Food, ZingLife

New Product Tasting

Each month, packages from across the U.S. and around the world find their way to a small room across the street from the Deli.  The bundles contain olive oil, chocolate, mustard, jam, crackers, and cookies, and just about anything else a food enthusiast can imagine. The shippers of this tasty cornucopia are hoping that Zingerman’s will stock and sell their product, so they’ve sent along samples of their wares for the staff to evaluate.


But, this can be a challenge. The Deli’s shelves are already crowded with quality goods. “Full-up,” as one staffer describes them. And the Mail Order warehouse faces a similar situation, with pallets and shelving that stretches nearly to the ceiling. The competition is stiff, but there is always the potential to discover something new and delicious. So once a month, the staff gathers here to taste and discuss the new arrivals.

When I arrive, the room is full of people standing around a table piled high with boxes, packages, and envelopes of all sizes. The staff holds tiny plastic cups of olive oil, and they immediately hand one to me, announcing the name and where it’s from. I normally have a cup of tea first thing in the morning, but when in Rome…


I mimic the rest of the staff as they warm the tiny cups of oil between their palms to bring to bring up the aroma. Once the oil begins to release its bouquet, tasting begins with noisy, aerating slurps as we each take in the full flavor of the oil.  By doing this, we’re using our sense of smell as well as our taste buds to experience the full flavor of the oil.  We taste a succession of oils, and a few generate some interest. A vanilla-flavored oil briefly raises some eyebrows, but it doesn’t quite pass muster. Three new oils are chosen for further consideration and the crew moves on.


Next up is a small selection of vinegars. Unfortunately, most can’t quite compete with the existing selection, but a sweet honey vinegar from the western U.S. brings smiles all around. The staff immediately begins discussing potential uses, and the honey vinegar moves to join the favorite olive oils. Jars of condiments make their way around the table. A tomato paste seems to have potential.  Next, another tomato paste, this one blended with cheese, falls short, as does a Gardiniera. Next, we try an Indian Tomato-Garlic sauce that starts with a sweet, piquant note followed by the sustained heat of chili peppers. Again, there is much discussion about possible uses, which seems to be a good barometer of a product’s potential success. The sauce is a keeper. Next, a sweet fruit chutney doesn’t fare so well, nor a mild curry sauce, and a Moroccan pepper sauce. But a toasted sesame-ginger sauce and smooth-tasting Creole mustard get everyone talking again, and they join the growing pile in the corner.


And then, a barrage of products begins to circulate. Freeze-dried fruit, ‘hot’ cashew brittle, several flavors of ‘whole oat’ crackers, crackers from Ireland, packages of ‘cheese snack crackers’ from Italy, sweet potato chips, and two or three flavors of sweet ‘biscotto’ round out the crunchy selections. The last treat to go around the table is, appropriately, chocolate, and we sample flavored dark cacao bars of varying intensities from all over the world. Of particular interest are several that hail from small-batch farms in rural Vietnam, and the staff sets these aside as well.


And all at once, we’re done. The table is littered with packaging and half-eaten containers of food. The goods that made it through the first pass are gathered and trundled off for more intense scrutiny and comparison to the existing stock in the Deli and the Mail Order warehouse, Their producers will be contacted, prices discussed, and details hashed out. If everyone comes to agreement, the new products will take their place on the crowded shelves.

And next month, the process will start all over again…