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Getting Fresh 

Make freshness and variety the trend in 2006

The holidays is a characteristic time for kids to have complete meltdowns, but the one my son experienced in the dairy aisle of Fresh Market was somewhat surprising. The clerk was trying to explain to him why his favorite glass bottled milk from the small Homestead Creamery in Virginia was no longer being carried at their store. The clerk reasoned that too many people had bought it without realizing that the expiration date arrived sooner than national brand milk. My son rejected this reason and asked why the store hadn't put up a sign to explain that fresh doesn't keep as long as processed. (In truth, Homestead has a 15-day expiration period.)

Although the Fresh Market management has not commented on the reason for discontinuing the Homestead Creamery's products, Homestead Creamery, located in Wirtz, VA, suggested that the returnable bottles ($1.50 deposit) had presented a difficulty for the stores. In any case, my family was pleased to find that Homestead Creamery milk is available for $3.39 per gallon and $2.49 per quart at Earth Fare, an Asheville-based corporation with a store in Charlotte (12235 North Community House Road in Ballantyne) and another on the way. Homestead's old-fashioned, straight from the proverbial farm fresh milk and butter is worth the price -- and the deposit.

But asking why not educate the consumer is a good question. The idea of sellers teaching consumers about freshness reminded me of a conversation I had with Sladjana Novakovic, co-owner with her husband Vlado of Nova's Bakery, when they first opened their bakery more than a decade ago. To her amazement, customers would buy multiple loaves of bread. She had to explain that her breads would not keep a week and that their breads were meant to be consumed straight away. She encouraged them to visit more often.

The idea of daily shopping for groceries is part of an urban lifestyle. Those who live in Charlotte's first and second ring are just beginning to return to that urban culture. Bakeries are beginning to spring up, ethnic markets flourish and even a few fish markets have become regular stops to discerning food buyers. In the far flung bedroom communities of Weddington, Tega Cay and Huntersville, residents are more likely to make the weekly shopping trek to the supermarket, a one-stop-buy-all kind of place. Specialty shops come and go in these areas because they do not have the volume that is necessary to succeed. However, a national -- even global -- wave of consumer sophistication and health awareness is making even those far-flung supermarkets sell more fresh foods with health enhancing qualities.

Additionally, the burgeoning Latino community has resulted in a mushrooming of Latino bakeries. Buying daily breads and pastries is a way of life in these communities. One of my favorite food finds of 2005 was Delicias Colombian Bakery and Restaurant on South Boulevard in Pineville. If you have never tried Colombian food, the unassuming Delicias is a treat. The empanadas are outstanding, while the entrees are enormous and inexpensive; most are under $9. Plus, you can fill a bakery sack with breads, rolls and pastries for five bucks. For freshness at a great price, you can't beat that. Or try one of Charlotte's handful of Salvadorian bakeries. Most of these specialize in pineapple pastries made only better with a fresh cup of South American coffee. The coffee and the pastry will cost less than $3 -- cheaper than a latte at Starbucks.

Central Avenue is Charlotte's Pandora Box -- at least it is for those seeking food adventures. A few weeks ago on my regular scouting of the Asian markets, I brought back purple sweet potatoes (from Oriental Foods, 4816 Central Avenue). From the outside, the tuber has the same misshapen body with tapered ends as the North Carolina prized golden-hued sweet potatoes. But by slicing across the middle, the incision revealed a glorious plum-colored meat, similar in color and texture to the watermelon radish sold at the summer farmers' market. For the past few years, white sweet potatoes, usually the South American boniato, have found their way into the bins of mainstream grocery stores. This white- and sometimes yellow-fleshed variety is drier and not as sweet as its red-skinned orange-hued cousins. This taste profile is also true of the purple, aka Okinawa, sweet potato that has a buttery, nutty and not too sweet taste.

Seeing new fruits and vegetables in the mainstream grocery stores is fantastic. Grocery stores obviously want a larger share of the growing ethnic dollar, but everyone benefits. Not only have diverse produce gone mainstream, some stores such as the Morrocroft Harris Teeter, aka the TajTeeter, now offer more ethnic selections, including a section of British foods, including pickled walnuts and Heinz baked beans (in the blue can). Sharwood sauces (originally made in Victorian England) have made it quite easy to replicate ethnic food dishes at home. Want fast Tikka Malasa? Sharwood's has it in a bottle as well as Korma, Rogan Josh, Jalfrezi, Bhuna and several other Indian sauces -- plus Indonesian Laksa and Peanut Satay and Chinese sauces.

Convenience is sure to continue as a trend, and watching the convergence of healthy eating habits with this development should spawn some interesting offspring. As more people reject yo-yo diets and embrace a healthier lifestyle, the taste and health benefits of food rather than the "I want my money's worth" approach may become the new food economy.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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