Festive Cheese Meat and Antipasto platters

We get to provide massive amounts of cured product over the festive season, and are continually amazed that often customers have no perception of what they need in terms of quantity. We regularly have requests for a platter for 50 people for $50 ! Seriously that is 86 cents per head after tax ! With even the cheapest quality available that will never go a long way to feed your guests. That is a sure way to increase the Macca sales revenue on that day.

We suggest a starting point of around $5 per head (the price of a coffee).  The time of serving has a bearing, drinks, before a meal, the main event and so forth. The second consideration regards the recipients, what their food expectations are. Thirdly, what drinks accompany the platter ? And finally, are there dietary requirements, and whether everything has to be compliant for one or two people? We usually suggest a separate platter for these instances, mostly because of cross contamination.

 Spanish platter - Manchego cheese, Pampalona salami and Jamon Serrano.

Spanish platter - Manchego cheese, Pampalona salami and Jamon Serrano.

When selecting cheese we suggest fewer, and more of each, rather than little of many. When there are budget constraints start with a reasonably priced soft white. Local or imported start at around $50 per kilogram. A great choice for a semi hard cheese is a Maasdam. 


If you are being adventurous you could add a washed rind, or a sheep or goat's milk cheese. For a blue there are myriad choices, Cropwell Bishop Stilton or Shropshire, Whitestone Windsor Blue or Cartwheel Creamery Blue Rhapsody.

Talk to your cheesemonger about the cheese, how to serve it, to slice or wedge and to have near perfect ripeness on the day.




When adding meats to your platter the starting points are exactly the same as above.  In the case of  salami or cured meats cheaper is not necessarily more ! The higher priced drier meats can be sliced more thinly, so give better value. Start with a medium salami that most people will like. If there are children Mortadella di Bologna is a great addition. The slices are large, and look great if "ruffled" on the plate. Spicy salami is a great extra, but use it more sparingly, as not everybody likes the heat. Charcuterie with colour, like Chorizo Gran Riserva, or Pampalona make your platter vibrant. 

While prosciutto San Danielle or Parma and Serrano are the popular choice I recommend cuts like Coppa or Lomba because the size makes them really efficient on a platter. A good idea is to add a beef product like Bresola for those who don't eat pork.


Now you have the main ingredients for your platter look at some antipasti, and this really depends on your budget ! Stuffed Peppadews and artichokes are great, but not cheap. Nice large olives are great, stuffed or pitted often better for a platter, depending on the serving circumstance. French cornichons or Kosher Dills are great because they cut through the fat in the cheese and meat.

  Platter for Felix Awards nomination event by Shepard Elliot from Shepard's Restaurant, Ti Kouka and Leeds Street Bakery.

Platter for Felix Awards nomination event by Shepard Elliot from Shepard's Restaurant, Ti Kouka and Leeds Street Bakery.

Keep it simple, don't have too little or too much on the platter. Cheese can be in whole sizes for guests to "self serve", or blocked up with toothpicks to serve, depending on the style of your event. Breads, crackers, Grissini need to be in step with what's on the platter. A subtle Brie is not well served on a slice of Pumpernickel!

so take a few minutes, and plan your platter. You will be pleasantly surprised how much you are able to achieve with a little careful planning !  Happy Festive Season.


For assistance with your platter please consult with one of our specialists at On Trays.


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


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 !

 What cheese would you like on your burger ? 

What cheese would you like on your burger ? 

 Nitro Ice Cream !   

Nitro Ice Cream !



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.


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

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

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

 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.


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.


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.


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.