Desperately seeking bulgur wheat and cocoa

Bit of a gripe, bit of a rant … I was after bulgur wheat and cocoa powder. Not for the same dish, I hasten to add. I thought both would be relatively easy to find in one or other of my two local supermarkets. I was wrong. Totally wrong. Neither had any bulgur, let alone a choice of fine or coarse. They had pre-mixed combinations of grains, gluten-free this and that, packets of seeds, quinoa, flavoured cereals and rows of so-called health bars—but no bulgur. Yet bulgur is a staple of Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, used in salads, stuffed into capsicums, made into pilaf, and much more.

It was the same story with cocoa. A pantry essential for anyone who bakes. On the shelves six, seven, eight varieties of drinking chocolate—whose main ingredient was sugar—but 100% cocoa powder was nowhere to be found.

I live in Pyrmont on the western edge of downtown Sydney. An area of about one square kilometre it is one of, if not the, most densely populated suburb in Australia. We have two supermarkets: Coles and a Woolworths Metro. Until recently we had an excellent IGA supermarket that as well as the big brands, also carried lines from smaller and independent producers. The Woolworth’s Metro that’s replaced the IGA is, to be blunt, a pretty crappy supermarket. Heavy on instant salads and ready-meals and low on single ingredient foods.

As I stood in the supermarket aisle, I realised that the kind of shop I wanted was one that no longer seems to exist. Wholefood stores and food co-ops with their sacks of loose beans and chick peas, lentils, buckwheat flour weighed to order, organic sultanas and unadulterated peanut butter, have gone. In their place shops selling canisters of vitamin supplements and protein powders.

Kurdish style pilaf with tomatoes, thyme and capsicum

A lot of what’s marketed as health food is heavily processed. Vegan ‘meat’ is an obvious example, but check the fine print on the back of products in the ‘health’ sections of supermarkets and see what that low-calorie, no added sugar snack actually contains. There’s a great article about the rise and rise of ultra-processed food in The Guardian: How Ultra-processed Food Took Over Your Shopping Basket by by culinary journalist Bee Wilson. Highly recommended.

‘Ultra-processed foods (or UPF) now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. UPFs are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed—and on sale in supermarkets everywhere.’

BTW I did eventually obtain both products. I ordered Dutch cocoa powder online and bought bulgur wheat from Harris Farm in the nearby Broadway shopping centre. I wanted the cocoa for chocolate and almond ricotta to accompany poached pears, and the bulgur for a Kurdish pilaf with tomatoes—a recipe I picked up forever ago from an anthropologist friend who’d done fieldwork in eastern Turkey.

Sustainable seafood—my correspondence with Coles

Although I prefer to buy my fish fresh, I do like to have some backup options in the freezer. With this in mind I bought a 1 kg pack of Coles Southern Blue Whiting Fillets in early June. I did the usual checks:

Certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—tick.
Wild caught—tick.
From New Zealand—tick.

One bit of small print I didn’t notice until I got my shopping home was ‘Packed in China’. So on 7 June I wrote a ‘please explain’ letter to Coles Customer Care:

So, the fish is caught in New Zealand waters, sent to China where it is packed and then returned to Australia to be sold in your supermarkets. Why isn’t it processed and packed in this part of the world, in either New Zealand or Australia?

While the actual fish may indeed be sustainably sourced, how does transporting it to China and back constitute an environmentally sustainable practice?

A fortnight later I received this reply.

Coles responded to questions I hadn’t asked—about the quality standards of their supplier’s facility in China—while ignoring the questions I did ask. So I wrote another letter on 24 June asking them to address what I was actually asking. How do all the additional and unnecessary air or sea miles involved in transporting the fish to China and back again contribute to environmental sustainability?

A month later I received a reply. Word for word the same letter they had already sent me. Even the date was unaltered.

On 28 July I wrote a third letter. I reiterated my questions. Pointed out that they were (again) supplying information I had not requested. Asked them not to disregard my query, and to please not send me another form letter.

It’s now the middle of December and I have yet to receive any response from Coles to my third missive. I suspect I won’t. All up, a frustrating and totally unsatisfactory exchange. Coles twice ignored my questions and when I persisted, chose to ignore my letter altogether. Doesn’t say much for their customer relations, does it?