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Who cut the cheese?

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

I’ll be brief. Well, OK, for me, it’s brief.

With my second visit in three days, I detect a high smell in the air, figuratively speaking, that I have gotten used to, I admit, over the years. It gets to be unnoticeable, as, I’m told, it can be with smog over LA. Il Formaggio Kitchen, the redoubtable cheese shop extraordinaire that happens to be based here in Cambridge (still at the original location, though, in keeping with their surging success over a great many years they now have a location in deep downtown Manhattan, to be added to the outpost they added to what is now a roster of stores located in the South End. These are all redoubts (speaking of being a formidable adversary—as in the food or foodie wars) of the invincibly deep pockets of the carriage trade who reside, or at least shop, in West Cambridge, the South End, and the Lower East Side (ensconced in the Essex Street Market).

What the stink is, of course, is the deep smell of lots of bucks. Money, in short, which you must have in long supply if you are regularly to shop in these establishments. I’ll have to look into it, but it almost appears as if each store, in having its own identity (with logos, or “marques,” drawn in the same faux primitif simple line) is declaring something of a separate sensibility. Perhaps the name has been licensed or franchised, or perhaps the estimable Ihrsan Gurdal, founder of the original West Cambridge store, and now a “knight” of some sort, of whatever French order bestows such honors, and absolutely with a reputation that exceeds the boundaries of the enclave of classically conservative Cantabrigian big money in which it is situated, has partial ownership. And if it is complete ownership, I am sure there is some plausible reason, beyond whim (or utter ignorance) that inspired a different “look” for each of the satellite locations.

I’ve never visited either the South End Boston or Lower East Side NYC stores, but I assure myself with some confidence that the prices are comfortably at parity with the Cambridge outlet. And the stink I keep referring to derives from the ever-increasing, no-end-in-sight, inflationary trend in prices that the rare products (and not so rare, but merely significant as a set of signifieds (as the linguists mean the word, as a noun) for the usual crowd of Mercedes/Audi/BMW/Volvo drivers who consume them) sustain in these bastions of plenty in the midst of universal want.

In short, the store was always too damn expensive, and it gets even more so, for no apparent reason. Though I’ll reserve wholesale (so to speak) condemnation until I have occasion to speak with representatives of the establishment. I’d like them to explain how it is that a six-pack of Badoit, the sparkling water of choice by a wide margin in France (distinguished from the much more famous Perrier by the pinpoint size of the bubbles of the former, as compared to the latter—every Frenchman knows that Perrier is a late afternoon hot summer’s day refreshment, or a mixer for a cocktail, in short a thirst quencher, with some rough equivalency to having a “Coke” here; indeed Source Perrier (owned by the conglomerate Nestlé, which finds ways of making money even in the gas infused into their mineral water products) has introduced a sparkling water (l’eau pétillante) to compete with Badoit, its prime differentiation being the tiny bubbles that emulate Danon’s flagship bottled water, as common in France as we believe Perrier to be. And just to round out this little digression before I make my point about money and egregious excess in the gentle rolling back streets of patrician Cambridge, I will note that Badoit, not to be outdone, or beaten out of any market, has introduced its own line of sparkling water, same name, just much bigger bubbles, like Perrier’s in size: no doubt important to penetrate that all-important, if practically non-existent these days, American tourist market, which only knows from Perrier.

In all events, let me sum up my point this way. A six-pack of Badoit, in liter bottles—plastic incidentally, as the glass versions seem to be distributed only to the trade, to go on offer in restaurants and bistros—costs approximately 4.50 euros at a French supermarket (actually it costs exactly that; I just checked on-line), which at the current insulting and injurious rate of exchange is $6.51, or a little less than a dollar-ten a bottle (about the price of San Pellegrino, in a liter bottle, at the Whole Foods Market… not exactly your price leader here in the US).

Well, Il Formaggio, driven by the esoteric preferences of their clientele, has sold Badoit in one-liter six-packs for years. It used to amuse me (for reasons no longer clear to me—in the interim my head has gotten either clearer or foggier) that at the time a liter of Badoit was selling for about 70 or 75 cents in a French supermarket, it was 18 bucks the six-pack at Il Formaggio.

Times being what they are, and inflation being the phenomenon it is, the price, I just took note, has risen to $25.50 currently, or about, well, about the price in US dollars of four six packs of the refreshing beverage in France.

So one of my questions of the denizens of Il Formaggio is how they justify a 300% markup for what is a common beverage in France, the quintessential market for bottled water, as it always had been (most of the brands, the many many brands, sold in France are centuries old; now it’s by preference, no doubt to some degree in the past it was for reasons of health and hygiene that ordinary citizens found a bottled water they could call their own and stick to it, through every meal). Bottled water is still not a universal phenomenon in the U.S., but a habit of the upper decile (I’m guessing) of the entirety of economic strata in the U.S., that is, the regular consumption of bottled water, and specifically mineral water (not the de-ionized, reverse osmosed municipal tap water that gets bottled by Coke and Pepsi, and lines the shelves at the Safeway next to the Coke and Sierra Light).

While I’m at it, and I’m just picking on Il Formaggio at the moment, regarding two products of extreme familiarity to me, a part-time resident of France, and concerning products I use regularly and without any particular sense of imminent danger as a result to the overall condition of the household exchequer, I noticed that a liter can of the excellent, but not superior by any means, olive oil of the Alziari family, an oil they press from various olives, but in this case, the famous olives of their native Nice (where their own retail shop is located) costs north of 43 bucks, almost 44, at Il Formaggio.

I do buy the Alziari product in France. I prefer French olive oil (to the more prevalent and better-known Italian, not to mention the Spanish, Greek, and several other quite fine oils), and it’s hard to come by in any place, but France (and I can only suppose this is because the French do like to keep certain things to themselves—and if I remember the pertinent facts clearly from Mort Rosenblum’s prize-winning book, Olives, they export only about 2-3 per cent of their annual output). In Nice, the Alziari liter of AOC Niçoise extra virgin olive oil, costs either 13 or 14 euros, depending on the time of year. That would be, just a tad (or a quarter, that is, two-bits, if you like to speak the language of coinage) over 20 bucks. That’s not 300% markup, it’s true, but it’s still more than twice the price (inexplicable in a way since a metal can weighs more than a plastic bottle, and olive oil, ounce for ounce, certainly weighs more than fizzy water) [ed. note, added later: just so I don’t get any more comments, the foregoing is, of course nonsense, on two points, at least, and deliberately so: an ounce is an ounce, so by weight an ounce of oil weighs exactly the same thing as anything else weighing an ounce; water, however, is denser than oil—oil floats on water for god’s sake—so any given volume weighs more than the same volume of oil, anyway, about 25% more, but this still doesn’t excuse the markup on Badoit at everybody’s favorite cheese shop in West Cambridge—I do these things on purpose, to see if you’re listening… most of you aren’t, or, more likely, you don’t give a crap, which is probably smart].

There’s more to be said, given that any number of goat cheese specialties sit proudly at the entrance to the cheese department, waiting for you to take a round or a cylinder or a what have you home with you, already growing spots of greenish mold—not characteristic in France, even of the aged cheeses; it means these particular specimens have been, shall I say, away from home for a very long time—and each at a price from two to three to four times as much as it will cost you in the weekly market, week after week, time without end, in even the most humble of market towns near goat farms (and they raise goats all over the place).

Yes, there’s a smell emanating from West Cambridge, and it isn’t goats. But more later, after I look into it.

Tags: 02138 and environs · Food · Invidious comparisons · Local Food · The French &...

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