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Ari's Top 5
On Tuesday, December 6, I’m going to be teaching my annual
Best of 2022 Tasting live and in person at the Deli at 6 pm EST. A whole
lotta great flavors and the stories that go with them. There are still a few, though not many, seats! The next week, on Wednesday, December 14 at
6 pm EST, we’ll be doing an online version of Best of 2022 so you can log in from wherever you find yourself!


The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them. And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down. Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.

—G.K. Chesterton
 

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a black and white photo of a Roadhouse hoodie on wooden-planked surface with an open book on top with dancing fairies

Appreciative Culture
in Action

Fending off fairies and putting appreciation
to work every day

Last week, I learned for the first time, about what in Irish is known as a fóidín mearaí. The details are in Manchán Magan’s beautiful and beautifully written new book Listen to the Land: A Journey into the Wisdom of What Lies Beneath Us. The fóidín mearaí, which means a “little sod of earth,” is a small spot on the land that cannot be seen by the naked eye. As Manchán writes, it “looks no different from any other.” The problem, though, is if you unwittingly set foot on one, “you are catapulted into a different dimension. Things shift their parameters and turn topsy-turvy.” Manchán explains:

Throughout the country there’s a belief that the fairies put a spell on certain patches of land and that, if you happen to step on them, you’ll lose your way and find it hard to regain your bearings until the fairies tire of their game and release you from the spell.

They’re like snares set in the space-time continuum, and the effect can last for several hours, or even days. During this period, time is unaccounted for and familiar places look indecipherable. Occasionally, a person might hear their name called or see someone they thought they knew and follow them, only to be found some time later with no memory of how they came to be miles from where they should be.

Fairies, of course, are not a common topic of adult conversation in the U.S., but in Ireland, they are still very serious business. Manchán writes that “For eons our people believed that fairies lived beneath the earth, and for some people they are still a presence in their lives.” During his talk at ZingTrain last spring, he described them as “a cross between the Dalai Lama and Yoda.” They can also cause trouble, sometimes playfully, sometimes very seriously. There are still about 45,000 historic fairy forts in Ireland and a good bit of conversation about the importance of preserving them. Much of Irish tradition around fairies, as Manchán makes clear, is about learning to cope “with their divilish interferences in our lives and landscapes.” The matter of the fóidín mearaí is part of the latter. There is one known intervention, it turns out, that can effectively keep the fairies from taking you if you’ve unwittingly set foot on the fóidín mearaí. Manchán quotes Frank Maguire from County Cavan who, in 1938, revealed the way out:

If such a thing happens to you, take your coat off and turn it inside out and wear it thus. That is the only hope of undoing the charm. 

The fóidín mearaí and the fairies might be quickly dismissed as quaint Celtic fantasy. But as experts in the field of fairies, Steve and Paula Flynn Lally write, “Just because we don’t see fairies doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We believe in fairies.” Honestly, I didn’t give the whole thing much thought until last week when I saw it all happen at the Roadhouse just as Manchán and Frank Macguire had warned. Well, I mean, I didn’t actually see the fairies, but as Manchán explains in the book, you’ll rarely see them, you only feel the impact of their work. And, it’s true, I didn’t see Zach Milner turn his coat inside out, but I’m pretty sure now that’s what must have happened. Thank goodness. It could have been bad, but because Zach had the knowledge, practice, and presence of mind to invert his outerwear, what could have gone badly awry worked out to be a wonderful story.

If I were to translate this story into more of a properly formatted management case study, the logical explanation for what I now believe might well have been a fóidín mearaí on the floor at the Roadhouse, would be to talk instead about the feelings of frustration and a bit of slow-building anger that Zach was experiencing that day. If you don’t already know him, Zach is the manager of the Roadshow (that super cool, teapot-shaped, 1952 Spartan aircraft aluminum trailer that does the carryout for the Roadhouse). He started in the ZCoB seven years ago as a busboy and has gradually worked his way into bigger roles. Because he’s been with us so long, and because he pays close attention and works hard at self-improvement—like many others here—he has internalized the beliefs and practices that make our ever-imperfect culture of appreciation what it is. 

There are literally thousands of great stories of ZCoBbers demonstrating the power of active appreciation, but for today, with fairies in mind, I’m focusing on this one. It’s only a coincidence that I happened to walk past Zach the other day right at the time that the fairies—or if you want to play it straight, his feelings—were starting to take him. He didn't say anything about it, but I could sense that something was amiss. He was, as Manchán had warned in the book, starting to get caught in one of those “snares set in the space-time continuum” that happen when you step on the fóidín mearaí. I gently asked him what was up. “I’m just so frustrated,” he said. He shared a detail or two of what had “hooked him” (without, I’ll say, a long, drawn-out, dramatic story or any blame—kudos to the No-Drama culture). I felt bad for him and offered help, but he shook his head and assured me he'd be okay. We were both busy and quickly went our separate ways to finish what we were meant to be doing at that moment. Or at least, I should say, I did. Zach, it turned out, came up with a far more productive plan. When I saw him again about half an hour or so later, his energy had totally shifted for the better. He was calmer and smiling and had come back to himself. 

“Wow. What happened?” I asked. Zach shared the story: 

I just decided that to turn my day around I was gonna do some appreciation. So instead of getting more and more frustrated, I decided to get some of the new Roadshow hoodies and bring them as gifts to the wholesale service team at the Bakehouse and the Coffee Company. They’re part of our Roadshow team, too—without them we couldn’t do what we do, and I wanted them to know how much we appreciate them.

“How did it go?” I asked. He replied with a big smile, “They were really happy! They loved them!” Zach didn’t say anything about what he was wearing at the time, but metaphorically, at least, I’m pretty certain that he had turned his coat inside out. And now that I’m thinking about it, it is sort of interesting that the gifts he gave to the crew at the Bakehouse and Coffee were, in fact, coats. Hmmm.

In the context of the culture of appreciation, this little story is, for me, about as good as it gets. Under the intense emotional pressure to act out the frustration we all feel from time to time (and some days from hour to hour), Zach managed to get his wits about himself enough to use appreciation as an effective antidote to his rising frustration and anger. While Zach is a great guy, my main message here is that all of us—business owners, world leaders, politicians, busboys, and poets—can all learn to do the same. In my vision, cultures of appreciation would become the national norm, as commonly found across the country as fairy forts are in Ireland.

Appreciation, I know, is easy to ignore, but as I wrote last week, I can see ever more clearly that we can use appreciation to avoid many of the conflicts in which so many companies, communities, and countries are currently bogged down. (Manchán’s book also has a great deal of fascinating info about the history and mystery of Irish bogs too, but I’ll leave that for another day.) Appreciation, I’ve learned over the years, can be accessed to effectively fend off frustration, anger, apathy, antipathy, ego, and negative energy. Which is, I see now, exactly what Zach did that day. In under an hour, he used appreciation to turn trouble inside out and get himself to a better place. The mood of the Bakehouse service staff and the Coffee Company wholesale crew were improved in the process as well! And because Zach’s energy was turned around, his coworkers’ days probably went better as well.

I learned last week that in psychology, this last bit would be called “co-regulation.” Energy and emotion are contagious. If one of us steps on the fóidín mearaí, others might well be, metaphorically at least, pulled along as well. Manchán didn’t say anything about a group stepping on a fóidín mearaí all at once, but it seems from psychology that it can happen. Someone who has studied the science deeply, Kate Double, MSW, LCSW, writes:

Co-regulation is the way that the nervous system of one individual influences the nervous system of another. It really is that simple; although it is not only an interpersonal process but also a neurological and biological process.

Looking back on things, it’s easy to see that a less culturally wise Zach could well have let the fairies lead him astray, in which case, co-regulation would almost certainly have sent his whole team spinning. Service would have suffered, the likelihood of mistakes and tensions on shift would have increased, and almost inevitably we would have had half a dozen difficult conversations later to fix whatever went wrong. Instead, he acted on the appreciation he has spent the last seven years learning and practicing. Appreciation, as it always does, did the trick! Just as Frank McGuire already understood all the way back in 1938, it’s “the only hope of undoing the charm.”

Buddhist teacher Tartang Tulku is not from Ireland, but his blending of intuition and practical teaching are well in line with what Manchán is writing about. In his book Skillful Means, Tulku says:

Our minds and hearts thrive on the nourishment and satisfaction that appreciation provides. … Appreciating the beauty of each moment helps us to recognize the value of all aspects of existence. This recognition adds a deeper dimension to our insights and renders our decisions and actions as inspiring as our goals. Appreciation can be our greatest teacher, for it shows us how to make good use of our capabilities to improve the quality of life in a lasting and meaningful way.  

To be clear, I know that the concept of appreciation in and of itself is not really all that radical. Everyone you ask about it will agree that it’s a good idea. To make it meaningful, we need to get the belief and practice of appreciation so deeply rooted into our organizational culture that when someone steps on a fóidín mearaí, they are able—either on their own or with quick, caring help from their colleagues—to turn their coat inside out before bad things begin to happen. The challenge though, is not the idea of active appreciation; it’s the implementation. As Assata Shakur, who’s not from Ireland either, says, “Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory. The two have to go together.”

There are a whole host of practices that we have been teaching and using for many years now that help us to be ready to handle the sort of suddenly difficult moments of the sort Zach found himself in the other day. Over time, they become the kind of unconscious routines that have helped so many people here to stay grounded in gratitude and actively appreciative even—or maybe, especially—under pressure. Here are three: 

Appreciations. I wrote a bunch about this last week. Acting on what I learned from my friend Lex Alexander, we end every meeting with a few minutes of people sharing Appreciations of whomever and whatever they like. No one is required to share, but many people do. It’s a small ritual that, practiced regularly here over the last thirty years, has had an enormous impact.

Practice SBA. This stands for “Stop, Breathe, Appreciate.” I made it up years ago to help keep myself from messing up. I didn’t yet know about the fairies when I began, but to this day, when I feel my energy going down, and my mental space turning sour, I simply stop what I’m doing. I take a deep, mindful breath. And then I go find someone around me to appreciate. In under sixty seconds, it will swing my day around. I’ve done it thousands of times by now, and it’s never failed me. Many folks in the ZCoB now use it too.

Three and Out. This is a bit more involved than SBA, but can still be done in a matter of minutes. I described it in Part 3, Secret # 31, “Managing Ourselves”:
When I feel my energy sliding into the negative realm, I find someone around me—whether in person, on the phone, or via email, and I thank them. Sincerely. For something that they’ve done that I honestly do appreciate. I always get back positive energy. Then I immediately find someone else and do it again. Bingo. I get back more positive energy. Within a matter of minutes, I repeat my act of appreciation a third time. Voilà! More positive energy comes my way. … In the face of all that positivity, I simply cannot stay in a bad mood. The smiles, the warmth, and the wealth of good feeling that others give me for having unexpectedly appreciated them always turns my day around. And if my mood gets better, consider the impact on the rest of our organization.

These three practices—Appreciations, SBA, and Three and Out—are only a small part of making a culture of appreciation an effective reality. The more we use them, the more appreciative our culture becomes, the more effectively we can approach every day from a place of gratitude. Practice, as a wise woman at ZingTrain taught me years ago, doesn't make perfect, but it does make permanent. And when the pressure is on, should you step on a fóidín mearaí, when the fairies start to screw with you, or you simply feel frustrated and angry, you can then have the presence of mind to do the right thing instead of being catapulted into a state of all-too-common-but-never-productive, ineffective, leadership presence. Instead of acting out, we appreciate. Manchán, writing about the power of turning one’s coat inside out when in crisis, shares:

It’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz clicking her heels to get back to Kansas: she could have done it at any time, but it’s about coming to the realisation that you have the power to do so—that we have the ability within ourselves to steer ourselves out of difficult situations and find the way home. 

Home” is, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the metaphorical feeling I’ve been imagining as how we would ideally want people who work here and shop here to feel. From this alternative angle, things look a lot different. Appreciation, in this context, sure starts to look like a more important strategic tool that we can all put to work. Appreciations lead us back home—to the safe, grounded, centered, positive place that our business can be.

For context, not every stressful situation in the ZCoB gets handled as well as Zach did with the one I’ve written about above. It’s not easy to do. I doubt I would have done it remotely as well as he did when we first opened back in 1982. And Zach will probably be the first to tell you that even a few years ago, he would not have had the presence of mind to do what he did last week. For most of us—certainly for me—it may take years to internalize this work effectively.

I was reminded of this recently when I also witnessed what can happen when someone new to our organizational culture—someone who’s smart and means well but has not yet been fully immersed in the culture—unintentionally did the opposite of what Zach did. The new ZCoBber has totally bought into what we do intellectually, but the practice of the programs and processes is, of course, still very new to them. Under pressure, our new colleague reverted—despite the best of intentions–to getting into a bit of a tiff with a guest, rather than appreciating the customer’s patience while we sorted things out. To be clear, by mainstream standards what went wrong in this situation was still mild; all has been made right, and what went slightly astray turned into a teaching moment. The story reminded me though that being able to “turn one’s coat inside out” under pressure is conceptually easy to understand, but nearly always difficult to actually do. And, by the way, I’m confident that this new ZCoBber will go on to be great at this work! It just takes time and practice (and maybe a nod or two from a few of the fairies).

All of this work on active appreciation may seem irrelevant when the news is filled with stuff about tense political struggles and terrible violence, but it’s clear to me that it can help. I appreciate Manchán for all the work that went into his book. I appreciate Zach for having the presence of mind and illustrating the shift that happens if one can remember to turn their coat inside out when the fairies are turning things topsy-turvy. I appreciate you for reading this and making all this possible. And all of the partners, managers, staff, and customers from whom I continue to learn how to better do this work.

Manchán writes that what’s unusual about Ireland’s past is that “the superiority of history over legend was never established, nor was there a clear line drawn between them.” He says,

Modern historical accounts make for a neat story and are an easy way to digest reality, but they are not complete. They are an arrangement of carefully selected facts and subjective interpretations made to fit tidily into each other. Think of them as a handy and practical façade, but don’t be hoodwinked into believing that they represent anything more than that.

Myths aren’t a complete account either, of course, but as a form of interface with existence, they are closer to the truth. … On our journey through myth and landscape, you’ll find yourself entering a maze in which physical reality warps and winds back on itself with different themes and locations melding and dividing, seemingly on a whim.  

Most businesses shape their stories along the lines of the “modern historical accounts” Manchán has mentioned—they highlight sales numbers, growth strategies, market dominance, maybe a few good learnings from mistakes, and the brilliant business decisions of CEOs. While finance is prominently featured; myths like this one about Zach and the metaphorical fóidín mearaí are rarely noticed, let alone actively shared. 

In fact, in the context of the story I’m telling here, they are, I realize, the organizational equivalent of “fairy tales.” I would suggest that if we want to shift the narrative of what makes a great organization, these are the stories we want to be telling. As I wrote a few months ago about my Irish friend Gareth Higgins, the stories we choose to share—and how we decide to tell them—have a huge impact on our culture. My hope is that we can create a Zingerman’s Community in which sales numbers still matter, but so too do impactful, no matter how small, acts of appreciation like Zach’s last week. That in a few hundred years, when some historically-oriented storyteller like Manchán is writing something about Zingerman’s, the significance of these sorts of stories—our fairy tales—will be embraced and communicated in our culture more than ever. Because, as Manchán reminds us, “There’s goodness, there’s knowledge, there’s wisdom in these old practices ... there’s nourishment for the soul and for the body.” And, I will add, for good business.

For more on managing ourselves

P.S. Want to learn more about appreciative culture? Come to ZingTrain’s Intentional Leadership Symposium. It’s on Wednesday, December 7 on Zoom. ZingTrain offered a special discount if you get this enews: use the code ARI20 to get 20% off. 

P.P.S. Appreciations and a whole lot more will be covered in ZingTrain’s Managing Ourselves seminar on December 5 and 6!

an image of a castle-like building in Andalucia, Spain with mountains in the background

A Super Fine Food Tour
to Southern Spain

“Andalucia, when can we see you?”
The answer is in September 2023

One of my favorite songs of all time is John Cale’s “Andalucia.” Cale, who will turn 80 this coming March, is a classically-trained, avant-garde musician who went on to play bass, viola, guitar, piano, and organ in the anything-but-classical Velvet Underground. When the band broke up, Cale started a solo career as a musician and producer, as well as becoming a contributor to a host of other musicians’ work. He played on Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter, and also produced Patti Smith’s first album, Horses. Although I like all of Cale’s solo work, I have a particular affection for Paris 1919. The album, which came out in 1973 (it will be 50 years this coming February), featured members of the band Little Feat and the UCLA Student Symphony Orchestra. Every song on the record is really good, but “Andalucia,” the fourth cut, remains my favorite. The first line is the lead-in for the wonderful, world-class Food Tour that this piece is actually about. 

Andalucia when can I see you?

“Andalucia,” the song, is a delicate and gentle piece, both lovely and lush. The feeling it gives me is what I imagine it will be like to walk through the lush late-autumn week when our annual trip to the region commences on September 30 of next year. Andalucia, the region, is one of the most magical places I’ve been, filled to the brim with great food, wonderful wine, rich culture, and fascinating history. 

There are a thousand good reasons, in addition to my affection for John Cale’s song, to go to Andalucia next fall with Zingerman's Food Tours. One is that you’ll get to travel with John Cancilla and his amazing wife, Ana. John has worked for decades with Marqués de Valdueza, our long-time olive oil (and vinegar and honey) supplier in western Spain. He’s originally from Los Angeles, spent his junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem (as I also did), and ended up finding what might well be a dream job working with the Valdueza family. John is one of the smartest, funniest, and all-around kindest food people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Ana’s exceptional network of friends produce some of the most precious gastronomic treasures one can find on the Iberian Peninsula. Between Zingerman’s Food Tours guide (and long-time IT Director) Elph Morgan, John, and Ana, you are guaranteed to eat well, drink incredible wine, see beautiful scenery, laugh a lot, and learn some of the very special history of the region. You’ll be invited far off the beaten track to hidden places even very few Spaniards are likely to know. John says,

This trip is all about the local gastronomy, but it’s also about the local economy, the social structure of Southern Spain, the role of women in agriculture, and the Jewish and Arab legacies in the Andalusian kitchen. All of this was planned with very close friends who have done their best to help us show the hidden face of Andalusian gastronomy and experience Spain off the beaten track.

The tour itself will spend a lot of time exploring the gastronomic world that sprang up in Andalusia, drawing on the springs that include the Roman, Arab, Jewish, and Christian kitchens that flow in the region after centuries of conquest, domination, and not-always-so-peaceful cohabitation. We will visit Sherry wineries and enjoy professional tasting for what amounts to a Master Class in the region’s wine. We will also learn about certain aspects of Andalusia’s unique, local food production with visits to a Retinto beef producer, a seawater-based vegetable producer, the remains of the original Roman fish conserves and garum factories, and a superb, Iberian ham producer in Jabugo. Also, tuna is king on the Mediterranean coast of Andalusia and we will learn about the
ronqueo, or the carving of a tuna, in the hands of an expert chef in Barbate.

The hotels are great, too: Las Casas de la Judería in Seville is a hotel created in the old Jewish quarter of the city, in actual houses of the former Jewish residents. The streets, patios, and gardens of the quarter have been maintained, and staying at La Judería is really like flying back in time to experience life in what was one of Spain’s most vibrant Jewish quarters. The other hotel, in Jerez de la Frontera, is a five-star deluxe–it’s pure elegance and exquisite service. Our guests are going to love it!

Add in some long walks, great talks, terrific tapas, and a healthy dose of history, and this is a seriously awesome opportunity for a literally once-in-a-lifetime culinary travel opportunity! 

Cale’s “Andalucia” is a song of unrequited love. In the lyrics, his unnamed lover chooses not to meet up with him. I have a feeling she might still be kicking herself all these years later for missing out on a special opportunity. The Food Tours are much the same. If you’re game for an exceptional week of eating, drinking, learning, loving, and laughing, book your spot today! It’s hard to convey the quality of connections and camaraderie that come together on one of these tours. Kristie Brablec, managing partner at Zingerman's Food Tours says, “We find special humans doing really amazing things. It’s connecting people, and when you break bread with people, you have opportunities to grow tight bonds. It’s pretty special.”

Book now to get someone you love one of the most special gifts they’ll ever get!

See Andalucia for yourself

P.S. Just for fun (and maybe to earn the favor of any Andalucian fairies), if you sign up for this tour in the next few weeks, let me know and I’ll send you a bottle of the Marqués de Valdueza olive oil as a gift to get you thinking ahead to this terrific trip.

P.P.S. If you want a bit more music to listen to while you consider coming on this world-class Food Tour, Yo La Tengo (in 1990) and Andrew Bird (in 2020) both did terrific cover versions of Cale’s classic song.

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a chocolate croissant on a plate on a marble surface with a partial view of a cup of coffee

Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Croissants from the Bakehouse

Now with French Broad Chocolate from Nicaragua

Looking for a lovely taste of the 10th Arrondissement without having to fly to Paris? The chocolate croissants from the Bakehouse could be just the ticket. They’ve always been good and a few months ago we made the same quality upgrade we did on the Chocolate Cherry bread back in May. They now have the Nicaragua bean-to-bar dark chocolate from the folks at French Broad Chocolate in them as well. What has been good for the last thirty years got markedly better overnight!

I realized the other day that we have done next to nothing over the last thirty years to promote our croissants. And yet, Amy from the Bakehouse was telling me, they have quietly grown into one of our top sellers. The world is sending me a message—we would do well to more actively appreciate the complex flavors and craftwork that goes into each croissant. The “plain” Butter Croissants, the Juliette’s Almond Croissants, and these super tasty classic Chocolate Croissants as well. 

In the best possible way, the Chocolate Croissants are one of the richest ways to enjoy the classic combination of bread and chocolate. As Patricia Wells once wrote: “Croissant-like pain au chocolat was the preferred after-school snack for the more bourgeois Parisians.” Unlike so many other morning pastries, the Chocolate Croissants are really not sweet. Buttery, rich, and wonderfully tasty. Full-flavored bread and dark chocolate come together in the best possible way.

One thing I’ll warn you about is that they are, I say smiling, almost impossible to eat without making a mess. A good croissant, I learned years ago, should “shatter” when you bite into it. (If it doesn’t, the croissant is too doughy.) You could, I suppose, go at them with a knife and fork, and napkin tucked into the collar of your shirt, but that sort of takes the fun out of the eating experience. My vote is just to take a good look, appreciate the craft work of the pastry crew who carefully laminated the croissant dough, hand-placed the duo of dark chocolate batons side by side in the center, get grounded, and then take a nice big, appreciative bite. I’ve come to believe that eating a pain au chocolat like this is best approached as you would a great burger—accept up front that it’s going to be a bit messy. And marvelously delicious. Buttery, rich croissant dough and dark (and not very sweet) bean-to-bar chocolate are an amazing combination. Complex and beautifully balanced as the butter, chocolate, and wheat, come together with just enough salt to bring out the flavors of the other ingredients. The finish I will add, as I appreciate it right now ten minutes after my last bite, is lovely, with lots of surprisingly wonderful low notes from the dark chocolate.

How good are they? Because I like to have what I’m writing about on hand when I’m describing it I picked one up to work on this piece. I figured I’d eat one bite, maybe two. Fifteen minutes (and just as many napkins—it’s hard to type with chocolate all over your fingers) it was almost gone! The Chocolate Croissants pair up beautifully with the 2022 Holiday Blend I wrote about last week. If you like chocolate and orange (those dark chocolate-covered orange slices we have from Dubai are delicious) put some great orange marmalade in! Or if you want to create an in-the-moment version of chocolate-covered strawberries, add on a spoonful of the amazing American Spoon Early Glow Strawberry Preserves

Swing by the Bakehouse, Deli, or Roadhouse and enjoy the flaky all-butter croissant dough wrapped around this carefully crafted dark chocolate. The famous 20th-century French singer Charles Aznavour said it best: “like a gift from heaven, exquisite delicacies, the little pains au chocolat …”

Learn how to make them

P.S. If you do want to fly to Paris, we’ve got you covered with a Food Tour, there too. 

P.P.S. The Bakehouse is also making pretty tasty Prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano croissants too!

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a large portion of a wheel of Swiss Alpkäse cheese on Zingerman's Deli-branded paper

Rare Mountain Cheese from Eastern Switzerland

Appreciating the beauty of traditional Swiss Alpkäse from Berglialp

I’ve been working on a new pamphlet that will be entitled, “A Taste of Zingerman’s Food Philosophy: Forty Years of Mindful Cooking and Eating.” This limited-availability cheese from the Alps is the sort of food that fits into philosophy beautifully—full-flavored, traditional, little-known, but lovely to eat. It’s the sort of food that we love, but one that you would never come across in the mainstream food world. The Berglialp Alpkäse is a product that helps keep its local community alive, a cheese that encourages all of us (including me) to take in the amazingness that can be created in the natural world. 

The Alpkäse (which, yes, simply means “Alp cheese” in Swiss German) from the Berglialp is one of four exceptionally rare Swiss selections we have this year as per our now our 7th year working with the Adopt an Alp program that friend and importer Caroline Hostettler had the wisdom to start back in 2015. While most Americans have been led by the mass market to believe that there is a singular “Swiss cheese,” or at best maybe two—Emmental and Gruyere—the truth is that Switzerland has hundreds of local cheeses. In the spirit of the French term terroir (the influence of the soil and ecosystem on what comes from it) each Alp has traditionally had its own distinctive cheese. The Adopt an Alp (I appreciate the alliteration a lot) makes it possible for the cheesemakers to thrive by guaranteeing them the sale of their very special cheeses. Since the cheese isn’t sold for a year after it’s been made, Adopt an Alp lets the makers stay true to their craft, without having to worry about whether or not they’ll be able to pay their bills in the interim. 

This particular cheese comes from Berglialp (which basically means “mountain village”) on the eastern end of the country, near the border with Austria. It’s made by Heinrich and Ursi Marti-Kramer at 5300 feet of altitude (that’s just over a mile up in the air!), near the village of Elm in Canton Glarus. They make the cheese on-site in two different huts which can only be reached by foot. The family has managed the mountain since 1903, a year after the Deli’s building was built here in Ann Arbor. As with all of the Adopt an Alp cheeses we get (and as with all of what are known in French as “alpage”) cheeses, the herd of a hundred-plus cattle is walked up to the top of the mountain in June and then back down to the valleys again in the early autumn. The milk produced when the cows are grazing on the unplowed meadows that high up is especially excellent. The diverse diet (there are dozens of different wild herbs and grasses growing) increases the complexity of the flavor which makes it possible to craft better cheese! 


The newly made cheeses spend a day in a salt bath immediately after being pressed, then are rubbed with a bacteria (good ones)-laced salt brine for the next two. The cheese is matured on wood boards and turned regularly for months. What we have now on hand is from the summer of 2021 so it’s now about 15 months old. The finished flavor is big, sturdy, significant with wonderful earthiness, a meatiness that reminds me a bit of long-cured mountain ham, and a nice nose. Great as is, of course (really recommend it at room temperature to taste the full flavor), for fondue, or a sandwich. Very good with a bit of butter on a slice of the Vollkornbrot, Dinklbrot, or Country Miche from the Bakehouse, or on the killer Potter’s Crackers we have at the Cream Top Shop. A rare and really tasty treat from a serious side trip to one of the most scenic routes one can find in Central Europe.

Help yourself to some Alpkäse
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close up of pâte de fruit in a gift box

Pâte de Fruit
from François Doucet
in Provence

Traditional fruit confectionary
from the south of France

I remember as a kid each year at Passover my mother would serve up candy “jellies” shaped like orange slices. They were cute, mostly sweet, and perfectly fine but hardly anything of interest to anyone whose focus is on artisan food. By contrast, I think it was about twenty-five years ago at a Fancy Food Show in New York when I tasted the proper French version of “fruit jellies.” Wow. They were a whole ’nother world. It was much the same kind of contrast you’ll find if you compare supermarket strawberry jam to the American Spoon Early Glow Strawberry jam (still one of my favorites, forty years after I first tried it). More—and much better—fruit combined with enormous care in the craftwork that goes into them, means that these Pâte de Fruit are a really fine way to brighten a dark December day or end a meal with just the smallest bit of a delicate fruity bite. 

The first time I tasted real French Pâte de Fruit, they were made by a craft producer from Provence by the name of Monsieur François Doucet. He took great delight in explaining the humor of his name when you translated it from French into English—“I am ‘Mister Sweetie,’” he told me, smiling, about eight times in ten minutes. It is a pretty good name for a confectioner, and the name is fitting as much for his gentle, friendly nature as well as for his profession. M. Doucet bootstrapped the business in 1969, but his family's roots in regional confectionery actually go back to his great-grandfather, Théodore Vieillard who is credited with creating the “modern” style of Pâte de Fruit in the 19th century.

Confectionery of this sort dates back over a thousand years; about five hundred years ago, it became famous in the French region of Auvergne. Although eating them couldn’t be easier, Pâtes de Fruit are not easy to make. High-quality fruit has to be grown, hand-harvested, and carefully selected to be sure it's at just the right stage of ripeness to get the proper level of sweetness. Fruit purées are slowly cooked down, gelled, cooled, cut into squares, and then coated in a lightly crunchy layer of coarse sugar. 

In their heyday, it’s said that Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire were big fans of Pâte de Fruit. In case you missed it, a year ago, Food & Wine declared: “It's the Year of Pâte de Fruit. The pretty, old-school candy is suddenly cool.” While the headline made me laugh, the truth is that Pâte de Fruit has been super-tasty for ten centuries! You get the crunch of the sugar (like a sugar cookie sort of) on the outside, then the tart-sweet, gently chewy fruit paste on the inside. The folks at Doucet do a range of wonderful flavors. The pear is my favorite, but I love the apricot, the plum and the raspberry as well. Don’t miss the Provençal lavender honey Pâte de Fruit—an exceptional eating experience I’ve never had elsewhere. All of them make a great snack and a lovely little bit of dessert. Wonderful with cheese, tea, or any time you need a little culinary sunshine to brighten your day!

Pâte that's anything but passé

Other Things on My Mind
 

Listening

Wendy Eisenberg makes some wonderful music that weaves together jazz and folk into something really special. Intellectually and emotionally engaging and hard to stop listening to. Her work reminds me a bit of the music of one of my favorite bands from many decades ago, Henry Cow. They were one of the first bands signed to Virgin Records back in the early 70s when hardly anyone had ever heard of Richard Branson. The music was, and still is, an edgy, unique coming together of jazz, folk, rock, and insightful lyrics that challenge mainstream politics in a poetic way. 

Thinking more about the Velvet Underground, if you haven’t listened to the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” lately (or ever), check it out. It might brighten your day as much as it does mine.
 

Reading

Just about to get going on Wendell Berry’s new The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice.

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