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The rise of the Jozi super-deli

The rise of the Jozi super-deli
It’s easy to recognise as a deli. You walk in and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. (Photo: Adi Cohen)

When David Higgs opened The Pantry, a new Jozi culture was born. Something like a deli crossed with a posh grocery. Welcome to the Joburg super-deli.

I can’t remember when anyone last used the word “delicatessen”. It even seems slightly prissy, like when people say ‘tiss-ew’ for tissue. A delicatessen would probably sell little buckwheat blini with a teensy salmon piece, some sour cream and real caviar pearls atop. Maybe they’d also sell bridge-food-size chicken truffle sandwiches with the crusts cut off. They’d almost certainly sell glass bottles of jammy pickled cucumber relishes and have on display glazed French fruit tartlets with frangipani cream.

A deli, on the other hand, seems more no-nonsense, with a counter and choices of cut cheeses, cold cut meats, Dijon-style mustards, Italian salad in tubs and perhaps some flatbreads or crunchy homemade almond biscuits. The deli is the thing we all understand and know. Sometimes someone at a deli will make us a panino from their wares, wrapped in a greaseproof paper sheet.

The Pantry is hardly a little deli, if it is even a deli. It sells the same things as a ‘normal’ deli but a lot else. Photo: Supplied

In Jozi are the forerunners of something else, what we could call the super-deli.

Pantry by Marble, or what we locals just call The Pantry, probably started it all.

David Higgs, chef and partner in the Marble restaurant and group, which includes Pantry, says it’s not big enough to be called something like a super-deli. I don’t agree, even if size is the issue. It’s 1,000 square metres, for heavens’ sake, although it manages to feel intimate because of the friendly atmosphere and people working here. The Pantry is hardly a little deli, if it is even a deli. It sells the same things as a ‘normal’ deli but a lot else. Do delis have long queues of people chattily waiting for their Donuts at one sharp on Wednesdays? These are what I call Helluva doughnuts and the toppings, yes doughnut toppings, change every week. Do delis sell petrol? 

Why not? It’s the question and the answer at the Pantry. Shall we sell Soft Serve through a window onto the forecourt? Why not? Maybe we should serve croissants from our bakery on the premises, filled with the Soft Serve? Sure, why not? But only on Friday and weekend afternoons.

Wednesday’s one-o’clock Donuts with toppings that change every week at Pantry by Marble. (Photo: Supplied)

David and I debate what a super-deli could be. Does it verge on the supermarket or is it super-sized? Or maybe it’s super-duper, I say, a bit fancy? The pay-off line for the Pantry is ‘Fancy but Easy’. Real chefs, apart from David Higgs, also create the food, advising shoppers on food created and the food they can create with the ingredients bought. You can watch the bread loaves and buns coming out of the oven, baked on the premises. Madly popular are the made-for-today and grab-and-go sections. The food is very professional indeed, though the concepts are fairly simple, like bowls and burgers, even pizzas baked before you.

When it first opened, if you ordered a coffee and let’s say a pastry at The Pantry it was a bit of a problem consuming them there, finding a chair and maybe a table. I had the idea I should be consuming the things in the car. Now people easily gather here to eat their lunches and snacks, for all kinds of the foods available.

“We even offer hospitality!” laughs David. And yes, The Pantry has become a gathering place for early bikers, school mums, housewives, after-work punters, and this is not necessarily so much because of deli content than because of vibe. We agree it’s not like a Woolies’ food section. Some of the stuff in the central section of The Pantry may be similar, like cheeses and cold meats, greengroceries, baked goods, frozen foods, tinned goods, and bottled goods. But the whole way of shopping and being here is comfortingly different.

A friend who travelled to a meeting recently near an area called Sonneskyn, somewhere in Jozi she’d never heard of and struggled to find, said she’d felt disturbingly strange in the unfamiliar spot, like an alien in her own city. Afterwards, she got straight onto Jan Smuts and drove directly to The Pantry “as relief”, marched over to the barista, had an immediate iced latte with a contented sigh, and bought a rye sourdough loaf and bottled chives before going to her own ‘hood, which is not really nearby. I was especially impressed by the bottled chives. I didn’t know such a wonder existed.

Madly popular are the made-for-today and grab-and-go sections. The food is very cheffy indeed. (Photo: Supplied)

The website says the Pantry is “a hybrid model of a petrol station, supermarket, deli, takeaway and retail store”. I reckon this is a destination super-deli then. Though, like a delicatessen, you can get caviar and snails.

After the Pantry’s opening in early 2022, when I chanced on David Higgs behind the counter at that already mentioned busy and bountiful grab-and-go section, he’d said, “This is right in The Parks; these people don’t cook their own meals.”

I knew what he meant. The surrounding suburbs featured women runners in patterned lycra and swingy ponytails, whose dogs back home got their exercise from being walked by the gardeners. The Parks’ ponytails still exist, also buying By Word Of Mouth frozen meals in Parkview at Tyrone Fruiterers, which is not just a fruiterer any more but a food supply shop for the particular. But it’s still not what I’d call a deli or a super-deli.

I would apply that description to Cremalat Hyde Park, however. It’s not as big as The Pantry but, my heavens, it’s stuffed and stocked to the ceiling. There’s that super inter-relationship between the person behind the counter and the buyer, the slicing of the cheeses, the meats, the ordering from the dishes of olives, artichokes, mushrooms, peppers and things that you could just turf onto a dish as an antipasto. Maybe with some of the artisanal bread there, prize bread from Linden Loaves.

The same friend that raced to The Pantry for solace is here with me at Cremalat. Adi understands food. It’s the beginning of spring and many of the staff are wearing floral head circlets. The man cutting the cheeses has whisked his off and tied it around his wrist. What’s also good about today, and that I’ve not noticed on previous visits, are tasting platters of various cheeses and bowls of olive-oil-glistened goods laid out inside, with lots and lots of oregano. 

I’m delighted by the wonderful super-deli ‘why not’ idea about things here too. When Adi and I mention how interesting it could be to know how different are the imported and the local (Cremalat) versions of cheeses. Phillip Mitchell, the manager, immediately invites us to taste the cheeses. “Why not?” he grins, obviously wanting a well-informed experience for us and knowing he can make it that way. He will shortly turn out to be the most interesting cheesemonger I’ve met, who is also a pastry chef back home. I just know if I’d asked anything like this of a cheese purveyor in Italy, especially up ‘north’, they’d look me up and down, maybe even telling me “Non è quello che facciamo!”  that it is not done.

We start anyway with excellent Italian coffees, cappuccino at a little past nine in the morning, sitting at metal café tables, painted in dolce vita colours, on the pavement. The flaky fingers of puffed sweetish pastry accompanying the coffees have me nostalgic, reaching back in my memory for others in another context, maybe during the time I spent wandering around Italy. I’m smiling at an almost-memory.

Yes, this Cremalat in Hyde Park is easy to recognise as a deli. You walk in and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on but it’s super in size, breadth of products and quality. The owner, not at Hyde Park today, calls it a speciality deli with a coffee shop. It’s really super-special. 

There’s a huge manufacturing Cremalat dairy at Elandsfontein and then a deli and restaurant, bigger than this, at Bedfordview but for the unique qualities here this Hyde Park one-year-old place seems to have the super status. People flock in here, leaving with large packets, even though the place is actually behind a little centre called Hyde Square. The front of the centre is easy to spot by Glenda’s restaurant.

From where we are on the pavement, Adi and I watch mostly men approaching the Cremalat window on the pavement where Grace Ngwenya makes three different sturdy kinds of panini. Adi’s immediately very hungry. I try to be sensible and suggest we wait till we’ve tasted the cheeses though my tummy’s yowling for a panino too.

The Cremalat window on the pavement where Grace Ngwenya makes three different kinds of panini. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Phillip hands us knife tips of cheese so that we can compare a mature Fontina and a local one. Interestingly, we seem to agree that the local Asiago is even more delicious than the imported one, though it’s really the differences and not the superiority we’re tasting for. 

A visual difference is that the local one is slightly holey whereas the Italian model is solid. We try the Dutch and the local Goudas and then a marvellous local Emmental, a hugely appreciated cheese here, judging by the orders I’m hearing for it next to us where a crowd of buyers don’t queue so much as converse and nudge each other forward in a friendly fashion. 

Eventually, Phillip is overwhelmed by clamourers and we break our educative experience for coffee. Putting all chances of panini eating to an end, Adi and I each share a saucer-size cheesecake and a magnificent apple and almond tart. We have more of the house import Goriziana coffee. The gold is the purely arabica one, the red a blend of arabica and robusta, the blue pure robusta, we discover. I’ve found Italians aren’t as afraid as we are of enjoying robusta in their great blends. 

We loiter inside, where, not for the ready-sated, there’s even a biscuit-tasting section, where we go through the fabulous range of imported and a few local meats and salamis. We find really, really good pastas, something we don’t often get around my parts, Casa Rinaldi, dusky with real durum, organic pastas, also Rustichella from Abruzzo in middle Italy. No wonder the parcels are so big when shoppers leave.

Margaret Giustizieri’s mother, Michelina de Feo of Campagna, Italy passed her good recipes on, like the best of mammas. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

All the many attractively matching Mamma Michelina jars and even cans, I see now, carry the story of owner Margaret Giustizieri’s mother, Michelina de Feo of the fertile Campagna area of Italy, who passed her good recipes on. It resulted in this incredibly huge and successful range of just about everything tomato, olive, artichoke. I forget to tell Adi I saw jars of grilled onions, something else I’ve never seen. 

Suddenly we’re back with Phillip. We even taste through the ageings, some cheeses having three different ages and tastes. From the three pecorinos all made with sheep’s milk, Philip has us taste the pecorino pepito with organic honey. It’s a habit I think I could acquire. Eventually, after about 40 cheeses, Philip says, “You’ve tasted about half our cheeses. Is there anything else you’d especially love?” 

It’s easy to lose one’s heart to a cheese. Cremalat win awards for their local Gorgonzola and their ‘drunken’ pecorino but a Bastardo del Grappa is the cheese I most want to go home with, probably because Phillip told us that the bastardo part is because it’s made from a mixture of milks, in this case, cows’ and goats’. Sometimes there can be three milks in a cheese, when sheep’s milk is included, but not in this bastardo. I couldn’t taste any grappa in the cheese and that was because there isn’t any. Italian cheeses all take the name of the place, as Phillip said, where they’re made. Grappa is in the Veneto, very close to the area I generally visit.

Unforgettable Phillip. Phillip Mitchell is the major part of what makes this deli so super. (Photo: Adi Cohen)

When I heard about Jozi’s Gemelli restaurant having opened a spot called Pantry, I thought I was onto more of this super-deli business and wondered why they hadn’t called it Deli at Gemelli. They didn’t because it’s neither a pantry nor a deli but a breakfast and cocktails restaurant, attached to the famous restaurant.

For that matter Supersconto in Orange Grove could be a kind of super-deli but it’s really a small supermarket. You can’t engage with the food there unless you go to the restaurant upstairs. Everything is on shelves in aisles.

But the mega of all super-delis must be @Deli by Acsiopolis. It’s run by chef Carolina Rasenti, who I’ve encountered at various good and great restaurants, starting at the Great Eastern Bar in Melville, which she moved to Illovo. I’m always awed by what she does, but this is ridiculous. I can’t make sense of what I’m looking at. It seems to be an airport hangar-sized place, filled with different food sections and, like the pantry, one grocery section, just much, much bigger. 

Chef Carolina Rasenti in casual Friday garb somewhere within her gargantuan @deli. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It leads in from a big plaza, studded with great South African artists’ works. Gazing up from there, you see the @Sandton-Apartments and the matching @hotel. @liquor, also seen from the plaza, is a part of @deli. In one of the apartments is ex-Miss SA and Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi. I know, because she likes to pop down from there to buy the ingredients for her own particular green smoothie and her favoured salmon pasta.

“I don’t get bored here as a chef because there are so many products in so many areas to work on,” says Carolina. I mumble something about the size and Carolina says it hasn’t been open long enough for enough Jozi people to explore and use it, also for people to find it. This last is a very good point. I got to it through the car park of the hotel. Everyone I asked en route knew it though.

“Whatever you want in the food line is here,” says Carolina. “You can come in for great sushi, for baked goods, for freshly pressed juices, for coffees and snacks, for grab-and-go meals, for excellent fresh meats from Impala and their deli-style ones, imported and local cheeses. On Thursdays and Fridays, we have a Harvest Table. So it’s open today and then, on Fridays, we also have a really good quality shisa nyama. There are the drinks, wines and spirits — a huge range and fresh fruit and vegetables. And quite a lot of grocery sorts of things down those end aisles.”

The rest of the place isn’t aisled. It’s “islanded” in attractive ways. We pause at an island of salts from Greece. Another island features truffle gift packs.

Just a small part of the gargantuan @deli. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

“This place caters to people all the way from the top end of society to the economical end, where there’s lovely value for a few bucks.”

And that’s all? I tease. “Just for now,” she giggles. “But you know what else? If there’s anything we don’t have, we’ll find it for you, as an @Deli service.”

I ask, Like Harrods? “Exactly like Harrods.”

The thought crosses my mind to ask for some real marzipan but then I haven’t had a proper hunt yet. “Have something to eat now, Carolina suggests, looking at the time. I take a hike to the Harvest Table set-up, ordering a coffee to take with me on the journey.

She joins me again in sprinter’s time, to tell me that the Harvest Table is here as a kind of inspiration to people who can load their containers with the items they could make themselves if they shopped for the ingredients right here.

People can load their containers with the items they could make themselves if they shopped for the ingredients here. (Photo: Supplied)

I convey into my container some slow-cooked brisket and roasted vegetables, plus olivey salads, two kinds, with two kinds of olives and complimenting vegetables, even fruit. The container of some compostable plastic is not exciting and neither are the plastic knives and forks but then this is a sort of deli. However, the food is undeniably and happily cheffy in taste. I love it. While I’m eating, a man who seems to be checking on a lot of areas in the super-huge, erm, deli, introduces himself as Peter Pantazisi. 

After talking for a while, I find I’ve got to leave fairly soon so I hurtle around as much of the place as I can, buying a few vegetables and things I need and a few other things like Chinotto that comes in a can and is made with an oddly bitter citrus, which I reckon is the same as a Rex Union, that I don’t need but enjoy. I don’t see any marzipan. I do notice a vast pile of nougat. I am also reunited with my Bastardo del Grappa cheese again. We leave together.

At the check-out counter, I’m offered a present by my new friend Peter who’s come all this way with a confectionery box. Later I’ll find a custardy brioche type cake within.

Thank you Peter Pantazisi. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Meantime, I’m thinking this must be the biggest deli-supermarket or super-deli one could ever see. Well, why not? DM

Pantry by Marble | 170 Jan Smuts Ave, Rosebank | www.pantry.co.za

Cremalat Hyde Park | cnr North Rd, Hyde Square, Jan Smuts  

@deli by Acsiopolis | 5 Benmore Rd, Sandton    www.instagram.com>acsiopolissandton

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Get out and move about folks; Gary, who started Jacksons in Bryanston was years ahead of these latter-day wannabes, and still far better.

  • Thea Clifford Jackson says:

    We started shopping at Cremalat over 30 years ago, when they operated from a little house in Kensington. Since then we happily trekked across town to Edenvale & have always admired their entrepreneurial spirit. I do not understand how they do it but imported flour, pasta, tins & bottles of tomatoes, olive oil, artichokes, etc. cost far less than SA brands in local supermarkets. We always spend far too much but enjoy our haul for weeks afterwards!

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