Bargains Are Where You Find Them

Now, I’m as much of a bargain hunter as the next person—maybe more so, since I was raised by a discount-shopping pro—but I don’t generally browse the day-old bread bin (unless I’m making something that calls for stale bread, of course). Those price chopped, plastic-wrapped trays of bruised mangoes, wrinkly red peppers, and wobbly carrots? No, thanks. And when things actually have an expiration date on them, generally speaking I respect that.

There are exceptions. There are always exceptions.

Today I was at Williamsburg’s Bedford Cheese Shop. Cheese is not my thing, really—it’s part of my overall aversion to dairy products. When I was a kid, on Thursday afternoons my three brothers and I would take turns helping our mother do the shopping at the Waldbaums down the street. Lord, the stink from the appetizing section! I would breathe through my mouth for what felt like hours while my mom took a number and waited her turn… But I digress. Yes. Today I was at the Bedford Cheese Shop, not shopping for cheese, but shopping from their well-edited selection of delicacies: Spanish sherry vinegar, crusty artisanal breads, hot chocolate mix from Chocolate Haven. Large glass bowls of olives, marinated mushrooms, pappadew peppers.

While the friendly guy behind the counter was weighing out my peppers, I asked if they had any nut oils—lately I’ve been experimenting with salad dressings. He pointed to a display of small bottles on a shelf behind the counter, with sign: “Almond Oil from France: $12.99.” The sign wasn’t entirely accurate, he said. There were a few varieties up there. He pulled down one of each for me: Amande, Noisette, and Noix (almond, hazelnut, and nut), in adorable little porcelain-stoppered jars. The hang-tag, attached with silk ribbon, identified the brand as Moulin de la Tour, from Périgord. I was charmed, and ready to buy all three. The only thing stopping me was the hefty price—thirteen dollars for a few precious ounces of oil…that would be forty dollars if I bought all three. Not a pretty thing on a freelancer’s budget.

Clearly, I’d have to start small. Buy one this time, and come back for more if I liked it. But which one? The almond was tempting—it’s an oil I hadn’t seen anywhere else—but the hazelnut… Well, I bought some cheap hazelnut oil at the supermarket last week, and it was a miserable failure. No discernable hazelnut flavor whatsoever. It might be a good experiment, I thought, to see if any oil could really be worth nearly $4 an ounce. “I’ll take it,” I said. And then I unfolded the hang-tag and saw an expiration date of 31/03/05. That was last week.

Of course I know that this oil wouldn’t have gone rancid in the four days since its official expiration date, but I also knew that I might not be able to use it all before it did turn. (Duh. It’s not even half a cup…). Same date on the almond oil, too. I was disappointed. That’s when the friendly guy behind the counter mentioned that the workers would all be taking home a lot of oil tonight—that’s what they do when something expires. Opportunity knocked! Since they weren’t going to be able to sell it, I asked, would it be possible for me to taste the oil? That way I’d know what it tasted like when they got a fresh batch. He readily agreed, and sliced two small pieces of baguette—one for me, one for him. We opened the jar and inhaled, a rich, lightly nutty smell. Poured a bit of thick golden liquid onto each slice of bread. I dipped my finger in it and licked, wanting to get an unadulterated hit of its flavor. Smooth, and deep, and undeniably hazelnutty. It was wonderful. A wave of disappointment washed over me—I wanted this oil, now. I didn’t want to have to wait for a new shipment to make its way across the ocean.

Did you see the lightbulb go on over my head?

“What if I bought this bottle for half-price?” I asked, smiling.

“I was just about to make that offer,” the friendly guy behind the counter said.

Another entry for the Annals of Bargain Shopping. My only mistake: I didn’t think to ask if I could buy a bottle of the other flavors, too.

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