NOWFE and Wildgrain

The New Orleans Wine and Food Experience will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year. The event runs from June 7-12, and it kicks off with a gala dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel at which the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement award will be presented to Frank Brigtsen.

A word about Frank: he’s awesome. Brigtsen’s has been one of the gems of the city’s restaurant scene since it opened in 1986, and it’s still going strong. Chef Brigtsen is squarely in the Prudhomme school of cooking. His food is bold, flavorful and you will not leave his restaurant hungry. Frank and his wife Marna are true members of the community – not just the restaurant community but more broadly. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this sort of recognition.

NOWFE is one of the best events New Orleans has going. The wine dinners, which will be held at multiple restaurants on June 8, are a great chance to sample excellent wines and speak with the vintners; several events are on the calendar and the grand tastings (June 10 at 6 p.m. and June 11 at 2 p.m., both at the Sugar Mill) let you taste dishes from dozens of restaurants and wines from scores of producers. It’s an opportunity to interact with chefs and vintners that’s unique in our area.

New Orleans is rightfully known as a mecca for people who love food and drink, and NOWFE has been a big part of that over the last three decades. I’ve served as a judge for the culinary competition over the years, and while I enjoyed that aspect of the event, I think the best way to do it is to get a few friends, buy tickets to the events that interest you and go have fun.

I get unsolicited offers from time to time. Most of them are not things that interest me. In the last 24 hours I have been offered an interview with the designer of a new nursing bra, an interview with the author of a diet book featured on the Dr. Oz show, an interview with the maker of a “rotating dog camera,” a selection of father’s day gifts (with samples on request) that include a puffy jacket and a pillow printed with a family portrait, an interview with the inventor of a device that “supercharges” your tap water and offered a sample of a “topical CBD rub” that I do not think was designed for me.

I tend to ignore most of these, but when I respond, I point out that a) I am a food writer and thus have no real interest in covering a product, book, film or service not related to dining; and b) that while I will certainly accept anything food related someone wants to send me, I won’t necessarily write about it, and I’m not interested in any sort of “affiliate” program whereby I could make money by helping a company sell stuff.

Now and again, however, I am offered something that interests me and the people on the other end are willing to take the risk that I won’t cover whatever it is – or that I will cover it, but it will not be the sort of coverage they want. If you send me something truly awful, I reserve the right to mock you for it.

The latest thing I received was a huge box of frozen bread, pastries and pasta from an outfit called Wildgrain. Short version: it’s really very good stuff.

I would like to reiterate that I received this box for free, but I am otherwise not associated with Wildgrain and neither I nor, to my knowledge, Renaissance Publishing is making a cent from any sales.

Apart from the email I received a few weeks ago, I had no knowledge of Wildgrain. “Did I see something like that in a Whole Foods?” I probably thought. The website has a story about the founders, and their quest for “clean” carbs. That’s cute, and I appreciate well-sourced ingredients, but the truth is, the most important thing to me is how it tastes. I didn’t delve deeply, but it does look like Wildgrain is a company with a conscience, and that they employ small, artisanal bakeries all over the place to produce their stuff. Lagniappe.

These products have very short ingredient lists. That is good, and it does suggest that the folks behind it are serious about the “clean” carbs thing, or at least that they are serious about making good, simple things.

I received a number of products and in the last week have tried all but one of them. I will give you a quick rundown on what I tried and how it was:

A loaf of seeded bread was the first thing I tried. If you like seeded bread (by which I mean bread studded with things like millet, poppy, sesame and pumpkin seeds in a whole wheat dough), you will probably like this. It had a crisp crust and the interior was tender with a bit of chew. We ate the hell out of it, mostly just toasted with butter. I may have drizzled some honey over a slice. I may have also eaten it with apples and cheese. Once I tasted that loaf, I had a pretty good feeling about the rest of the box.

The next thing I tried was a pasta; they call it tonnarelli, but describe it as spaghetti alla chitarra, which is more or less pasta cut into the approximate shape of spaghetti using a tool named after the guitar. Naming conventions aside, this was spaghetti made with semolina flour, water, egg, salt and potato flour for dusting. I have never dropped a mass of frozen pasta into boiling water before. On the few occasions I’ve used it, I’ve always thawed the noodles. I was skeptical, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t good. It had a slight “bite” that almost reminded me of fresh ramen noodles, though I probably undercooked them by a minute or two.  

That same night I made the blueberry biscuits, and they were a hit with my youngest daughter in particular. I had to hide one so that she did not eat them all. No frozen biscuit is going to equal the biscuits my grandmother made, or the biscuits my wife makes every few months, but these were good. They are of the “crumbly” rather than “flaky” variety, which works for something with a hint of sweetness.

Then we tried the croissants. I say “we” tried the croissants, but the truth is I had one of the four that came in the package and my kids had the rest. For mine I made a pressed sandwich with ham and swiss cheese the day after I baked them and I know I have outstanding mustard but it was a good sandwich largely because of the croissant.

What you want from a croissant is flaky pastry and a vague sense that you’re eating too much butter. These delivered. My kids had been fond of the frozen croissants sold at Trader Joe’s, but those require you to leave them out overnight to rise before you bake them. I find Wildgrain’s to be better and like everything else they make, they’re designed to be cooked directly from the freezer.

Today I made the sourdough bread. Sourdough is an acquired taste that many people seem to have acquired during the pandemic. Or more accurately, many people have acquired sourdough starters over the pandemic.

I’ll be honest: I prefer the taste of a good baguette or country loaf to the tartness of sourdough. But sourdough is good for you and this loaf, while tart, wasn’t overwhelming. It fulfilled my desire for any loaf of good bread: crust that’s crisp but not “break a tooth” hard, a fairly open crumb with some chew, and a good flavor. Sometimes sourdough can have a sort of musty flavor/aroma, and while I’ve only had the one loaf, I think the best word for it is a clean sour flavor. Which I say despite the fact that it tracks with their marketing.

I have yet to sample the final product in the massive, well-insulated box Wildgrain sent me: big wide fettucine noodles. Based on my experience with the spaghetti, though, I have no doubt they’ll be good, and this time, at my wife’s insistence, I won’t undercook them.

So the real question is whether all of these good things are priced appropriately. The products I sampled were uniformly excellent. They baked straight from the freezer within the time suggested on the package. Would I put any of the loaves up against something I could get at Gracious Bakery or Bellegarde? Not when I can get that stuff fresh, but with all respect to any local baker, this Wildgrain stuff is very good.

I have baked a lot of bread and my wife is a great baker. Most of what we’ve done has been really good. I’d say 50% of it was better than what I got from Wildgrain. But some of it was about the same and a few times we’ve both messed things up dramatically.

So, if you are the sort of person who bakes bread daily, or if you make fresh pasta more than once a week, this is almost certainly not for you. I have been that person at different times, and I still hoard the gear, but I am no longer that person.

Their model is membership. I’m just going to direct you to their FAQ page, because I’m liable to get something wrong and you’d be better off getting information directly from the source. But as I understand, once you’re a member you pay $89 per box, and you can either receive the box on a monthly basis or, if freezer space is as scant for you as it is for me, you can use their “app” to delay/cancel delivery.

I will say again that I have no affiliation with Wildgrain and apart from three or four emails with a nice person who I think does their PR, I have had no contact with them. I like the stuff, and if you don’t have ready access to excellent bakeries where you live, you should give it a shot. If you don’t like it, you can always cancel (at least according to their FAQ).

I hope everyone is enjoying the warm weather as much as my habanero chile plants are. As always, drop me a line or leave a comment if you have any questions or want to alert me to something.

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