the Puget Sound’s Central Market

Around the Puget Sound there is a great little chain of supermarkets called Central Market. In addition to featuring great produce, a solid selection of wines – bottles from Europe and South America but also Washington and Oregon – and a mile-long wall of wonderful coffees, they’ve got an intriguing “international” section, mostly featuring the culinary favorites of fellow Pacific Rim cultures.  I dove in.

Following are a few highlights.  Central Market does not have online shopping, so I’ve given you the links where you can order these products.

TAZA Chocolate is a brand that is actually based in Massachusetts – however, they’re making a traditional Mexican-style chocolate using stone mills that is certified organic and free trade. Plus, it’s kosher.  The chocolate is soft and a little airy, and you can discern the stone ground chocolate granules.  There are a few different flavors, I bought two discs of Guajillo Chile for $4.50, the sweetness is followed by a mild-mannered blast of heat.  Excellent.

I bought something called Salty Seed ($2.50) from Kaj’s Products, a Chinese outfit out of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Central Market carried a full array of snacks from Kaj’s, the kind of treats you find in Chinese candy/dried plum/nut stores.  Seeing the ingredients on the Salty Seed read “plum, salt,” I thought I knew what I was in for.  Unfortunately these snacks were impenetrable to the teeth (like a seed – could I not read?) and salty beyond what is humanly endurable.  If you know how to enjoy Salty Seed and care to share it with me, I’m dying to learn.

Lastly, I picked up a package of Vietnamese tapioca sheets, beautiful little tortillas that turn opaque when used, perfect for showcasing vegetables and proteins inside your spring rolls.  These are pre-cooked – all you do is wet them, brushing them with a paper towel, before folding up your rolls.  They’re a little sticky.  You can get them at amazon for $3.19. Thanks, Pham Fatale for a great spring roll recipe.  NPR posted an article on “more” things to put into tapioca sheets.

And this wraps up my exploration of food shopping in the Pacific Northwest.  No complaints here.

Happy hunting . . . Anne

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afternoon tea at the Empress

Victoria, in British Columbia, is a nice town.  It’s a place where you can effectively avoid too much data or stimulation, like Puerto Rico or Wyoming.  People go there in droves to gaze at a pretty bay or take bus trips to Butchart Gardens or launch long bike rides or follow whales.  It also happens to be the seat of Parliament for all of British Columbia – there’s a statue of a young Queen Victoria on the lawn there – and the city so has one or two lovely buildings and a revitalized old shopping and dining district.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel, built in 1908 at the mouth of the bay, is a grand old gal.  The kind of place you can wander around looking upward.  Afternoon tea is a long-standing tradition there.  Yes, it’s touristy and high-volume, but it’s also performed with professionalism and care in an institutional but elegantly ornamented setting.  With Queen Mary staring down at you serenely.

For $59 Canadian a person, you get a tower of sandwiches, scones and cakes, and your own pot of tea.  For an extra $30, you get an artisanal cheese with honey – enthusiastically brought out by one of the chefs.  All the classic teas are there to choose from – Assam, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Green – and the Empress’s own special blend, which has a great balance of fruit with bitter.  Not surprisingly, the light, fresh salmon rolls were superb, the scones were crumbly and sweet, and the meringues were fantastic.

The advent of tea as a meal was reportedly begun by the Duchess of Bedford in the early 1800s, who found herself needing a revitalizing thing or two to eat and drink mid-afternoon.  Still true today!  Tea, with the pouring and the numerous accoutrements and the gossip – is about process and the negative space between actions and, at the Empress, you have to assert a tempered pace on your own, but if you can drone out the bustle, concentrate on the view, and sip slowly, it’s wonderful.

We left with a complementary box of the special Empress blend, which contained ten tea bags, great for sharing with someone at home.

Happy hunting . . . Anne

Granville Island Public Market, Vancouver, BC

I recently traveled to the Pacific Northwest for some family time and for the first time visited Granville Island in Vancouver.  Vancouver, as a city, is both low-key and sophisticated.  It’s hard to be anything but humble in the face of the stunning natural beauty of the region, but Vancouver is also a global financial center with an international population and decidedly un-provencal tastes.  We stayed in a hotel in the West End, where mid-rise, mid-century apartment towers rose up among leafy parks and residents dressed for some kind of sport picked up coffee or stopped into restaurants representing all corners of the world.

We visited the outstanding Vancouver Art Gallery with its energetic, contemporary program (and fantastic café!), learned about the force of nature that was painter/author/BC celebrity, Emily Carr, appreciated the powerful graphic style in the art of the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and caught a little cricket in the old, elegant playing fields of Stanley Park.

Granville Island is a smallish island just across False Creek from the central part of Vancouver, and we took a tiny, rainbow-colored Aquabus over.  The Island is developed as a destination and features the Public (food) Market, shops, and performing arts venues. Shopping for general goods was mind-numbingly touristy but the food was positively transcendent.

The Public Market at Granville Island reflects the City’s love of fresh, high-quality food and its global perspective.  It has depth and soul while being clean and civilized.  You can find all kinds of hard-to-find pantry items or locally grown produce to go, or you can sit down and have lunch – a simple veggie sandwich, filling poutine (a word that just knows it’s sinful)a big bowl of broth.  In the midst of all the Asian noodles, extremely fresh fishes, and lovingly rendered cookies, it never hurts to have those solid, Canadian underpinnings of Anglophile tea collections and French patés.  It’s all here.

I’m going to let the images speak for themselves.

I was especially enraptured with the South China Seas Trading Company, an incredible shop that offers food from everywhere in a knowledgeable and intelligent way.

Sweet stuff, fun stuff, practical stuff . . .

As we visited in August, the Market was crowded and we had to jockey for a table, but it’s Canada – everyone says “excuse me.”

Happy hunting . . . Anne

the fruit of Ararat Valley

Stumped.  I’ve never seen any product from the Ararat Valley, so when I picked up a jar of Plum Preserve from Harvest Song, a company that partners with Armenian farmers to make delicious artisanal jams, I was intrigued.

The Ararat Valley, where Harvest Song gets it produce, lays under the powerful presence of Mount Ararat, which many believe is the landing site of Noah’s Arc.  The produce is grown in the Valley’s fertile, volcanic soil under intense sun – in some places the farms sit at 1,800 above sea level – fed by natural springs.

The Plum Preserve is smooth and tart – in a good, I-know-what-I’m-doing kind of way – and really pairs well on toast with a subtle and perhaps slightly sweet base like goat cheese.

Harvest Song offers a wide range of flavors and blends – apple, pear and quince, strawberry, pit fruits including apricot, plum, cherry and peach, figs and tea rose.

I picked up a 12 oz jar at my local Cheese of the World for $7.99, but Harvest Song also has an online shop where you can order at will.

Happy hunting . . . Anne

Fish platters, fish plates

I love a nice fish platter.  Even better, an entire set – platter, cake-size dishes, and sometimes even a tureen for a sauce.  I don’t own one – there’s just not room in my apartment for such a luxury – but it’s such a lovely and elegant way to signal that cooking an entire fish is an event worthy of an extra gesture of care.

Fish plates first showed up in Southern Italy in classical times where Greeks were making terra cotta plates.  From a sheer design perspective, fish, and other sea creatures, go so well on plates, their positioning on the circular forms seem to suggest their movement in water.  Here’s one from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dated ca. 350-325 B.C.

Of course, the Italians have been making massive, colorful platters for serving whole fish for millennia.  Fast forward to 19th century Western Europe when wealth met connoisseurship, resulting in a proliferation of goods designed to service more materially complicated lives.  Suddenly there was tableware created for specific kinds of food.

A lovely, sea foam-colored Woods Ivory Ware set from Victorian England. (Click on the images to visit the websites.)

19th century O. Gotherz made in Czechoslovakia, each plate a different species.

This 15-piece set from Limoges can be yours for $4,500.

Williams Sonoma carries on our more formal culinary traditions and always has a set of fish plates available.

West Elm does too, but in a more casual way suited for today’s hip families.

I love Milestone Decal Art’s cheeky and fun line of platters featuring different varieties of fish, squid included.

And here’s a vintage set of glass fish platters I spotted on ETSY.

If you have a set of fish plates in your possession, please share!

Happy hunting . . . Anne