Some months ago I wrote an article highlighting products the Grocery department had brought in based on member requests. Since then there have been several more additions of this kind that I again feel are deserving of special mention. Unlike in the previous article, however, my focus here is on local vendors. The Grocery department has been phasing in more local products lately, and based on the requests we’ve been getting, our members have been of the same mindset. It’s the beginning of a new year, after all, so why not resolve to support our local producers?
This summer the Co-op-sponsored East Side Farmer’s Market included a Blue Marble booth. Our members who shopped the market liked Blue Marble so much that we were inundated with requests to bring them in to the store.
Blue Marble is the antithesis of the factory farm. It sits on 450 acres southwest of Barneveld, Wisconsin and has a relatively small herd of around 75 cows. Nick Kirch and his family run the farm and place a premium on the quality of milk they produce. Their operation is environmentally sustainable because they bottle the milk on-site in reusable glass bottles, thereby eliminating the carbon costs of shipping it to a bottling facility. They also stress the importance of humane treatment of their livestock, as happy, healthy cows produce higher quality milk.
The Co-op’s Dairy department now carries Blue Marble whole and 2% half gallons, as well as heavy whipping cream and half and half.
I recently had the pleasure of touring the Gail Ambrosius production kitchen on Atwood Avenue. I had received several member requests for Gail’s chocolates, and used them as the perfect excuseto arrange for the visit (in all honesty, we would have brought Gail in without the tour, but don’t tell her that). Gail’s kitchen was impeccably clean and is surprisingly low on fancy machines and gadgetry. She and her staff roll the truffles by hand, and the chocolate bars and novelties are formed in imported molds. I even got to see her custom-designed chocolate cave, where she stores her ingredients and finished chocolates at the perfect temperature and humidity.
Gail recounted a recent trip she had made to South America to tour cocoa bean plantations. She explained that, like wine grapes, cocoa plants have different characteristics depending on the environments in which they grow. Gail prefers to buy fairly traded, sustainably grown cocoa, so these trips ensure the quality of her beans by allowing her to foster personal relationships with the farmers that grow them.
At one point during the tour, Gail brought out a case of raw cocoa beans that she had smuggled back in her carry-on luggage. She said that this particular bean was a rare variety of cocoa plant that only grew under specific conditions. Farmers overlook these more exotic varieties of cocoa because the money is in the common kinds that are easier to grow, a practice that leads to less biodiversity, as the habitat required to grow the exotic cocoa is cleared to make room for the common forms.
She invited me to taste the raw bean. It crumbled against my teeth and had a surprisingly pungent flavor that I described at the time as a “punch in the face”—not because it was offensive, just unexpected. After the initial shock, however, the complexity of its flavor revealed itself. At first it reminded me of blue cheese, but by the time it hit the back of my throat, the unmistakable bitterness of dark chocolate was evident. Its alienness emphasized the process the raw bean goes through to become a truffle and underscored the hard work that Gail puts in to each of her chocolates.
The Co-op carries a wide variety of Gail Ambrosius Chocolates, ranging from ganache-filled Buddahs to chocolate bars, as well as omega-3 truffles. Most of our selection is located on a display near the check out lines, but chocolate sauce and hot cocoa mix can be found in aisle four. The omega-3 truffles are in the supplements cooler in our Health and Wellness department.
One of our more recent additions is Tomato Mountain, a certified organic farm set on 12 acres near Brooklyn, Wisconsin. They have a year-round production kitchen that makes everything from salsas to soups, and even tomato jam. Tomato Mountain doesn’t subscribe to the usual practice of bottling only those tomatoes that would otherwise be unsuitable to eat fresh. Instead, they pick their fruits at the height of ripeness and process them immediately in small batches, ensuring that their products are of the highest standard. Their recipes use very few ingredients. The list for their Roasted Pasta Sauce, for instance, reads as follows: roasted organic tomatoes, roasted organic onions, roasted organic garlic, organic olive oil, organic herbs, salt. For me, this drives home the quality inherent in our locally produced food—quality sorely absent in most conventional brands.
Buying local is not only better for the environment, but also helps support the local economy. When our members request and purchase these products, they participate in a system that directly leads to the viability of these small companies and their surrounding communities.