ON A MISSION
Greg Bruce takes a day of sampling food and beverages in his stride
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.