier" (this applies to all fields of endeavor) and "the bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a cheap price has disappeared" - these statements encompass a lot of what I have been trying to convey.

When a customer asks for Prosciutto, our response is always to ascertain what they will be doing with it - wrap around Melon or Fig needs the very finest, such as Parma or San Danielle. Wrapping a chicken breast, or fish is often better using a Prosciutto Crudo, or flat Pancetta. And so it goes when selecting product - always use the best you possibly can, and choose appropriately.

It is not hard to find the best, all it needs is a little care and attention. The most expensive is not always the best. Take polenta, for instance, we sell New Zealand polenta, which is not GM either, for less than Italian polenta, and the quality of our homegrown product is superior!

We sell the finest Blue Stilton for the same or less than high profile New Zealand blue cheeses!

So the message of the day is to take the trouble of finding the best ! You will be rewarded in the result of your endeavors. Steer clear of mediocrity - it advances nobody. 

From our side of the counter...

Over the course of the year we get to talk to classes of trainee chefs, aspiring cooks, food lovers, and tour groups. While it is easy to impart knowledge about products that we deal with regularly, it is much more difficult to impress upon the attendees the importance of caring, and taking in every detail.

What we try to impress is that the one skill that differentiates the great, more than any other, is the ability to understand, and deal with the sourcing of quality produce. A great chef will try a number of different cheeses with us before settling on their final choice. Others will call, and ask for three new cheeses for their cheeseboard!

So important in this function is the use of all the senses. Touch, look, feel, smell, and taste where possible. Experience will help a lot in this regard, but caring does so too.

Often, in these encounters we find that the people we are talking to will not taste, perhaps an olive, or a blue cheese etc. If you do not taste you can never use the product to it's full potential. And if you are to be a great cook you need to taste all the way!

Another bugbear is when we are asked to match cheese with wine. Off course there are broad guidelines, but frankly there is a huge variability across any given type of wine, and even between different vintages of the same wine, and we cannot successfully pair cheese well without having tasted the wine!

So the message of the week is taste,taste, taste. It's so vital to cooking and food, and so often ignored. 

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Fourteen days in San Francisco - our thoughts and experiences

The family, having convinced me that it was okay to be away for two weeks (after sixteen years) left for San Francisco via Auckland on Christmas day. The flight on Air New Zealand was uneventful, except that the quality of food begs to be mentioned...

Inedible would be the kindest thing to say - pretty terrible!

Inedible would be the kindest thing to say - pretty terrible!

Having left on Christmas day we arrived in San Francisco on the same day and made our way to the Hilton Hotel on Union Square. We had pre-booked some months before. Once in the room, we realised that it was almost completely unlike the photographs on the net. The fridge was in a locked wooden cabinet. When I asked for a key the housekeeping person said "Mister, the fridges haven't worked for years". We promptly booked out, quite a brave thing to do on Christmas day, and managed to find a decent hotel a block away.

Feeling peckish, especially after Air New Zealand, we walked up through Chinatown to Empress of China - a SF institution.

The menu was short (only about 20 items), perhaps being Christmas day, and the food was great. It felt like a less opulent version of Melbourne's Flower Drum.

Boxing day found us at OTD (an offshoot of The Slanted Door) for dinner. Of course we had no idea that it is really hard to get in, and we were lucky to get four seats at the window. The front of house guys were great, loved it that they had blackboard wine from small producers, and great craft beers - see their wine list on the website.

The food was stunning, the shaking beef being most memorable for me. A wow dish for sure!

Wandering around, having expended much energy visiting stores like Bloomingdales, Macys and Nordstrom, we chanced upon Betelnut, which seemed to have a reasonable menu, and wasn't too bad at all.

The food was good, if unremarkable. However, they had great use of Sriracha throughout. If you have a spare 30 minutes, watch the Sriracha story - well worth it!

On New Years eve, we decided to give something different a go. A garlic restaurant, and it certainly was that! The Stinking Rose is something that words do not fully convey.

The Stinking Rose's take on Fondue, Garlic Spinach Fontina Fondue.

The Stinking Rose's take on Fondue, Garlic Spinach Fontina Fondue.

We visited Pier 39, since it would have been wrong not to do it, but frankly it was so touristy to the point of being a grossly bad experience. The highlight was seeing the Sea Lions, and having the legendary crab bisque in a sourdough roll.

   

 

 

We went to see the Farmers Market at the Ferry Building, with not a hell of a lot to show at the time, probably because it was just after New Years. It was great to see the Rancho Gordo store, especially since we stock some of their products!

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The Cowgirl Creamery shop was also on our list, they make great cheese, and it shows up all over SF on menus, and in specialty stores.

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The shop is a very slick operation, seemed to be quite expensive, and impersonal - not what we had hoped to see. Some great crafted cheese made in the US, although we didn't see a huge amount of it. One to mention though is Cypress Grove Cheese Humboldt Fog.

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We saw some less than traditional cheeses too.

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Having said that, we also stock some "flavoured cheese", and there is a reasonably strong demand...

New Years day found us at The House, just north of Chinatown.

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Deep fried Chicken livers

Deep fried Chicken livers

Salmon roll

Salmon roll

Tempura green beans

Tempura green beans

What an amazing meal - gorgeous food - wow!

I could go on and on about the food...

I could go on and on about the food...

Next day found us at lunch at a Gastropub called The Monks Kettle, an awesome spot, great food, lovely people. And what a great range of fantastic beers on tap!

It would be remiss of me not to mention the open way in which San Franciscan hospo people, and retail store assistants for that matter, engage with customers. So much more than the cursory "busy day?" we are used to in New Zealand. Kiwis are often very reserved, and I think that we could learn a lesson from others in opening up a little. And they are really eager to be of assistance generally, and for the most part, more than welcoming.

Another thing that took a little adjustment was the tax. It varies between around 8 and 9 % depending on where you are, so together with the tip can add a good whack onto the bill. Some eateries put a percentage guide on the bill, which is unusually suggestive. Nonetheless there were not many places where the service was undeserving of a tip.

Spot of genius - Chicken dripping onto the potatoes and Brisket.

Spot of genius - Chicken dripping onto the potatoes and Brisket.

It would be insensitive not to mention the homeless and the "mentally unwell" ( I was going to say nutters, but don't really want anyone to take exception!). I walked across the Tenderloin most nights and there could be up to fifty or sixty bodies sleeping on the sidewalk. They ask for spare change, but are not aggressive in any way. (And yet they all have cellphones). The streets are also filled with the crazies - apparently the US closed most institutions during the Reagan era. Now one thing we would have to question is what kind of society throws these people onto the streets? 

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What led me to this is that every night on my walk I took our leftovers from our hotel meal (typically more than substantial) so that somebody on the street could share, and the following morning I spotted the Vegetable Rolls from our takeaway from Mission Chinese on top of a Rubbish Bin - they didn't make the cut!

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Mission Chinese, what can I say, I think I already used the word genius as an adjective, but it is the only fitting description of what jumps out at you off the menu. The restaurant does not attract patronage by exterior appearance (pictured above), but the food? Wow.

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What to say about this man's eclectic food? Schmaltz fried rice, Salt Cod fried rice, Kung Pao Pastrami - you need to eat this food!

We decided to be brave and rented a car (tiny Mazda 2) - with Thomas navigating alongside me - desperately trying to make sure I was on the right side of the road. We ventured off to Napa, and started at Dean and Delucca, a beautiful store, with lots of familiar goods. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a shop for the well heeled though, which is not our food philosophy. We reckon everyone should be able to access great food, and our shop has that well worn, crowded feeling that allows people to walk in, look, and try, and feel undaunted. Just because you cannot pronounce "prosciutto" with the perfect inflections surely doesn't mean that you should not be ably to try it.

The next stop was Bouchon bakery. We were lucky that the queue was not too long, and we managed to get a small selection of their goods. They have a lovely seating area outside where we could sit and enjoy the treats.

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There were a number of shops around, mostly touristy, and some very expensive art galleries. We took a drive out of Yountville, but being the middle of winter, coupled with an extreme drought, all of the small wineries were closed. Then it was back to Bouchon for lunch, a booking Maxine had made months previously, with great expectations.

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The food was good, perfectly cooked and plated. Everything exactly as it was supposed to be, French classic, but perhaps our expectations were too high? I have eaten such food a gazillion times in different places. I think that the love was missing. Everybody was doing their job exactly as prescribed, but without the love, and you can taste it in the final product.

After lunch we were looking at wine in an overpriced shop next door. We had been in the Thomas Keller shop, full of his books, cutlery and crockery, and cookware. Thomas and Maxine were outside, when Thomas burst into the wine store "come quick". We thought Maxine may have been feeling sick, ran outside to find her in tears - "Look! It's Thomas Keller."

Maxine with the Man - how inspiring for a young chef!

Maxine with the Man - how inspiring for a young chef!

He was extremely gracious, asked whether we were going to eat at The Laundry, and let us have a photo. We had decided to skip The Laundry, at US$270 times four, plus tax, plus tips, plus drinks, we figured it was going to cause the poor credit card to cringe to the point of disintegration. I am still wondering whether we missed something sensational, and have been told that we certainly did.

We managed to have a breakfast at Wise Sons deli on 24th - great Pastrami sandwiches, interesting chopped Liver .

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It was also the first time we had been to a place where you had to clean off your own plates!

We had enjoyed OTD so much that we decided to try for an evening booking at The Slanted Door. We managed to procure one, the place was blasting along. The food was great, but the restaurant was really big! Maybe four or five hundred seats. We loved the shaking beef once more! OTD the better option in our opinion.

It would be wrong of me not to mention the number of great chocolate shops, besides Dandelion in SF, and saw lots of Valrhona being used.

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Dandelion, however is a most inspiring bean to bar operation, where the beans are sorted by hand!

Dandelion chocolate - simply great!

Dandelion chocolate - simply great!

A small shop with chocolate from all over the world!

A small shop with chocolate from all over the world!

A visit planned to Tartine had to be cancelled, because the line was forty five minutes long, even early morning!

Just a "small" queue.

Just a "small" queue.

However, Valda had spotted a great looking patisserie in a shop nearby.

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This is Craftsman & Wolves - what can I say but wow!

With pastry you would find at the world's finest. If you are in SF, you have go there. Peculiarly, we found a bakery that caters to pets only!

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Another Jewish deli breakfast at Shorty Goldsteins was great as well - they even make their own pickles!

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We even found a Sake shop too!

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The visit would have been incomplete without the ice cream, and where better than Humphrey Slocombe.

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There is also the fantastic BI Rite Creamery. This leads me on to Bi Rite, which looks like just another grocery store from the outside, but we fell in love with this great store. Have you seen the book?

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The shop is crammed with great food, fresh fruit and veg, cheese, charcuterie, meat, meals, frozens. Everthing that you could possibly need or desire. Our kind of food store, all filled with love!

We decided to rent a slightly larger car second time, and went off to Sonoma. We saw these amazing cactus plants full of cactus fruit (We called them prickly pears in South Africa.)

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We had decided to have lunch at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, and it was superb. Catfish Sandwich, Duck Burger, Hangar Steak. Great food, unpretentious, and best informed wait staff we came across in SF. I would love to go back there.

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I don't know whether Chef Cindy Pawlcyn was there, but the food was cooked and served with so much love!

I should probably mention that I had a really hard time keeping the car in the right part of the lane, and that the right hand wing mirror is now happily resting somewhere on the Golden Gate Bridge...

SF has heaps of bakeries all over besides all the great pastry shops, and a chain called Boudin Bakery all over. However, the bread was amazing! Once again, the baker's love can be felt and tasted in the bread.

Maxine took us to a bakery called The Mill, where they mill their own grain. The line was long, but we managed to order, and secure seats for ourselves. They offer thick slices of toast with butter, honey, or Pumpkin, and the like.

Let us say that it was interesting!

Let us say that it was interesting!

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When the young man put the tea leves in the water to steep, much to our astonishment, he pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket! Have never seen that kind of precision dedicated to a pot of tea, certainly in this context.

So the time arrived for our last meal in SF, all too quickly, except for my poor credit card! I told the family that it needed to be somewhere memorable, and they came up with Namu Gagi. The Lee brothers call it New American Cuisine. To quote them, "We do our best to serve incredible, thoughtful food using the freshest and finest ingredients." and they sure do it well.

House made fish sauce et al.

House made fish sauce et al.

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I know that there is some kind of grammatical crime committed from the overuse of superlatives, but once again the quality, love and thought behind this food was way up there.

Some parting pics from SF, because we saw and experienced so much more:

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Having taken the time to read my thoughts on our experience, you may think that I may soon explode! Never fear, we had plenty more food there. We enjoyed quite a few Mexican meals, some were okay, with one at a small cafe in the Mission where all the clientele were Mexican. We ate once at an American diner/steakhouse, which turned out to be surprisingly good.

What we did find is a vibrant food service sector with so much love. Having used this word so often, I feel a need to elaborate. The word "passion" has been so overused in our industry that it means diddly-squat. Photographs and descriptions of food are great, and there are experienced food writers out there who are able to elucidate the plates in front of them in a far better way than I ever will.

But I know that when I tell you that you can taste the love on the plate, I know that you know what I mean. Without ambiguity. It is all encompassing, sort of like Terroir with wine. It is the same love that we have when we offer a wedge of cheese, or a slice of meat to taste. Because we care.