Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Artisanal all the way
I don’t like making predictions, specially gloom and doom-ridden ones during the pandemic, but as we head into the new year, here’s one that I think is now inevitable. I reckon that 2021 will be the year when the upmarket gourmet supermarket-food hall will flounder before it dies. The neighbourhood grocer, who has built up a relationship with his local community of shoppers, will survive – flourish, even – because of convenience, reliability and familiarity.
But fewer and fewer people are going to be willing to get into their cars, drive to an upmarket supermarket, find parking, locate a trolley, negotiate a narrow aisle and line up to pay. And the so-called gourmet places will find it harder and harder to maintain margins that will allow them to pay rents, salaries etc., and still turn a profit.
I guess this may have happened anyway but the pandemic has accelerated the death of the gourmet food hall. In the months when we were locked down and, in the period after that, when we were too scared to go to shops, we discovered that we could get everything we needed delivered to our doorsteps.
Most gratifying, to me, at least, is that we no longer need to hanker after foreign foods. These days we make nearly everything in India. And unlike the West, where the big shops are full of industrial, packaged products, the food scene in India is bursting with artisanal operations. Their products are made in small batches by people who care about quality.
This was driven home to me when I went on the website of Anata.in. Over the last several months, I have written regularly about artisanal food operations because I have been excited about the quality of the prepared foods and raw vegetables that are now available for delivery. But a little voice inside me has always said: “I wish there was an easier way. I wish people didn’t have to directly contact every single artisanal producer.”
It seems like the people at Anata.in heard me. Because they have created a 24X7 delivery service that drops artisanal products to your door. Not only is their range vast but I felt pangs of familiarity because many of the producers on their roster are people I have written about (Shroomery, Artisan Meats, etc.).
While I tend to focus mainly on quality, Anata focuses on sustainability as well. The card that came with my order said, “Anata was started to solve our own needs. Each of us wanted to reduce our carbon footprint but did not know where to start.”
When they did start, it was simple enough: “We reached out to people who were already doing the work: an environmental designer passionate about experimenting with coffee roasts, a mom creating artisanal ale concentrates from her living room, a zero-waste chocolate entrepreneur who invented his own plastic-free packaging from cacao husk.”
The systems are more complex. As soon as you place your order, they collect the products you want from a variety of entrepreneurs, bring them to their central facility, put your order together and dispatch a rider with the boxes to your home. Because it is an idea whose time has come, the producers are willing to give up part of their margins to be on the platform. So, a consumer pays exactly as much as he or she would have paid had they gone to several different websites and ordered the products.
It is, I guess, an online artisanal gourmet store that takes the place of the dying brick-and-mortar food halls of old. If you are new to this online/delivery world and want to know what to look for online, here are some tips.
Cakes and bread: Most commercial Indian bread is depressingly poor and is made by a nasty industrial process that shortens baking time but also leeches out all flavour. Till recently, the only retail alternative was at five-star hotels. But even hotel bread can be nasty and the cakes are often made with synthetic cream and chocolate.
So, it’s wise to always go niche. There are good bakers in every city. In Mumbai, Pooja Dhingra is the queen of the oven. In Delhi, Sahil Mehta is respected for the quality of his baking.
But even if you don’t go to those superstars, look for small operations on the net. I tried the crostini from Farming V2 through Anata and it was of a far superior quality than any five-star hotel. The hot dog buns from Artisanal Bread were soft and delicious.
Ordering cakes can be difficult because there are now too many small operations, some run by people who have just picked recipes off the Internet. But look around: the real talent is in the artisanal bakeries.
Eggs: The only thing worse than bland broiler chicken is a pale, watery, industrial egg. Over 15 years ago, I recommended the then obscure Keggs for the quality of its free-range eggs. But there are now many others in the fray. Anata has some of the newer producers but I’m sure there are others.
Vegetables: The vegetables from such delivery options as Krishi Cress, which deal directly with farmers, can be fresh and distinctive. They are not particularly expensive and you can find otherwise hard-to-get veggies. But a note of caution: I still haven’t found a good source for tasty tomatoes!
Meat: There are many large meat companies with large advertising budgets like Licious in the market now, but I stick to smaller producers. Most of the meat and charcuterie in my house still is from Artisan Meats. The only other suppliers I would trust for charcuterie are Meisterwurst and the Oberoi deli. All the famous Indian branded pork products that I have seen in the shops are uniformly disappointing.
Pickles: Who knew? I first asked for recommendation for meat pickles two months ago and got so deluged by the responses that I have come to the conclusion that pickle makers are India’s secret food stars. Never buy retail. Always buy your pickles on the net. They can be fabulous.
Coffee: Always go on the net: especially if you are looking for capsules for coffee-machines. I have relied on Fresh Brew for years now and am constantly astonished by how high their quality is.
My product of the week: Chorizo Hummus by Artisanal Collective.
I don’t even particularly like hummus, so I would never have ordered this ! I ordered a box of assorted products from Anata (they choose so it’s always full of surprises) and a jar of chorizo hummus came with a handwritten label, which gave the date of preparation. (It was delivered the same day.)
So check the web. Explore. There has never been a better time to eat well at home.
*The spelling of Artisanal Collective was corrected online on January 4, 2021
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, January 3, 2021
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