I'm not saying the universe conspired against me, but when I had crawled for 20 minutes all the way up Greenlane Road from the motorway interchange, in the right-hand lane, because that would let me turn into the "good" carpark at the Auckland Showgrounds -- and the car in front of me was the last one allowed into the car park -- it was hard not to feel that someone was messing with my head.
"You're not an exhibitor, are you?" asked the security guard as he folded down the parking signs.
"No," I said glumly, then wound up the window so no one else could hear me fulminate as I pulled into the empty left lane and drove up the road to pay and park a kilometre away. It occurred to me that this wouldn't have happened had there not been a long and wholly inexplicable 10am queue to actually get on the motorway back at Western Springs.
As I locked up and walked back towards the venue, I saw the first of many punters trailing wheelie bags as if approaching an airport. The long trend for The Food Show to become a direct-sales venue has reached a zenith in 2011. With a little planning, it's easy enough to reclaim the cost of a ticket by taking advantage of discounts of up to 70% being offered by manufacturers and distributors.
Not that I'm complaining. I am not a purist about The Food Show. I have never sat through a cooking demonstration, but I am interested in food products, and new ones in particular. And I do love a bargain. Barely was I in the door than I'd stuffed six-dollar blocks of Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano in my bag, from the Parmareggio distributors' stand.
One of the first places I tarried to talk was the True Pacific stand, which offered fresh papaya and two products I thought were impressive: Tongan coffee (served as an excellent espresso) and the delightfully named Hot Samoan Boys Chilli Sauce. I was told the Pacific Cooperation Foundation is in the process of establishing the True Pacific brand as a trade mark for a range of Pacific Island goods. I hope that goes well, because they seemed like good people.
They have something of a role model in the Taste of India brand, whose original range of dahls has been expanded into an array of simmer sauces, convenience foods and catering products by the Fiji-based manufacturer Foods Pacific Limited. I grabbed a couple of ready-to-eat pottles there, but couldn't carry much more than that.
I found the Clevedon Buffalo stand. I'm familiar with their buffalo mozzarella, but I hadn't tasted their yoghurt, or their little sausages made of actual buffalo. A man was offering two matrons tastings of "vanilla bean buffalo yoghurt" and I signalled that I, too, would like a piece of that. Very shortly after, I indicated that I'd like a whole pottle of the stuff. It was delicious; thick and tangy. I like to think that Vanilla Buffalo Yoghurt is the underrated third album by a Midwest indie band you probably haven't heard of.
The most strikingly unusual product, I thought, was the manuka smoked eggs from the New Zealand Manuka Egg Company, which sat sooty in their cartons. They were served for tasting as thin pieces of omelette on bread, and they really were a savoury delight. I didn't fancy carrying eggs, so I bought a tiny phial of manuka smoke concentrate. Half a spoonful inside a roast chicken, apparently.
Opposite the eggs was the Quina-Fina natural tonic water, which seemed very refreshing -- although it was hard to tell without actual gin, and I wasn't quite ready for that. (Thought -- next year, the gin people and the tonic people should set up next to each other. You know it makes sense.)
I was, however, ready for some Hawke's Bay wine. The Stonecroft Old Vine Chardonnay was soft and buttery, but not worth the $45 for me. But next door, Clearview were offering what looked to me like the wine bargain of the show: three bottles of their brilliant Reserve Chardonnay for $85. "We can't be undercut by Glengarrys," said the man.
Graham and Giselle, the couple from Southland's Marama organic farm talked me into three packs of their "small sheep sausages" for $25. I assented on the basis that they were quite the lambiest lamb sausages I could recall tasting.
At the other end of the scale -- that is, the out-and-out meals in packets -- I was surprised by how good the Szechuan Black Pepper Beef and Mongolian Pork Stew dishes from Silk Road tasted. The former had actual shiitake mushrooms in it. OTOH, both were very salty. Definitely a sometimes food.
There were a few notable no-shows -- I missed being able to say hi to Noel Crawford from Aromatics in the Hawke's Bay, who has been a Hard News fan since forever (and who always cuts me a deal). There were, as ever, products I didn't get the point of. And there were quite a few cupcakes, which appear to have officially arrived. But cupcakes aren't exactly the best palate-primer for a tasting show -- or is that just me?
I did start to miss a few tricks. After tasting it, I meant to grab a bottle of the Olys fruit and cereal oil on the home run, but forgot. And then, things went really wrong.
I had a yarn with Shane Cox from Corazon vineyards in the Henderson Valley, who gave me a copy of his DVD, Passion and Patience: A Wine Story. And I was about to haul out when the nice lady from Artisan winery said hello. We shot a couple of Media7 summer seasons at her place, so I stopped to chat there too.
As I crouched to pick up my now quite heavy bags, I turned to say goodbye. And something fairly major went in my lower back. I nearly toppled over, but got to my feet, staggered out the door and walked that long kilometre back to my car. I managed to get some treatment later in the day, but I'm still suffering. (Note to the Kingsland pharmacist: I was this close to snarling at you, so long did your well-meaning interrogation about my attempt to buy a sodding box of Neurofen Plus continue. Back off, dude.)
So … not a bad Food Show; more point-of-sale and product oriented than ever. Perhaps next year I, too, should trundle in with a wheelie bag.
You'll tend to get a better conversation with stallholders if you're wearing a media pass, and on preview day, but most of them were happy to chat. One thing I must mention: at least half a dozen stallholders recognised me and asked if it was really true that TVNZ 7 was going to end. I think it's really only now sinking in for people that the choice of a public service channel is being taken away from them. They should probably talk to their members of Parliament.
Oh, and because it's Friday, here's my buddy Andrew Moore's nice new video for Street Chant's 'Stoned Again':