Saturday Star - Life Dining - August 11 2007
by Victor Strugo
Friends of distinction
No, this article isn’t about the pop group who did the vocal cover version of the Hugh Masekela’s Grazing in the Grass. It’s about a different kind of golden oldie – one that has been Johannesburg’s grocer of distinction for the past 114 years.
Founded in the city centre in 1892, Thrupps has evolved into a modern world-class store - Because at heart it still feels like a family run store, stocks an unparalleled range of quality local and imported food products, and offers a personalised and knowledgeable service that beats anywhere I’ve shopped in South Africa.
For many years I’ve plundered their bounteous shelves and been consistently satisfied by their many specialist departments – greengrocer, wine boutique, butcher (who always lean pork mince for making proper Bolognese sauce), the recently revamped fishmonger, the bakery with it’s crisp rye and sourdough loaves, and a pastry chef trained at the Carlton Hotel, and the pleasant all-day café.
I am spellbound by it’s range of over 200 global cheeses. Brie, Roquefort, Pont L’Eveque, Port Salut, Savoyard, Saint Paulin, Carre de l’Est, Bresse Bleu… a script come true from Monty Python, minus Mr Wensleydale’s hilarious bouzoukis. Thrupps’ perennial cheeseman Jimmy has now retired, leaving Kenneth at the helm. He too knows his trade, respects customers (knives are painstakingly washed between successive slicing) and still wraps in the traditional paper.
Behind the adjacent counter, Frans has been slicing Black Forest ham, bierwurst loaf, Hungarian and Milano salamis, pressed tongue, stuffed pork belly, turkey pastrami, duck, game and wild boar pates and unadulterated bacon for 25 years. Superclassy items like San Daniele prosciutto cost a mint, as they would anywhere, but there are many wallet-sparing alternatives. But Thrupps isn’t only about top-end stock.
Nowhere is cost-friendliness more evident than in the glaming new hot deli section. Resident chefs Edmund and Mike produce several hundred packaged office meals daily, starting at around R15 a head. The cost is almost industrial but quality (freshness, no preservatives or cosmetic tricks) and hence value are incomparably superior: More elaborate outside catering menus work out to between R25 and R45 per meal and are prepared with an eye on current awareness of glycaemic index, wheat gluten and other common intolerances.
The apex of this food-shopper’s paradise is the gleaming display of the 18 different hot dishes made daily. There are always three roasts, three meat dishes (curries, lasagne, classic oxtail) plus several starches and vegetable dishes.
For our most recent meals, I bought fresh asparagus with grated parmesan, followed by Norwegian salmon fillets and sweet potatoes flavored with orange and raisins. Then Thai green chicken curry with almond basmati rice, manage-tout and mixed brown and exotic mushrooms. As usual, everything tasted home-made, the highest praise one can bestow upon bought food. A good deli should let people eat and cheat. The taste without the haste. Containers are microwavable (useful for the office) but at home nothing beats proper re-heating.
Many shops gush about purported passion. Few, however, go beyond lip service. Thrupps does because it cares, a business strategy that’s as rare nowadays as a drug-free Tour de France cyclist. From the very top and right through the ranks, I have found staff helpful, trustworthy and well informed. Hardly surprising when some 30 employees have jointly clocked the 900 years’ service.
The result is a vibrant food culture that buzzes at weekends with several tasting stalls that introduce discerningly chosen new product ranges. Thrupps is as close as South Africa gets to Harrods of London, Milan’s Peck, Julius Mainl in Vienna and Fauchon in Paris.
That’s refreshingly different from a certain well-known brand that is metastasizing like a cancer on every street corner in South Africa. It seems to me that cunning marketing is conning people into thinking they are getting value as well as convenience in ready meals where I perceive stealthy drop in quality, narrow choice and helpings have shrunk incrementally (and hence deliberately) in tandem with price increases. Am I really the only person who can see this?