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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Farmers Market Vendor of the Week: Affi’s Marin Gourmet

Who would have guessed that an eggplant dip could have developed into a culinary business of such scale?

Over 25 years ago, the Panahi family developed a recipe for a special kind of baba ghannouge, an eggplant dish popular in the Middle East. Today the exact same dish, which Affi’s calls Aubergine, is available every Saturday morning at the Davis Farmers Market along with a complete line of dips, sauces and crackers that feature Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors. Made from fresh and natural ingredients grown in Fresno, Affi’s Marin Gourmet products are a family legacy, carrying the same flavor combinations through the generations.

The Aggie sat down with Anton Bozcagna, manager of the Affi’s Marin Gourmet stand in Davis, to get a glimpse of the company’s history and what it has become today — all because of a revolutionary baba ghannouge recipe.

“If the recipe ever changed that would be a riot,” Bozcagna said. “It’ll always be the exact same recipe. We’re not allowed to touch it.”

The products
The Aggie: What’s the Aubergine like?
Bozcagna: The Aubergine is this really fantastic thing. It’s made from four different types of eggplant, grilled over mesquite and then finished with a really fantastic olive oil. Everything is done by hand, which makes it expensive, but it guarantees a certain quality. It’s not mass-produced, so each batch can be very different. All the eggplants are grown in-house and don’t even have common names, just scientific ones. They are very special eggplants and it tastes like that — the store-bought eggplants will not taste like that or grill like that. It’s grilled on an open fire, over mesquite that gives it that flavor and extra smokiness that people prefer.

The Aggie: What types of ingredients are used in your other recipes?
Bozcagna: Arabic food uses lots of salt because it’s meant to withstand certain conditions, like those of a workman’s schedule. The food is generally kept in a warm place in the sun, so the food has to measure up to certain standards. It’ll have a lot of garlic and olive oil and salt. In our kitchen, staying healthy is a concern so many of our products are healthy in the classical sense. We have a lot of items that are vegan; for instance, people always think the hummus has cream or something higher in fat in it, but it really is just that texture without it. It’s an easy way to trick your body into eating something that is good for it.

Their story
The Aggie: The birth of the company was over 25 years ago. How has it developed since then?
Bozcagna: It’s sort of an oral tradition. There are legal traces of it, but most of what I know is what I’ve been told. The origins were when the Panahi family moved from Persia to France, which is where I’m assuming some of these recipes matured and where some of those special eggplants were picked up. The French connection had a very big impact on how the food tastes. So they lived there for a number of years before coming to the United States, to California because it’s similar to that perfect part of the world.

The Aggie: How did the inspiration come to start a food business?
Bozcagna: In the Middle East, baking bread is a special bonding ritual. It’s a way to know the person and to know respect; it has a specific social function. You eat it a certain way, at a certain time. [After the move to the U.S.] this passion came back, and Affi decided that she wanted to have a food company, and started a catering business. [The movement into the Farmers Market] was a natural evolution; it happened very quickly. They decided Farmers Markets made the most sense, as we are a farmer’s company. Today, the main focus is the Farmers Market.

Serving suggestions
The Aggie: What are some of your favorite products and how do you like to use them?
Bozcagna: The one that I’ve used the most is the olive walnut tapenade. It’s super usable — sandwiches, salads, with goat cheese, you can make pasta and throw that on for a 10-minute lunch … it really takes no time at all, it’s like comparatively very healthy fast food. I’ve used so much of it I think I’ve overused it. So for a while I’ve been infatuated with the lemon hummus. There’s no garlic, meaning you can eat it anytime, with a bagel in the morning. It won’t upset your stomach like it does to some people. Super healthy and super tasty. But what I keep around all the time is the Aubergine, not just because I like it, but because other people like it.

The Aggie: It always comes back to the Aubergine.
Bozcagna: It’s a very easy way to please foodies. Nine out of 10 people that have tasted it say that they like it. Throw it over pasta or just use it as a dip. It goes really well with goat cheese; it’ll highlight it well because the flavors have such a stark contrast. Spread it on something Italian like pizza, or sandwiches. It just brightens everything up. I think people are genetically programmed to like whatever’s in it.

At the Davis Farmers Market
The Aggie: You have your products at several Farmers Markets in northern California. Is there anything about the Davis market in particular that makes you look forward to coming here each time?
Bozcagna: It’s a very special market for our company. Davis has this very vintage feel to it. Besides the fact that the market’s been there for a long time and had the time to mature and grow, you can feel that the market has been there for a long time. For the people that work there, it is like family, because they’ve been there forever. It’s a more pleasant Whole Foods. There’s a nexus of common customers that I know by name who I don’t have to ask them what they want, I just hand them the regular. It’s a very special place; if you want to meet the nicest people in a neighborhood, go to the Davis Farmers Market.

LANI CHAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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