Yesterday I had to run an errand to the Meatpacking District, and to me that means only one thing: a detour to the Chelsea Market. Almost ten years ago, some foodie genius converted the old Nabisco factory (birthplace of the Oreo!) into a nearly one-stop gourmet food/supplies source. Spoking off a central corridor, there’s a fabulous produce stand; a fishmongers, a dairy, and a butcher; Amy’s Bread (oh I adore their parmesan twists); Fat Witch brownies, which some people don’t like but I happen to love for their nearly fudge-like consistency and bite-size minis; a great kitchen-supplies store; a huge wine shop; several prepared-foods shops… the list goes on. My only complaint is that there’s just one of each type of vendor–I desperately wish NYC had a giant central market like so many other great cities of the world, where you could wander from stall to stall, seeing who’s got the best-looking tangerines that day. One of the great highlights of my trip to Australia a few years ago was the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, and I dream about having something similar here.
But yesterday I wasn’t shopping for fresh foods, since I wasn’t going straight home afterwards. I browsed a little, enjoying all the aromas and colors, but always with one destination in mind: Buon Italia.
Buon Italia makes me happy. Out front is a little stand selling prepared foods and espresso, with a couple of cafe tables. Everything looks wonderful and authentic, though in all this time I’ve never actually sampled any of it. I’m much more interested in what’s inside. There, you’ll find roughly arranged rows of imported Italian groceries, still in their cartons, with refrigerator cases full of cheeses and meats, and freezers with imported raviolis and other filled pastas. Right at the entrance are dozens of differents oils–olive, walnut, grapeseed–from different makers, in varying sizes. After that come vinegars, and here’s where I made the day’s most exciting discovery.
You may recall my paean to Gianni Calogiuri’s fig balsamic vinegar a few weeks ago. Well, not only did Buon Italia carry the fig, now labeled Vincotto Sweet Vinegar Condiment (marketing?), they also had a variety of other flavors: hot pepper, lemon, carob, raspberry, and plain. I was tempted to buy all of them, but the prices ranged from $9-$14 per bottle (some were larger than others). I knew we loved the fig so I grabbed a big ol’ bottle, but I couldn’t see myself dropping $100 on the others, which I’d never tasted. I added just a bottle of the plain and moved on.
The rest of that row held tunas and stuffed peperoncinos and the like. My heart skipped a beat when I saw a familiar label–I thought I’d found my beloved Peperonicino Piccante Paste, but alas it was something else from the same maker. (Can’t remember what, exactly, but it wasn’t anything that piqued my interest.)
Next up was a row of sweets-related items: packaged Italian desserts, assorted honeys, chocolate for baking–here’s where I picked up the Callebaut bittersweet hunk in the picture, and I know, I know, it’s not Italian but the price was still good, and finally, jams and other jarred confections. Agrimontana makes some mighty fine jam, I must say. In the past I’ve had their strawberry and their cherry, and I’ve used their sweetened vanilla chestnut cream in a recipe or two. This time, the sour cherry caught my fancy. Into the basket it went.
At the end of the row was a basket on the floor, an improvised endcap of sorts, and in it was a thrilling surprise: trial-sized bottles of the Calogiuri vincotto! Unfortunately many of them were a little sad-looking with broken seals on the bottle caps, so the choices were limited, but I found a carob and a plain, and put back the larger bottle of plain. When I got home last night I tasted them, and I must say I’m glad I was able to test-drive. The carob is wonderful, rich and thick and sweet, not particularly chocolate-like, more just a deep, dark flavor with a vinegary tang. I could see that being great on a piece of parmigiano reggiano, or even added to a chocolate cake batter as a mystery ingredient. The plain vincotto, though, puzzled me. It just tasted like old grapes, flat and not particularly interesting. Next time I go I’ll pick up a bigger bottle of carob, and leave the plain behind.
Jutting off the end of the sweets aisle, filling the long part of the L-shaped room, were olives and nuts and grains. The olives were prepacked into half-pound deli containers, so I skipped them. I prefer to scoop my own, you know? The nuts and grains, though, were fabulous–dozens of different nuts, vacuum-packed for freshness, and dried beans, and a wonderful assortment of flours (including chestnut, several kinds of semolina, rice flour, and a whole bunch more). Here I added a bag of French lentils–let’s see what they do to that Lentil & Brown Rice Soup–and a packet of sliced blanched almonds, for a Thanksgiving dessert I want to try. After that came the pastas, a generous assortment, though not overwhelming, of different shapes and sizes. My basket was already heavy and lord knows we didn’t need any pasta, so I browsed but didn’t buy.
At the register was a display that caught my eye, the last addition to my basket: individually wrapped marrons glaces from Agrimontana. I haven’t had a lot of candied chestnuts in my life, but I did spend one memorable Christmas in Venice, eating them by the dozen. I couldn’t resist. Here’s what it looked like when I unwrapped it:
Kind of looks like a Dunkin Donuts Munchkin, doesn’t it? Well, it tasted just about the polar opposite. I ate it seconds after taking that photo. It was wonderful, sweet but not cloying, almost creamy inside, gently nutty. Sigh. Thank heavens I only bought one.