Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Internet Research , and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.
Best of the Best / Salsas, Sauces & Dressings / Snack Foods / Natural Sodas / Tea Trends / Chocolate and Candy
I love the Summer Fancy Food Show. No matter how many years I’ve attended, it still manages to amaze and amuse me with tastes and spectacles alike that demand an entry in my notepad. The prospect of traipsing through four football fields’ worth of displays should be daunting, but the protracted sample fest and street theater that is this trade show provide enough psychic fuel to power me through it all.
The latest show, which took place July 10-12 at the Javits Center in New York, was the 51st annual Summer Fancy Food Show, the biggest of the three put on each year by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade . The omens were favorable even before entering: There at the main entrance was the silver-skinned, silver-clad human impersonator of the NASFT award statuette, standing on his silver-toned pedestal at the main entrance and making kissy faces into the air space of women as they passed through security.
Inside, the floor show continued unabated, intentionally and otherwise. D’Artagnan’s musketeers were handing out samples with a feather-capped flourish. I tasted what a PR rep proudly called “artesian” kettle corn, without either of us giving hint that her internal dictionary had misfired. A human-sized monkey waved at people passing by Peanut Butter & Co. , the Greenwich Village eatery that specializes in peanut butter sandwiches and is releasing a cookbook of the same.
A pair of lithe young women in harem costumes (one pink, one black, and both accented with silver cord and coins) chatted up an Orthodox Jewish gent at Regenie’s , while other visitors to the booth paid attention only to the baskets of pita chips for the taking.. Entering one aisle, a Thai princess scurried past, clad in a tiara and a floor-length gown. At the end of another aisle, a hula girl played the ukelele and sang, barely audibly on both counts.
No big trends emerged at this year’s show. Instead, a few minor, unconnected details – sweet corn, pomegranate, one-of-a-kind delivery vans — cropped up here and there, forming weird lattices of coincidence that don’t mean anything, but simply exist.
As always, a few new releases stopped me in my tracks. The cassis vinegar from O Olive Oil had me daydreaming of happily drizzling it onto fruit. The company’s latest flavored olive oil – which is not infused, but made by crushing the fruit along with the olives – is an astonishingly complex lime & jalapeno, which borders on drinkable. Tender tongues need not fear; the jalapeno adds flavor, not heat.
Native Kjalii Foods , which has made a name for itself with superb salsas and chips, was showcasing Mexican mole sauces in three varieties. The chocolate (unsweetened, the traditional base of mole) and the red each have a wonderful roasted depth, but the green is a standout, with an exotic savouriness from ground pumpkin seeds and quite the chipotle aftertaste.
Maya Kaimal , whose excellent coconut curry, vindaloo and tikka masala sauces debuted last year, was dishing out a tamarind curry that is floral, creamy, and very, very spicy. Milder, but equally appealing was the the Indian Vindaloo curry dipping sauce from Wild Thymes , which has been expanding its hand-made condiments into cuisines from other lands.
All-natural Mexican-style frozen desserts were flying off the counter at Palapa Azul’s booth. The paletas, or frozen fruit bars, feature less than mainstream fruits (Mexican papaya) and less than mainstream combinations, such as cucumber chile. Singular flavors people the company’s ice creams and sorbets as well. The sweet corn ice cream, which rolls out like a creamy souffle, is especially a time-stopper.
D’Artagnan was tasting rabbit (surprisingly succulent), venison and buttery, melt-in-your-mouth-tender Wagyu beef from Strube Ranch Groumet Meats. At Dufour Pastry Kitchen, the latest hors d’oevures were on offer, and they continue the line’s tradition of stopping conversation with the first bite. The curried shrimp wonton works either steamed, which yields a dumpling-like texture, or baked, which gives the curry great staying power. Even better is the cranberry/tomato confit star, which tucks a dab of blue cheese, cranberries, tomatoes (a pair that I would not have thought have any business together, but do they ever) and onions into a four-pointed phyllo package.
Firefly Farms’ new meadow chevres demonstrated that goat cheese deserves fates other than a light roll in the herbs. While the sundried tomato and roasted garlic variety is the base of a fine enough appetizer, FireFly’s ginger, almond and honey flavored chevre is outright stunning. Co-founder Pablo Solanet’s suggestion of dabbing this chevre onto grilled peaches or figs sounded like a pathway to ecstasy to me.
One of the best tastes of the show came with a background story of the type that makes me love this work. Purely Organic , an importer that works only with small-scale Italian producers, was serving up an organic rose syrup with the consistency of honey and the flavor of magic. The syrup is from the Chianti hills of Tuscany, and specifically from the garden and kitchen of one woman, Isabella Devatta, who makes her entire production in the month of May. She rises early in the morning, puts cane sugar and spring water on the heat, and picks roses from her garden while they are still wet with dew. She adds the petals to the pot and cooks them down with lemon juice, to preserve the color, then bottles the syrup, which Purely Organic’s informant found her selling at a card table at a market in town.
Also in the Italian-organic vein were mild, pucker-free Sicilian citrus juices from Dream Foods International . The flavors are blood orange and tangerine, and neither is from concentrate. Dream Foods also imports lemon and lime bursts, in an answer to the plastic fruit-shaped bottles that inhabit most produce departments. With oil of the zest in the cap, each burst smells fresh enough to make you want to taste it.
Melissa’s booth was, as always, teeming with eye-catching produce that could double as props in some sci-fi flick: the nectacotum (a juicy nectarine/pluot hybrid, which looks like a plum), purple jalapenos (forgive me for not testing the claim that this variety is hotter than the usual green ones), torpedo-shaped purple onions, and sprite melons, so named for their petite, personal-serving size. Another glimpse of the future showed through in Melissa’s new Good Life Food, an array of organic produce complements – dressings, croutons, marinades and pasta sauces – that use agave as a sweetener. Yes, indeed; the same plant that gave us tequila is now providing an alternative to sugar.
The niftiest gadget I encountered was Adagio Teas’ 16-oz. infuser/teapot called ingenuiTEA. This pot sits directly on top of a cup or mug and uses gravity to “pour” the brewed tea. The device is pressure-sensitive, too, which means as soon as you lift it, it shuts off the flow.
The salsa to watch for is chipotle peach ‘n pecan cowboy salsa, a wondrous combination of smoky, sweety and crunchy from Cutter Dan’s . The label is the new venture of Dan Jardine, who has reentered the food industry after selling his namesake D.L. Jardine seven years ago.
Fischer & Wieser has successfully transferred the merits of its long-popular, versatile Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce to a new Blueberry Chipotle Sauce. (My notes say, simply, “Yum.”) Its five new salad dressings include a knockout sweet corn and shallots. The highlight of the newcomers from F&W’s Texas on the Plate brand is a Smoked Pasilla Chile Salsa, which is smoky to an intoxicating extreme.
In the weirdly good category: pickle sauce from Texas Sassy . No sour dill, this sauce is a strangely well-balanced blend of sweet and sassy, which works as a finishing sauce for meat, as a dip for vegetables or egg rolls and as the secret ingredient in…screwdrivers (a concoction that took first place at the 2004 Fiery Food Challenge). The sauce is also the base for the other condiments in the company’s line, such as a self-assured mustard that co-founder Brenda Smeyne called “the hot dog without the dog.”
Kettle Chips introduced two additions to its line of sturdy, all-natural chips, which are hand-cooked from high-sugar Russett Burbank potatoes. Don’t be put off by the newcomers’ labels; cheddar beer and spicy Thai are seasoned more subtly than their names suggest. They were the top ranking of the five finalists in a “help us name our next flavor” contest that drew 16,000 suggestions (including “hot dog” and “bubblegum,” neither of which made it to the final five.) Look closely at the packaging: the lines of tan fine print that make up the bag’s background contain the first name and last initial of people who participated in the contest.
Snacking is inevitable, so why not do it responsibly? That’s the philosophy of Lesser Evil , which has launched kettle corn varieties made without trans fats or high fructose corn syrup. These varieties aren’t merely responsible, but tasty, too, with the power to stir cellular memories in consumers of a certain age. (The Boomer-era-style graphics do their part as well.) SinNamon smacks of cinnamon toast, while the cocoa powder dusting of Black & White, which is indeed named in homage to a “Seinfeld” episode, bring Cocoa Puffs to mind.
Lesser Evil is so dedicated to fending off “snaccidents” – its word for devouring snacks (a half-dozen donut holes, say) without regard to the nutritional cost – that it has created a Snackcident Prevention Vehicle, a van equipped with a megaphone, lights and product samples, for trolling high-risk locations. Ironically, tasting Lesser Evil’s products inadvertently occasioned a “snaccident” for me. The cinnamon toast flavor awakened memories so powerful that they compelled me to make two pieces of the real thing the next morning.
Also standing out in the wholesome snacking arena were two quite different brands of nutritional bars. Peaceworks KIND Fruit + Nut all-natural snack bars are chewy, fruity-sweet combinations, such as almond and apricot, that have a greater wow factor than many a familiar candy bar. The fact that five percent of the profits go to a foundation that fosters co-existence in the Middle East underscores the bar’s wholesomeness.
Equally dense, chewy LÄRABARS have their own wow factor, too, which only increases on inspection of the ingredient list. Each of the seven flavors of bars contains only a handful of ingredients, all of which are nuts, unsweetened fruit, and spices; cherry pie, for example, consists of nothing but dates, almonds and cherries. And all the ingredients are raw, nothing is cooked or processed, and none of the bars contain dairy or gluten. Question the appeal? The banana cookie bar is a good entry point for silencing doubts.
For those of you who classify snacks as salt courses and sugar courses (which a friend of mine has been known to do), Native Kjalii Foods efficiently collapses the two courses into one with its chocolate covered tortilla chips – an extra-thick corn chip dipped in dark chocolate laced with nuts, seeds and cinnamon. Definitely not a melts-in-your-mouth, not-in-your-hand kind of treat, but more the finger-licking type; these chips are coated but good.
For this season’s crop of flavors, natural soda bottlers reached deep into the produce department for uncommon fruits and combinations. Cranberry lime is the latest from GuS (Grown-up Sodas), with a citrusy after bite that makes it refreshing. Passion Fruit and a charming Raspberry Lemonade have entered the line-up from Fizzy Lizzy’s sparkling fruit juices. IZZE , another maker of all-natural sparkling juices, chose the beverage darling of the moment, pomegranate, which creates a delicate drink.
At the other extreme, old-fashioned varieties have entered Steaz’s family of organic, kosher microbrewed sodas, all of which contain green tea. Steaz’s additions are an old-style, extremely bubbly grape soda, made from real grapes (an anomaly in the soda industry, believe it or not), and ginger ale with a mildness that makes it drinkable over the long haul.
Tea is also at the base of Jones Soda Company’s new organic line, called Jones Organics, which has six flavors made from white, green or red teas. The flavors have varying intensities and personalities. Cherry White Tea, for example, is delicately fruity, Mandarin Green Tea has a natural sweetness, and Peach Red Tea is very, very peachy.
Another nod to old-time recipes was a very sweet and bubbly organic ginger brew, from Maine Root , which also produces root beer and sarsaparilla. The unique vehicle theme squealed its tires here as well: Maine Root makes its Portland, ME deliveries using a VW diesel engine one of the company’s founders converted to run on recycled fryer oil that restaurants would have otherwise sent to the dump.
Pomegranate reared its seed-laden head again in the tea department. It’s the focal point of a gently flavored green tea released by Republic of Tea , in concert with POM WONDERFUL Pomegranate. The Republic’s new releases also include a flavorful blueberry green tea called Man Kind Tea, a portion of the proceeds of which benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
White tea, which has been on the rise itself in the past year or two (Republic of Tea alone offers seven varieties), continues its incursion into the prepared tea market with a pleasantly fruity Mango White Iced Tea, one of the six new bottled drinks from Honest Tea . Its new releases also include a tart, refreshing Limeade.
Another mini-trend in beverages was water in unsweetened flavors, many of them outside the norm – cucumber, for example, from HINT , and peppermint, called Metromint , which has alleged stomach-settling properties.
The theme of an attention-getting marketing van resurfaced in the chocolate booths. A pink emergency chocolate delivery van is in the bag of tricks of Vancouver chocolatier Hagensborg , which is rolling out three product lines in better U.S. department stores come September. Also in that bag of tricks is a delightful sense of whimsy, captured in some of the best branding graphics of the show, and – imagine such a thing in chocolate — rich tastes and textures. The Kiss Me lines features frog-shaped milk chocolate truffles with creamy centers. Truffle Pigs, which come in six flavors, are bars that resemble three back-to-snout piggies; the orange and raspberry flavors are exquisite. Champagne (palpably so), milk and dark truffles make up Leone, named for the “debonair king” of Belgian chocolates.
The next big thing in chocolates is single varietals, which are bars made from cacao beans from a single region. Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker’s varietal is El Carmen, a limited series, potently dark bar; at 75% Venezuelan cacao, it requires an appreciation of bitterness. (For those of you who prefer gentle chocolates, watch for another newcomer from Scharffen Berger, an Italian confection called gianduja, which is a dark hazelnut chocolate that melts into nutty notes.) Dagoba Organic Chocolate has three single origin bars, all with 68% cacao content. The smoothest is Milagros, which hails from the Andes in Peru. Los Rios, from Ecuadoran beans, has musty tones, while Pacuare, from Costa Rica, runs to the bitter. The distinctions are subtle, though; identifying the differences took multiple tastings. (Pity, right?)
As for confectionary, the find of the show was an all-natural answer to Marshmallow Fluff: the marshmallow creme made by Boston-area Tiny Trapeze Confections . The ingredients are nothing more than rice syrup, organic sugar, barley malt and Nielssen Massey vanilla.
Finally, the sweets arena was witness to a mini-trend in naming: adopting the single word for a quality as a product name. Exhibit A is Newtree USA’s line of silky Belgian and European chocolates named for what the consumer might receive or experience upon tasting. For “Pleasure,” it’s straight dark chocolate, with a hefty 73% cacao content. Newtree’s other, equally dark chocolates embody “Forgiveness,” which is lemon-scented and contains cactus extracts alleged to have fat burning properties; “Renew,” flavored with red currant and grape (the first of which hits the tongue before the chocolate does); and “Vigor,” which buzzes with coffee and essence of revitalizing guarana berries. Prefer milk chocolate (36% cacao content, to be exact)? “Tranquility” offers gentle hints of lavender and lime, while “Rejoice” provides a little crunch (from crispy rice) and a citrusy blend of lime blossom and bitter orange extracts. They are creamy, with intriguing notes, and well worth devouring for the taste alone, regardless of your stance on their possible healthful properties.
Irony, the new budget line of breath mints from Hint Mint , does not speak to what the consumer might experience. For one thing, they do not make you start singing that once-inescapable Alanis Morrisette song, which, by the way, repeatedly mislabels occurrences as ironic that have nothing to do with the definition of the word. Instead, the name is a self-referential commentary on Hint Mint’s entry into mass-market merchandizing. After positioning itself as a luxury brand found in the most upscale of hotels (the Park Hyatt Hotel featured in “Lost in Translation,” for example), the company has bowed to consumer demand for wider availability and released a product that is being sold in convenience stores alongside Tic-Tacs. And that’s the irony.
Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.