As a home cook, one of the most frustrating things about buying new ingredients is not to be able to taste them first. Occasionally, there will be a tray with little pieces of cheese available at the grocery store, but most of us would never dream of asking for a taste of a new and interesting ingredient at the local Safeway or Ralphs, let alone some specialty gourmet shop.
Professional chefs almost always taste new ingredients before they buy them"”they have to make sure they are spending a usually tight budget wisely. Take a cue from the pros, especially these days when most of us are pretty strictly budgeting: ask for a taste before you buy.
I know that my friend, Bill, at my local farmer's market will always let me "try before I buy." It might seem old fashioned, but purveyors who stand behind their products will always allow you to taste because they are proud of their offerings and have nothing to hide. In the long run, they will end up with happier customers since nobody will get something home only to realize once it's too late that the item is not to their tastes.
Other foods that I have had good luck in tasting before I buy include extra virgin olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars, artisan breads, deli meats and cheeses (even at the regular grocery store, the person behind the deli counter will always let you take a taste before you buy), and fruits and vegetables.
Ask for a Sniff
Just as important as asking for a taste is asking for a sniff when you are buying fish. You can tell a lot about how fresh fish is by its smell. It should not have a fishy odor and should smell fresh like the sea.
Most shoppers don't want to speak up and ask their fishmonger to smell the fish but if you develop a relationship with you merchants, they will be more than happy to give you a whiff. And if you don't like what you smell, let them know.
For me, the best place to taste before buying is the farmer's market, but more and more, large chains such as Costco have prepared food stations set up where you can try everything from sausages and meatballs to pastries and breads.
At the end of the day, it never, ever hurts to ask. Often, it can be intimidating, especially when trying something unfamiliar. But, you are the customer, the one with the wallet, so make wise use of your money by making sure you'll like something before you pay.
We don't think twice about asking for a "taste spoon" at the local ice cream shop, so why should we be afraid to ask at our local gourmet shop? Just ask. The worst they can say is, "no," but most likely they will consider you an educated consumer and allow you to taste.