A good collaboration is worth its weight in gold. Or artisanal vinegar.
Those of you who have had experiences with collaborations that did not quite pan out will understand my enthusiasm for being co-organizer of the Bay Area Bloggers Society. A year in, BABS founder Suzanna Stinnett and I are having even more fun creating events, publishing books, and advocating for authors in the age of digital publishing.
One of our regular venues is Belvedere City Hall in Marin County, a lovely faux Tudor building serving the very, very clean communities of Tiburon and Belvedere. The first time we met there in May, I stopped beforehand at the local market to pick up some dinner. And proceeded to have my mind blown.
The Woodlands Market on Tiburon Blvd. is an unassuming mid-century market, modest on the outside despite its upscale location. I was pleasantly surprised to find reasonable prices at their deli counter, and ordered a sandwich. While I was waiting for it to be made, I browsed around the aisles, curious about what a market in this neighborhood would have in stock.
Right away I encountered a grocery item I had never seen before in my life: an almond product that was neither whole nor slivered almonds, not almond butter, marzipan, or even almond milk. It was almond water. Glass jars of milky liquid, clearly labelled “Almond Water.”
My questions (internal) were roughly as follows: What is this? Who buys this stuff, and what do they do with it? Is this really a must-have item here in Belvedere?
I have lived in Northern California all my life. I’ve seen some swanky boutique grocery stores and foodie emporiums. But never before have I seen almond water for sale in a juice aisle. Fascinated, I looked around some more. And found such a surfeit of exclusive and obscure items that it made me wonder how much it cost to hire the chef who actually used these ingredients.
Sadly, I didn’t have my cell phone with me to take pictures of this embarrassment of riches. But I was prepared earlier this month when we again met in Belvedere!
Of course, snapping photos in a small, sparsely populated market is bound to attract management’s attention. But before that happened, I took this shot of their entire selection of capers. That’s seven different varieties, in case you have trouble reading the labels, with some cocktail onions and green peppercorns thrown in.
Inspired, I moved on to the oils. Skipping over the more pedestrian (for Northern California) small-batch olive oils, for this photo I decided to capture the truffle, hazelnut and grapeseed oils, since I have never (yet) had the occasion to use any of them in my own kitchen. The impressive size of the bottles to me says “lifetime supply,” yet their sheer number on the shelves would seem to indicate much more frequent usage—a conundrum I stashed away for future mulling.
Emboldened, I moved on to vinegars, the place where Woodlands Market really shines. There is no way, without a wide-angle lens, to even capture their floor-to-ceiling array of artisanal vinegars. In fact, I was still framing this hasty shot when I was approached by Curtis, the very friendly assistant manager, who cheerfully asked what I was doing.
I replied in all honesty that I was completely bowled over by their selection, and was taking a few pictures so that I could remember, when I got home, just what it was that I had seen. And then I really got into it, picking out some of the more obscure bottles and rhapsodizing about their contents—had he ever seen fig vinegar before?
Curtis admitted that no, he hadn’t. And then he too started to get into the spirit of the moment, realizing that as assistant manager he should probably be more familiar with his balsamics selection. That’s when Curtis found the pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown, so to speak, of the entire Woodlands Market vinegar aisle.
It was a small paper box, no more than 3″ square, with Italian writing on the front. He picked it up in wonder, and I asked if he knew what was inside. By this time it seemed like a good idea to all concerned to take a look at the bottle within.
We were not disappointed. As you can see, it was a lovely jar with what appeared to be a hand-written label on plain white paper, in Italian, of course. The top was covered with a bright orange wax seal so smelling the contents was out of the question, but it won our admiration all the same. The box listed 1.4 fluid oz of (I believe) balsamic reduction inside. Alas, I neglected to check the price.
Curtis really was a sport to let me take a picture of him with this find. Then I figured that it was time to make my purchases and move on to our Blogger’s Society meeting down the street.
Suzanna was suitably impressed with my adventure, another way you can tell that your collaboration has legs. Later she sent me an article about some wayward Belvedere youth who faced possible felony charges for egging 11 cars along the street, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage.
I thought about that one for quite a while. What do you have to do with an egg to cause thousands of dollars of damage to a car? Wasn’t dried yolk removable with vinegar? If so, the residents of Belvedere were uniquely positioned to remedy their situation.
The other day I strolled through the Whole Foods in Petaluma, a market twice if not four times the size of Woodlands Market. I was curious whether the Woodlands selection really was that unique, or if I simply needed to get out more. But I found only four different types of capers. They carried most of the oils and vinegars I’d seen, but Whole Foods simply does not deliver the high end, small-boxed, wax-sealed balsamics that I have now come to hold as a benchmark for truly superior selection.
Not that you will ever need this information. But if you have been stymied in your search for the ultimate balsamic reduction, and based on this article can finally move ahead with creating a culinary masterpiece, I would appreciate being your official taste-tester. Who knows? It might be a fruitful collaboration.