Wednesday, January 16, 2008

After a while, all you want is an apple (or a chocolate-covered tortilla chip).

No cameras allowed on the convention floor!!!

The NASFT Fancy Food Show takes place twice a year - in summer at the Jacob Javits Center in New York, and somewhere in California in the winter (usually at the Moscone Center in San Francisco; last week at the San Diego Convention Center, home to the Comic-Con). It is a giant marketplace for specialty food from all over the world and after a while takes on the quality and lightness of the Bataan Death March, only with a thousand types of jalapeno cheese straws. Mechanically extruded jalapeno cheese straws. Bleh.

Still, it is a place to see what's happening in food, and while it has totally lost its former indie cred (in the old days little cottage industry companies used to be able to rent booths and hawk their wares beside the big guns, but no more), it is above all a place to steal ideas. Let's be honest here.

These were the Best Concepts from the 2008 Fancy Food Show:
  • Vosges's Chocolate Covered Tortilla Chips for the win! Really, I know this sounds awful, but they were fabulous, and when you think about it, entirely logical, given that chocolate was first prepared with ground corn in the ancient pre-Columbian world. Think of champurrado! Well, don't think of it because it's vile, but these triple-chocolate-dipped chips were wonderful - the chocolate was slightly spicy, the chip salty - in short, heaven. Their Bacon Crisp bar was also interesting, if only because it tasted like bacon bits enrobed in chocolate, which you have to admit is a ballsy concept.
  • Better Bakes Sugar Cookies. I have no idea how they did this: it is a low sugar, low fat, healthy sugar cookie with all the crispness and flavor of my full-fat, horribly unhealthy homemade sugar cookies. They have to be lying about this, or using alien technology. These were way, way too delicious to be good for you.
  • The Pistachio Berry Mix from Santa Barbara Pistachio Company. Not only did this company have the nicest people at their booth (kind to everyone, even if you were not wearing the Prom Queen-ish red band "RETAILER" badge), they had the best trail mix on the entire floor: a salty blend of roasted pistachios and dried cherries, dried cranberries and golden raisins. Snacky!
  • Last but certainly not least, the cheddars (plain, smoked, pepper) from the cheese shrine that is Fiscalini Cheese Company in Modesto, CA. No longer just that place that spawned James Marsters and Timothy Olyphant, Modesto can lay claim to a company making the best cheese in America. No, really -- this stuff is as good as anything produced by the small farms of Britain or France, and they have the medals to prove it. Their smoked cheddar is an event.
The Worst Ideas can be summed up thusly: for the love of God, there are enough fancy chocolatiers and barbecue sauces in the world, thank you very much. I can just imagine some other trust-fund frat-boy wingnut thinking, "Hey, you know what would be a great business? Homemade barbecue sauce! SWEET." Please - stop the madness. And outside of the Vosges people (who are genuinely thoughtful about their chocolate products), most "new wave" chocolatiers seemed to think chocolate and curry and chocolate and chipotle combinations are so cutting-edge. NO - just, no.

The current trends in specialty foods are natural, organic, gluten-free, naturally sweetened, naturally flavored and locally sourced everything: cookies, crackers, sauces, charcuterie, cheeses, cocktail mixes (the huge new trend) etc. Very commendable, but sort of boring after a while. I like eating clean food and being healthy, yadda yadda, but after a while you just hanker after a chocolate covered tortilla chip.

Mercifully, past food trends like gelati, biscotti and cupcakes (except for the sad plastic-looking ones at the Barefoot Contessa cake mix booth) were absent this year. The only perennial food item I was glad to see was Badia e Coltibuono olive oil, which is just as sumptuous as ever and reminded me of my first years in the food business, when I regularly consumed it in restaurant kitchens (as well as Beluga caviar, mesquite-grilled Maine lobster, white peaches and Ridge Montebello zinfandel - the late 80s were a carefree, profligate time).

Unlike past FFSs, where every aisle brought some new and arcane food to try, this show cemented the ascendancy of Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, if only because I'd already seen (if not tried) at least 50% of the products on display. The thrill of the specialty food is pretty much gone, and I blame Food Network and the internets.

Oh well. The only other notable thing about this year's FFS were the hordes of beautifully dressed, very grand and snooty Europeans, mostly Italians and Spaniards, who all seemed to look down their noses at us as if to say "You Americans and your pesky small dollar - we could all buy you out in un minuto." For this reason I have left out some of the more spectacular items in the show: a bunch of amazing sweet dessert vinegars in pomegranate, apple and litchi flavors. The indeterminate Europeans manning their booth were just too rude.

Next year in San Francisco!

© 2008 Sandy Soto Teich

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