Meditations

Eating Blind


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I remember back in my university days in Toronto every so often we’d get the Loblaws (known as The Real Canadian Superstore out west) flyer, the one featuring all the President’s Choice brand foods. Each one had a lengthy story as to how the product came about, either from global travel by the Galen Weston, the company President, or perhaps some shortcoming of other similar products they’ve identified.

Still cutting my Foodist teeth back then, I remember being impressed by the thought that seemingly went into these products, and how clearly the marketing stands out from the competition. Still am, though I can’t really call myself a part of the target market for pre-processed supermarket foods anymore.

So it was with some curiosity that I, along with fellow Foodist Mark, attended a lunch event promising a “sensory trip around the world…to experience Canada’s cultural tapestry of tastes in an intimate and unique Dark Dining experience”. At precisely noon we sauntered into the empty Revel Room in Gastown and were efficiently escorted upstairs to a private dining area. I must say that being in a restaurant food venue and knowing the food would be from a supermarket felt a bit odd, but we were certainly willing to roll with it.

A small selection featuring the new, clean package designs.

A small selection featuring the new, clean package designs.

There was a preamble that included some interesting information about the President’s Choice brand. Two things that caught my attention were that they are 12 months into an 18 month long undertaking to make 1,000 improvements to their products. These include reformulations to improve health such as reducing sodium, new product introductions, general improvements and cleaner more attractive packaging. The second was that they openly copy UK retailer Marks and Spencer whom they regard as incredibly successful when it comes to prepared packaged food goods. So much so, they rented an apartment in London for a week to eat their way through the M&S Indian food to reverse engineer it. The result is their butter chicken and naan bread, something we sampled and frankly wasn’t bad tasting at all if you’re looking for a quick, no fuss Indian meal.

Okay, so to the tastings. The intent was to take us to Canada, Italy, India, China, Greece and Mexico via their foods and our palates, blindfolded. Now, eating blind is an interesting thing. Not knowing specifically what’s being placed in front of you and having to rely solely on olfactory senses can be quite revealing about how one approaches the savouring of food. To the unpracticed, it can even be difficult to even tell what the food is just by smell. We were encouraged to use our hands to eat (though had not been given the opportunity to wash our hands properly) since cutlery can be rather awkward if you can’t see what you’re aiming for.

At first the sensation, and handling my food with my hands in such a way, was a little disconcerting, but then it became more fun and more adventurous. It got me thinking about how my one year old daughter might experience her food and removing my vision made me more mindful of the smells, tastes and textures–I’m sure that was our host’s intention.

First up was “Canada” with PC Smokin’ Stampede Pork Back Ribs, PC Old Fashioned Ice Tea and PC Loaded Baked Potato Thick Cut Chips.

Personally, I associate ribs and slaw with the deep American South, but whatever, I suppose we’ve adopted it here now too. The ribs weren’t bad, but then I have to compare them to what I’m used to which is real, six hour long real smoked ribs on the Weber. But, for those times when you want a quick rib fix at home in no time flat, sure why not. I did not like the potato chips at all. I’m no fan of heavily dressed chips. To me they taste artificial and instead I prefer Kettle Chips or local fave Hard Bites. However, I later tried their Baby Back Rib flavour chips and was pleasantly surprised.

We quite enjoyed listening to the well-written descriptions and stories about the products, flavours, and work that went into their development while blindfolded though all the attendees agreed that for the subsequent dishes they should let us taste them first and then tell us about it so as not to remove the fun of self-discovery.

The rest of the menu went as follows:

Italy
Open-faced Anitpasto Sandwich with PC Genoa Slami, PC Stretched Mozarella and PC Arugula & Almond Spread on fresh PC Ciabatta Bread. The Arugula & Almond Spread was a very interesting touch and the stand out product here. Along for the ride was the outstanding Blood Orange Italian soda. See my note below on this.

India
PC Butter Chicken Cooking Sauce layered over PC Chicken Breasts with a side of Rooster Brand Rice and PC Indian Naan. As mentioned above, they did their research on this one in the UK. Hard to say if it’s any better or worse than other similar products such as by Pataks, but it was good. The naan, while not as good as fresh from an Indian restaurant, was miles above other naan products I’ve seen and bought at my local grocer. It was thin and nicely charred vs. thick and gummy.

China
PC Combos Vegetable Spring Rolls, PC Combos Cashew Chicken and PC Combos Vegetable Fried Rice. Eating blind with chopsticks was kind of fun. I think our hosts were overly impressed with this feat, but this is Vancouver and Asian dining is ingrained. As a result this offering was probably to most lackluster of the bunch. The spring rolls had a flour-like taste, almost as if they were undercooked and the chicken and or rice was was over the top salty.

Greece
Tzatziki Marinated Lamb with Greek Salad featuring PC Yougurt Tzatziki Dressing. Apparently the lamb was marinated in this dressing. Whether it was a factor or not, the lamb was very tender and hey, who doesn’t like fresh lamb rack? I’ve used this dressing on salads since and find it to be light, refreshing and a good option for those nights when you’re too lazy to mix your own oil and vinegar, and that’s lazy!

Mexico
PC Memories of Mexico Sauce on PC Black Tiger Zipperback Shrimp, PC Minty Lime Mojitos and fresh salsa made with PC Chipotle Hot Sauce. Sustainability issues aside, the shrimp was excellent.

In general, this food was rather good all things considered and has renewed my feelings that in moderation sometimes it’s okay to cut a few corners, especially when rushing to make a meal at the end of a long day of work. My only caveat is that some of these products are not the most healthful, such as the aforementioned Chinese Cashew Chicken with 53% of the recommended daily amount! Apparently this one is slated to be revised, but one has to question why it was chosen to serve to us. The prawns were Thai, not a particularly sustainable fishery. When questioned, Loblaws was quite forthright on the matter, stating that they desire to get there, but can only go as fast as their market will allow them. This is still a supermarket brand remember so I guess we’ll need to vote with our dollars to send the message back.

As far as supermarket brands go, I think with the President’s Choice brand Loblaws really outshines the house brands of  other large grocers. When asked to comment about whether they are the only ones who go to the lengths they do to formulate and invent their own line they could not comment, but it sure seems, at least to me, that they have created a brand that stands for more than just convenience and value. Though prepared by a professional chef, the food we were served was completely accessible to anyone, and there’s no question that even the unskilled could prepare them. Makes sense, since that is exactly who they will appeal to.

Although their motives were more likely about getting some traction about their food, the event itself was easily just as much a focus group for them. There was certainly some very useful feedback being harvested from the select group in the room. And good for Loblaws for reaching out in this way. It’s clear to me that they are serious about creating decent products, even if tempered with the reality of mass market appeal and sales.

A final observation: The PC Blood Orange Italian Soda, which is fantastic and made in Italy with natural ingredients, is identical to the Italissima brand available in some grocers and Italian shops such as Bosa. I’m going to call Loblaws on this one and say they are indeed the same product with different labels. I don’t care and neither should you. It just means more of a good thing with better availability. Other flavours include Sicilian Lemon, Sweet Pomegranate, Tart Ruby Red Grapefruit and the unique Coffee flavour. Kind of interested to try that coffee flavour!

Mark’s parting comment was, “I do NOT want to go blind, and as much as this is supposed to enhance the flavour experience, I find the visual aspect of food presentation a significant part of the enjoyment of eating.” I’m sure we’d all agree, but the event left us wanting very much to recreate a blind tasting at home and elsewhere just for fun, and with more exotic selections. Thankfully they let us keep the blindfolds, and were discrete about not asking what we’d be using them for!

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