10 English St, Essendon Fields. Phone: 9026 9209
Essendon Fields is a bit like a cross between a shopping centre and an industrial estate – with an airport attached.
Having pre-planned my journey to avoid tolls – up Mt Alexander Rd and Keilor Rd, along Matthews Ave, turn right on to English St – I enjoy the drive, rubber-necking at many shopping strips. This can be a bit of trap, of course! Eyes on the road, Kenny!
Having done some online sleuthing, I’m aware that I’ll be able to enjoy a lunch and a shopping foray at La Manna. I am bearing a fairly long, for us, shopping list. Our cupboards are bare!
My first stop is the La Manna cafe.
Considering the pronounced Italian and/or Mediterranean flavour of the whole enterprise, and the slogan “For the love of food” emblazoned outside, I expect more of the cafe. Maybe some soup and good bread, or some pasta.
Instead, I find an eating place with a few salads, some good-looking stuffed baguettes, pies and the like.
I’m hungry and not too fussy. I settle on a Bocastle Cornish pastie ($4) and a slab of frittata ($5).
The pastie filling consists of little more than potato strands and a very meaty-flavoured mince. It’s peppery and good.
The frittata is better. So packed with vegetables – leek, mushroom, carrot, tomato, capscum and even red beans – that it’s not even very eggy, it’s a satisfying and affordable lunch.
Then it’s out in the cavernous space of La Manna proper, one hand pushing a shopping trolley, the other grasping camera, shopping list nearby.
I start at the end that hosts the cheeses, cold cuts, antipasto items, meat and seafood, adjacent the cafe.
The glaring lights make taking photos a challenge.
Unsurprisingly, the range of products is amazing.
But I’ve already discovered my enthusiasm is dented by the amount of plastic used on all the meats, cold cuts and seafood. I’m no purist – we accept plastic shopping bags and re-use them at home – but this seems excessive.
And all that packaging means there’s no deli counter – and not much else by way of face-to-face inter-action with the staff.
This makes me realise that our food outings are about much more than a mere exchange of a credit card for goods. I miss the banter and questions and answers and humanity that are part of every transaction at our favourite shops, markets and stores.
As well, knowing I’ll be making a Greek salad for dinner, with no deli counter I am unable to buy a piece of fetta just right for the job, forced to settle for more than I want at a steeper price than I’d envisaged. Nor can I buy a handful of fresh kalamata olives. Worse, the packaged fetta, when I make my salad, manages to be both rubbery and tough.
There is, though, a lovely lady cooking up Hahns ‘Merican-style hot dogs and offering samples to customers.
And, yes, there are staff members everywhere, all of whom would no doubt be happy to help me.
But the stock seems presented in such a done-and-dusted way as to discourage individuality.
Moving on, I scoop up 500g bags of dried apricots ($5), roasted almonds ($8) and sultanas ($4) for muesli – not super dooper bargains, but not bad either. Likewise three sacks of Lowan rolled oats at $3.36 each.
The fruit and vegetables seem priced pretty much at Coles/Woolworths levels. And our local Sims in West Footscray is selling Fuji apples for under $5, a whole bunch less than La Manna.
Moving along once more, I start to find real fine buys:
It’s time to make a new batch of pasta sauce, so I grab up an armful of La Gina chopped tomatoes tins at 80 cents each.
A couple of packs of Reggia spaghettini cost $1 each.
Lavvaza Crema e Gusto coffee sets me back $4.
Best of all, I snap up a 500ml bottle of Olive Valley EVOO for $4. This product comes from Nar Nar Goon in Victoria and the price is amazing.
Serious shopping just about done, I toss in a parcel of mixed almond biscotti ($6.95). I have three of them at work that night. They are brilliant – moist, fresh and even better than I’ve had from the likes of Brunetti’s or Cavallaro’s.
Apart from the daily delivered “specialty breads”, it seems all the cakes, biscotti and so on are made on the premises.
If I find the La Manna experience a tad sterile, it says more about my preferences than anything else.
If I had a larger family to feed and La Manna was closer to home, it’d become a regular stop for sure.
I receive a nice surprise at the checkout counter – I’m eligible for that week’s 10% discount on my bill total, taking $71.08 down to $64.77.
Timing visits to coincide with such offers would seem to make a lot of sense.
In any case, I’ve applied for a customer loyalty card at the La Manna website, which can be found here.