Sunday, August 06, 2006

Mis en place

I was first introduced to the concept of supply, demand and pricing in micro-economics a couple of decades ago. The part which impressed on my then young mind most was price insensitivity in certain products.

After a year of grocery shopping in this city, my shopping pattern is indeed a case in point. I still cannot recall off hand the cost of milk, eggs and most vegetables. I figure I'm not going to live without them so why pay too much attention.

This is especially true with greengrocers because many do not list their prices by item, often there really isn't any way of knowing if they charge me the same as the next señora and I've learnt not to lose any sleep over it. I have made peace with this issue after an epiphany in Florence...

On the morning of my first day of class there, I went into a bar (Italian cafes) for breakfast of caffè and brioche. The busy barista took my order and I proceeded to pay at the cashier. My ticket that day was 2.90euro. The following day, I went back to the same cafe. I walked in, nodded to the same barista and we greeted each other with a buongiorno. I ordered exactly the same as the day before but my ticket was 1.90euro. The third day, I waved and greeted the barista with "Buongiorno, Simone!"; the price of the same breakfast dropped to 1.75euro and that was how much it stayed during the rest of my stay in that breathtakingly beautiful city.

The prices which I am sensitive to are those of Lindt chocolates, Maille's Dijon mustard and St. Dalfour jams which contain 50% fruit per jar, no preservatives, and are purely sweetened by natural fruit juices. I have developed a keen interest in tracking prices of these products since I discovered noticeable (at least for us pesos earners!) differences and fluctuations across town.

I appreciate there are price differences in supermarkets; when we were living in London, I knew a tube of toothpaste was probably going to cost less at Tesco than Waitrose's but usually there wasn't much in the difference to warrant two shopping trips. However, the same cannot be said about the major supermarkets here.

A friend recently mentioned to me that a check-out girl at Jumbo supermarket in Palermo looked stunned by her purchase of a bar of 100g chocolate at almost 18 pesos (US$6). The bar which roused such reaction and curiosity was a svelte slab of Lindt 70% dark chocolate. Upon hearing that story, I reacted like the check-out girl! I tactlessly blurted out to my friend that she had been ripped off!

This exact same bar costs slightly over 14 peso (less than US$5) at Disco supermarkets located all over town. More amusingly, right next to them at the Disco on Rodriguez Peña in Recoleta, are bars of dark chocolate with 85% cocoa solids of the same brand but even cheaper.

I thought it was a pricing error, then I realised maybe 85% cocoa is too bitter for the local taste. As a shrewd shopper and a greedy foodie, I had to struggle to fight off the impulse to clear all their displaying stock into my trolley.

Besides Swiss chocolate, jam had been a problem for me here since day one because I am very fussy about my jam. The traditional proportion in jam is half fruit and half sugar; the thought of all those empty calories in the kidney damaging refined sugar already makes me nauseous. Worse still, most jams here contain a low percentage of fruit, so the ratio of sugar may actually exceed 50%. Further, most commercial jam makers are generous on artificial pectin and other unappetising additives.

I bought the French St. Dalfour in the first few months thinking I was going to find a local and cheaper substitute. I tried Alimentos Natali, widely available in dieteticas (health food shops). While they are still made with fructose and the objectionable corn syrup, at least the percentage of fruit in each jar is acceptable. Friends also recommended Mariposas which is more fitting as a health product. They make a good strawberry jam but not the flavours I prefer, blueberry and black cherry.

When the Natali jams started its steady climb in price, I decided I had to resume my search with urgency. I bought my first jar of their blueberry jam at 4.50 pesos (US$1.50) a year ago; within twelve months, the same jar is now costing me 7.90 pesos. At the current price I feel almost righteous going back to the confiture from France.

At Coto supermarket, a slim jar of St. Dalfour was 7.99 pesos (about US$2.60) until recently. For no apparent reason, they are sold at 6.99 pesos these days. If you buy them on a weekend with certain debit or credit cards, there is a 15% discount which makes them a better and almost economical choice compared to the local Alimentos Natali. Of course, should you try to purchase the same quaintly fancy jar at Disco, you'll be paying almost 9 pesos.

Despite Barrio Chino being far from where I live, I now buy mustard and most other imported condiments there. They have a good range of French mustards as well as Coleman's. I've been eyeing up the Coleman's but unfortunately it only comes in commercial size which may last me a couple of decades.

In the few supermarkets I frequent there, I've successfully found walnut oil, sweet almond oil, cous cous, tahini and even strawberry jam by Fauchon. Casa China sells a range of organic sugars and all sorts of nuts by weight. Oriental, off the main stretch, on Mendoza is good for fresh seafood (just don't go on a Monday). The wide range of quality products are all more reasonably priced there than at Jumbo, Disco and Norte.

I have just bought half a dozen jars of St Dalfour's black cherry jam from Coto on Saturday; I am tempted to just empty one, packed with wholesome goodness, into a plain looking yet incredibly moreish chocolate cake from Nigella's How To Be A Domestic Goddess.

I have adapted her recipe by cutting a third of the sugar and doing way with the chocolate cream icing. The cake will still taste great, like a very moist chocolate pound cake; trust me, you don't need all that refined sugar and cream in your body!

Nigella-ish Chocolate Cake:

125g soft butter
100g dark chocolate
300g cherry jam
100g organic caster sugar
pinch of salt
2 large eggs, beaten
150g self-raising flour

Preheat oven to 180C. Line a 20cm cake tin.

Melt butter and stir in broken pieces of chocolate. Leave for a moment for the chocolate to melt completely.

Now add the cherry jam, sugar, salt and eggs. Stir until combined. Then add flour, again stir until combined.

Bake cake for 25-30min, or until the tester comes out clean.

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