Thanks to FoodBuzz, I was able to attend the annual Fancy Food Show at the Javits center here in New York. The Fancy Food Show is a trade show showcasing all kinds of food from around the world, and is used as an opportunity for producers to find distributors, for distributors to find producers, for retailers to find products, for entrepreneurs to find inspiration, and for general networking. Here are my impressions of the final two (out of three) days of the show.
The Fancy Food Show was an almost overwhelming experience, with tons of deals being discussed at tables over fine wine and cheese. I was lucky enough to attend a few panel discussions before the show started on Monday, and I’m particularly glad I got to see the “State of the Specialty Food Industry” because it helped me prepare for what was going to come. Specialty food sales totaled about $48 billion in 2008, accounting for about 15.9% of all retail food sales. Cheese and cheese alternatives (such as soy cheese) make up the biggest part of these sales, and specialty oils (mostly extra virgin olive oils) are another big part of it. It would come as no surprise that the majority of the samples on offer at the show were cheeses and olive oils. There were so many people giving away samples that at several times I actually caught myself thinking: “Not ANOTHER imported Spanish manchego/Spanish olive oil/French chocolate truffle.”
Having a press badge was an interesting experience — it got me into those panel discussions, and it allowed me to take photos on the show floor (only press was allowed to photograph the proceedings). It also led to a lot of people saying, “Put me in your magazine!” Sad to say I don’t have a magazine to put them in.
I had a lot of great food, but the things that really stick with me are the people I met who were so passionate about what they do. Here, in no particular order, are the highlights of the show.
Jenny Gelber, of Zambezi Honey, who imports honey from African farmers. A former Peace Corps volunteer, she never imagined herself an importer but loves what she does. And, by the way, this is some of the most flavorful honey I’ve ever eaten.
The young man from RealSalt, harvested in Utah from what’s thought to be a former “arm” of the ocean, who insisted that other salt manufacturers miss the point when they remove the so-called impurities form sea salt.
The sales rep from Pietro Coricelli who lamented the difficulties in producing a premium quality olive oil while trying to keep the price reasonable.
When I showed interest in the aged blue Stilton from Cheese From Britain, one of their reps delightedly told me that the cheese is a live product and they have to account for the ripening time when shipping it. Thus they ship it six weeks before it’s actually ready so that when it arrives in the U.S. the cheese has fully matured. The Stilton was good, but I actually preferred the Wensleydale with Cranberries.
My friend Joy works for San-J, who produces one of the only wheat-free and gluten-free soy sauces available in the U.S. She lives in VA so I don’t get to see her very often, and it was great to see her again.
Melaku Sahlu of Made in Ethiopia told me all about how his company aggregates different producers from Ethiopia and gets them ready to put their products on the American market. They do more than just food, but food was the focus of this show so I had a bite of what they called organic data — a blend of spicy chile peppers, vinegar, and seasonings. This condiment is meant to be served with the Ethiopian bread injera, and was so spicy it gave me the hiccups.
The sales rep at Giangrandi, a Chilean olive oil company which does not yet have a U.S. distributor, patiently walked me through each of their different oils, including their interesting line of single varietal oils.
Hands down the most interesting thing I ate in the two days was this bit of flower from Koppert Cress. It starts off almost citrus-y, and then suddenly it explodes in electrical tingles all over your mouth. It feels like you stuck your tongue in an electrical outlet. Why would you want to experience that? The reps said that most people use them in cocktails. If you get a chance to try this you’ve got to do it.
These espresso-filled chocolates from Espresso Secrets had great coffee flavor.
Arancini, or rice balls, frozen and imported from Italy by Ciro, were quite good — the spicy variety was a real winner, spicy and still amazingly flavorful.
I had heard of this fruit, carica, but I’d never tasted it before today. Again, it isn’t too sweet but it has a great flavor and texture — almost like a peach crossed with pineapple. This was imported by Tamaya
Another Chilean import, this is a variety of bamboo shoot called colihue. Not so remarkable on its own, but the rounds are dipped into a garlic or chile powder before eating, resulting in a remarkable taste combination.
Undoubtably the most beautiful item I saw at the show, these are chocolates from Norman Love Confections. I had one of the pumpkin-flavored one, and it rocked my world.
Who would flavor a ricotta with lemon and then bake it? The Italians, that’s who. Thank goodness they did — the texture of cheesecake but a more pure cheese flavor.
I’m running out of ways to describe how good chocolate is, but these chocolates from Korean company Jubilee Chocolatier are worth seeking out.
In the “good but WTF” category was fermented black garlic — chewy and almost fruit-like in taste. They also had a black garlic drink but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.
I was also happy to see some local vendors, like Siggi’s Skyr, which I love, and Rick’s Picks, which sells its pickled products at my local Farmer’s Market.
The Sandy Butler Group was showing off its new line of dried pastas that cook in less than 2 minutes (the secret, they say, is the long, slow, drying process, as opposed to the fast and hot drying process used in most commercially available dried pasta) and had the star power of Jeff McInnis from Top Chef. He only flipped his hair three times while I was watching.
I don’t usually drink coffee, but when an Italian offers to make you a cappuccino it’s hard to say no. This was courtesy of Caffe Sacco, and was quite good.
This tahini fountain at the Sunshine Food booth was getting its fair share of admirers. I don’t see how it’s practical, but it is awesome.
I had my first taste of elderflower syrup, which was floral and not too sweet.
Celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez was on hand to do a cooking demo with the Chilean people. Even though he’s Mexican, I was told, he was so impressed with the quality of food on offer from Chile that he was excited to work with them.
Until today the only thing I knew of Corsica was that it was Napoleon’s birthplace. Now I know that it’s also the home of some interesting beer. Pietra brews its beer with Corsican herbs, and they had a tasting panel where they matched it with Corsican chocolate, Corsican cheese, and Corsican shallot confit.
There was more, oh so much more (you can see more of my photos by clicking here). I haven’t even mentioned the many different hearts of palm (the next big thing?) or the tendency of many asian vendors to mold their products into cubes (dried fruit, frozen vegetables, and more). And there were just too many good olives to single any one purveyor out. I also want to point out that I’m not going to mention any of the products that just weren’t very good, but know that there were plenty of them.
By the end of the final day of the show, most people (including myself) were circling the floor like vultures, scooping up olives, sopping up olive oil with quickly hardening bread, and gulping down bits of chocolate. I saw a woman scraping the bottom of an enormous wheel of cheese like she was mining for gold. Vendors were giving away tons of samples, which led to some problems. The show management had decided that no samples were to leave the show floor, and so people who were either not smart or not deceitful enough to just put their samples into bags, out of sight, were being forced to drop them off into cardboard boxes. They shouldn’t feel too bad about it though — all samples were being donated to City Harvest.