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Romanian gourmet market, a few things worth while

caviar

One has to be a bit mad to go shopping for gourmet products in Bucharest. Not only because it would be easier to avoid the hellish traffic and go directly to Bulgaria for such an enterprise, but it may even prove cheaper to fly to Milan, buy all the spices and salami one needs, and then return to Romania. The market is flooded with anonymous products for outrageous prices.

At a first sight, it seems that all segments of the gourmet market are covered by various importers. And still, although one may find almost any type of product one needs, there is no true competition on the market, with the offer being not at all diversified. As a result, each player is free to impose any price it chooses to practice. It is a luxury segment where prices are still demanded, not earned.

In brief, the main players in Bucharest are Delicateria Traiteur (Eminescu st.), Sapore Toscano (Dorobanti blvd.), Gourmandise Traiteur (Maria Rosetti st.) and the newly opened Arte & Vino (Marasesti Blvd). On the gourmet bakery market, there are only two players – Paul and French Bakery.

On this segment – gourmet bakery – things are unhappily simple. Some 50% of the products sold at Paul’s are made elsewhere and unfrozen on the spot. It all looks nice and freshly baked, but it’s just for the uneducated eye. At least, the clerks have the decency to point at the unfrozen products, when asked.
The quality of Paul’s products is not questionable, but it is nothing to praise either. The éclairs taste a lot like the éclairs made by one’s relatives in Northern Romania and like the éclairs made by Communist hotels before 1989. The “viennoiserie” and croissants have the same common, mass-market taste as everywhere in the world, where Paul operates – Japan, Turkey, Europe or the Middle East. The only difference that the tabloid stars pose at Paul’s in Bucharest and are more than happy to expose themselves taking their breakfast at its central location (Dorobanti Plaza).

The clerks at the French Bakery swear that everything is fresh and manufactured on the same day in a production facility in Bucharest. One may doubt the truth of this statement as soon as one discovers the rubber-like feeling of the bread and rolls. It’s like a whole new gadget for the mastication muscles (it seems it is fashionable these days to have strong jaws). The ingredients of sandwiches are common, available at any hypermarket, but the sandwiches are sold for 2.5 Euros – roughly a good meal on the side of a road in Bulgaria. Cakes are good, fresh and tasty, not very special, but at least don’t cause a muscular fever…

The problem with both Paul and the French Bakery is that the both have become icons of the “new rich”, despite their completely average quality. Both brands added a couple of tables on their sidewalks and people rush to be seen there, although they are on the most crowded streets, with the most hellish traffic, inhaling not air but lead oxides, all in the name of a possible picture in a tabloid…

The main source of discomfort on the gourmet market comes from the outrageous prices in most stores. Very few products are available for a  fair price, except maybe for Arte&Vino, which doesn’t really count, since it opened last week (today was the official opening party). A couple of best-deals designed to attract customers stand along with unacceptably high prices. The good news is that one may find about everything one needs while taking a trip and choosing from each store its best deals.

Thus, there is no reason to buy meat products, ice cream or cheese from Delicateria Traiteur: the quality is similar to those in Carrefour and prices are more than double. Still, the store offer bio apple juice made in Romania, a full line of Saveurs Attitudes bio products (a much better bargain than the offer at the BioGood store) and Michel Clauzel chocolate.

Sapore Toscano is not the place to buy a grappa from… 779 Romanian Lei (some 180 Euros) for a bottle of Grappa di Brunello (and not a barrique one) is way too much. Since the price in Italy is between 18 and  48 Euros, its worth flying to Tuscany and back only to buy two bottles. On the other hand, a precious bit of condimento aromatizato balsamico is just 18.4 RON (4 Euros), a jar of salsa di pomodora ai funghi porcini – 26 RON (6 Euros), while chocolate or marguerita panforte is only 21 RON. Wines are also a bit overprices, but the store is one of the very few sources for a quality Morelino di Scansano, so it’s not to be left aside. A special mention is worth for the Contadi Castaldi Franciacorte sparkling wine, good and fairly prices.

La Gourmandise Traiteur (Maria Rosetti) has, as best deal, Romania’s finest Merlot, Rotenberg (69 RON) and the retail line of the same producer, Menestrel. The bio tagliatelle and farfalloni may be the cheapest in town. The French-made foie gras in not a good bargain, instead the duck salami and smoked breast imported from Hungary (made by Gourland) are quite a deal. Despite a rather high price, this store is one of the very few to offer the top of the line wins from Crama Oprisor – limited editions of Fragmentarium  (400 cases), Passarowitz (1718 magnum bottles) and Erotikon (3000 bottles under each of the three erotic art labels).

From Arte&Vino, anyone may buy the truffles & mushroom jars (23 RON), melted cheese with truffles, extremely diverse pasta (with Castemagno cheese; chocolate; cranberries and Brabaresco wine; chocolate and oranges; basilico; coffee; peperoncino, pomodoro, red berries and Barolo wine and so on) for 19 RON.
In the specialized section, there are two wines standing out for the public: an exceptional Trebbiano Toscano with Chardonnay, “Bianco del Beato”, for 30 RON and a 2004 Brunello di Montalcino Col D’Orcia, 2004, graded by Wine Advocate with 92 points, for only 120 RON. Extremely expensive – but, then again, extremely rare – are the Biondi Santi collection of Brunellos.

Comtesse du Barry, beyond the overpriced champagne, has rather good offers for Iranian caviar, top quality foie gras and jamon. The old store on Campineanu st. was closed and the new address is on the Episcopiei St.

In all – one may be robbed or made happy in a Bucharest gourmet store. The hope for better days is closely related to the certitude that competition will intensify in time, the average rent per square meter will eventually decrease (this being one of the main reasons for high prices) and, at one point, clients will be more difficult to fool, after learning the difference between “quality” and “luxury” gourmet.
Radu Rizea

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