Greg Bruce takes a day of sam­pling food and bev­er­ages in his stride

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - INDEX - PIC­TURES BY MICHAEL LEWIS

The key take­away from this year’s lead­ing pub­lic gath­er­ing of the na­tion’s food and bev­er­age in­dus­try was the in­creas­ing num­ber of pri­mary food pro­duc­ers adopt­ing a ver­ti­cally in­te­grated busi­ness model in or­der to re­tain a greater than usual pro­por­tion of in­come from across the value chain.

Nah! Psych! The key take­away was the booze! Aisles and aisles of spec­tac­u­larly free booze. The Food Show might be a sig­nif­i­cant way­point in the com­mer­cial cy­cle of the food in­dus­try, but first and fore­most it is Auck­land’s most so­cially ac­cept­able bac­cha­nal — a place where you pre­tend like you’re stay­ing abreast of food trends while you ham­mer back the end­less small plas­tic cups of free booze.

So much booze. There was liqueur, beer, gin, limon­cello, Lion Red and ei­ther whisky or whiskey — and pos­si­bly both. There was mid priced wine and lu­di­crously priced wine, and, once you were in­side the teem­ing halls of

Green­lane’s ASB Show­grounds, they cost ex­actly the same — noth­ing. It was a per­fect, utopian hy­brid of cap­i­tal­ism and so­cial­ism, with a $28 en­try fee.

It wasn’t all booze. It wasn’t even mostly booze. There were a sur­pris­ing num­ber of stands do­ing ku­mara chips, there were plenty of sausages and hot cooked meats in gen­eral, there were chocolates and fudges, small pot­tles of fruit, ice cream, snack bars of var­i­ous com­po­si­tion, and un­told other food­stuffs.

And there was booze. There were chocolates laced with booze and there was booze laced with choco­late. There were snacks per­fectly de­signed for eat­ing with booze and there were peo­ple who wanted noth­ing more than to talk to you about booze, even as you drained the booze they had just given you and started look­ing around for more booze.

It wasn’t in­ten­tional when I started to load up. It was around 10.50am on Sun­day, which was roughly the same time of week teenaged me used to pre­tend to put a tenth of his gas sta­tion at­ten­dant’s in­come in the church col­lec­tion pouch. The power of the Lewis Road Cream­ery name and the frus­trated mem­ory, no doubt, of fruit­less choco­late milk runs circa 2014 had lured a crowd of 20-30 to try what we all prob­a­bly as­sumed would be a new flavoured milk, but turned out to be a new choco­late liqueur.

I waited for be­tween 7-plus min­utes for that drink, try­ing to quell my ris­ing frus­tra­tion at all the peo­ple pre­tend­ing they had only ac­ci­den­tally el­bowed in front of me. The drink tasted good enough, but si­mul­ta­ne­ous to the thrill of the warm­ing al­co­holic spread in my guts was a ris­ing sense of panic that long waits like this one would pre­vent me get­ting as much value from my free me­dia pass as I might have hoped.

It turned out, though, that the panic was un­nec­es­sary. The crowds were never that bad again and, in the show’s six re­main­ing hours, I would con­sume 116 separate food and drink sam­ples, which could, po­ten­tially, have of­fered me an ex­cel­lent in­sight into the state of New Zealand food.

FOOD SHOW stall­hold­ers gen­er­ally have no more than three sec­onds to make their sales pitch: the time it takes you to pick up a sam­ple of their prod­uct, chew or swig, swal­low, and wade back­wards through the grasp­ing hordes.

Th­ese pitches vary widely in qual­ity and en­thu­si­asm. The le­gions of sam­ple givers in the Count­down aisle were among this year’s most highly pol­ished. The blue­berry hawker, for ex­am­ple, had just two sen­tences:

“Th­ese ones are grown in He­lensville un­der glass,” she said. “So beau­ti­ful and sweet.” It was ba­si­cally the per­fect pitch: An in­ter­est­ing in­sight, some in­di­ca­tion of prove­nance, a brief tast­ing note, and an as­sur­ance of qual­ity. There was no need for more.

The woman on the Four Cousins Wine Cooler stand of­fered an ef­fec­tive con­trast, in the serv­ing of a tasty ap­ple, lime and cu­cum­ber wine cooler: “To be hon­est,” she said, “we couldn’t com­pete in the lo­cal mar­ket so we’re dis­con­tin­u­ing sell­ing this prod­uct.”

The key to max­imis­ing your food show plea­sure is to ne­go­ti­ate th­ese sales pitches with the small­est pos­si­ble amount of in­ter­ac­tion. Ideally, you don’t want to be­come in­volved in a pitch at all. You want to slip in be­hind some­body else, grab a sam­ple, and get away en­tirely with­out eye con­tact.

If you be­come the ob­ject of a pitch, your best op­tion is to re­spond with noth­ing more than a po­lite half-smile or at most a nod, con­vey­ing a men­tal state of vaguest non-com­mit­tal con­tem­pla­tion. Any­thing more is fool­ish­ness. Once en­gaged in con­ver­sa­tion, the only po­lite way out is to buy some prod­uct, and you didn’t pay $28 on the door to do that.

I WAS al­ready feel­ing pretty toasty and un­in­hib­ited by about 12.22pm, when I stopped by a stand called “Beer, The Beau­ti­ful Truth”. It ap­peared to be an um­brella mar­ket­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion for the coun­try’s two big­gest brew­eries.

The nice woman pour­ing the beer asked the guy in front of me what he wanted to try. He said, “Lion Red please.”

I laughed and said, “What does that taste like?”

What a wanker! — as if I was only here for the prod­uct in­no­va­tions! My cheeks were prob­a­bly still stuffed with the an­gus and beet­root pat­ties I hadn’t re­ally been in­ter­ested in at the last stand.

The nice woman said to me, “Would you like to re­fresh your mem­ory?”

I laughed. Maybe I scoffed. “It’s prob­a­bly been 15 years!” I pre­ten­tiously lied.

The Lion Red tasted pretty much like I re­mem­bered, of wa­ter and dis­ap­point­ment, but it was still a wel­come ad­di­tion to my grow­ing

Food Show stall­hold­ers gen­er­ally have no more than three sec­onds to make their sales pitch: the time it takes you to pick up a sam­ple of their prod­uct, chew or swig, swal­low, and wade back through the hordes.

buzz. She asked me what I nor­mally drank and I hated my­self for my lack of imag­i­na­tion and knowl­edge as I heard my­self say, “Craft beer.”

She asked if I had tried the Mac’s Green Beret, which, of course, I had.

“No,” I said, and down went another free drink.

I ate some of the ex­cel­lent Fix and Fogg smoke and fire peanut but­ter, which I’d had sev­eral times be­fore, and some of Lit­tle Bird’s de­li­ciously dense and soft choco­late mac­a­roons. On the stand of Thames Val­ley Ba­con, I tried their smoky, fatty, resid­u­ally sweet Bush­man’s ba­con, the sin­gle great­est ba­con in this coun­try’s his­tory, and I felt full of joy and looked up and re­alised I had four and a half hours of this to go. Over this pe­riod, I would dis­cover that time is fully sol­u­ble in plea­sure.

WITHIN THE next hour I drank: a rose beer; a co­conut beer; a choco­late gin; an Amer­i­can pale ale; a whisky; a new pale ale; a strong lager; a beer of un­known prove­nance; a rasp­berry beer; a choco­late porter; a lager; a pa­cific pale ale; a sweet malt driven beer and a gewurz­traminer.

Some­where in there, I paid $52 — half price! — to sign up to a beer sub­scrip­tion ser­vice which would send me a pack­age of 12 hand-picked elit­ist and ar­ro­gant beers ev­ery 12 weeks. I didn’t tell them I planned to can­cel as soon as my first ship­ment ar­rived and the sub­scrip­tion price re­verted to nor­mal.

Things started to rol­lick and the hall walls started to shift. I ate: bil­tong; roast duck; chicken and maple ba­con; stout, mush­room and an­gus sausage; five dif­fer­ent types of cheese; vanilla gelato; rose­mary and thyme crisps; choco­late co­conut bites; rus­sian fudge; three more types of cheese; olives stuffed with red pep­pers; sun­dried to­ma­toes; mul­ti­ple break­fast ce­re­als; chicken breast in Thai curry sauce; salsa; some other curry thing; por­ridge; gluten-free cook­ies; gin­ger slice.

At Wat­tie’s, they were serv­ing food sam­ples in bam­boo-style ba­nana boats. The stand’s tagline was “Restau­rant flavours you ex­pect from a place you least ex­pected”. It seemed like a fancy way of say­ing “We don’t suck as much as you think”. To some ex­tent they were right. The Thai green curry they were serv­ing would have gone alright at Valen­tine’s.

I ate: milk choco­late; dark choco­late; pep­pered beef sticks; beef jerky; herb and roast gar­lic sausage; ba­con hock soup; choco­late clus­ters; rose­mary, rasp­berry and co­conut gelato; fei­joa, co­conut and vanilla co­co­lato; tex mex steak; cow­boy steak; bom­bay chicken; herbed chicken; corn nib­bles; vanilla co­conut cream and salted caramel fudge.

Late in the day, as the crowd thinned, I came to a stand called “Orig­i­nal Ku­mara Chips”.

The youngish guy there was talk­ing to a youngish woman about the smoked pa­prika chips, so I qui­etly took a cou­ple of the sea salt and cracked pep­per and was about to slip away, when he said to me, “That one’s quite lightly sea­soned, if you don’t like some­thing over­bear­ing.”

I asked if the smoked pa­prika was over­bear­ing.

“Po­ten­tially,” he said. “Goes well with one of th­ese.” And he pulled a beer from un­der the counter and took a swig. “Good match!” I said. “Would you like one?” he asked, and handed me a can of Good Ge­orge pilsener. It was such a happy day.

BY 4.30PM, al­most all the vis­i­tors had gone and many of the stands were start­ing to pack up. I was in no rush. Af­ter con­sum­ing more than 100 sam­ples, I felt con­tent, and had noth­ing left to achieve, re­ally.

I walked past a stand with a sign read­ing “Come in for a chat.” Still hold­ing my beer, I thought, “Fair enough.”

In­side the cosy space, a man called Dion was cook­ing three separate cuts of lamb on a bar­be­cue: sausage, ribs and some­thing he de­scribed as “like porter­house”. He was friendly, and told me I could take a rib with me to gnaw on. The meat was im­prob­a­bly good and ten­der and tasty, although by this stage it was ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble to un­ravel my en­joy­ment of the prod­uct from my en­joy­ment of the show as a whole.

Dion’s part­ner Ali told me their story. They were farm­ers from the Wairarapa who, hav­ing no­ticed how peo­ple are in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in where what they’re eat­ing is from, started sell­ing whole lambs direct to the pub­lic, bro­ken

down into chops, roasts, ribs and so on, in a box, shipped to your door.

She told me the lambs were charol­lais, which sounded ex­otic, and that they car­ried a high pro­por­tion of in­tra­mus­cu­lar fat, which gave them the ex­tra­or­di­nary tenderness and flavour I had just been so en­joy­ing. She and Dion were try­ing to make high-qual­ity meat and nose-to-tail eat­ing more fa­mil­iar to New Zealan­ders, she said.

This was some­thing I could get be­hind: a New Zealand fam­ily, con­nect­ing New Zealand fam­i­lies directly to their food source, not so far down the road. Dion and Ali even in­vite cus­tomers to visit their farm and see ex­actly how and where the lamb is raised. In th­ese times, so de­fined by our de­sire for story and con­nec­tion, what could be more at­trac­tive?

A whole box of lamb was $300 and a half was $160. I’d al­ready blown an Api­rana Ngata on the box of beers, wildly ex­ceed­ing my bud­get of zero, and I wasn’t about to start Ruther­ford­ing, even for a propo­si­tion this com­pelling and de­li­cious.

It was nearly 5pm. I still had some beer left, and could hap­pily have stayed all night next to the bar­be­cue with Dion and Ali, chat­ting and eat­ing their in­cred­i­ble lamb sausages. I’d eaten, lis­tened to the sales pitch, taken a flyer, had a nice chat, not bought any­thing, eaten some more.

I sensed I’d out­stayed my wel­come, but still I lin­gered. Why was I still here? That’s a pretty shal­low ques­tion. Life’s about more than just free food.

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