In Search of Fancy Foods
Having a small corner of our store dedicated to foods like imported olives and oils, vinegars made with local honey and berries and a few of the many specialty salts, was the impetus to send Lenore to the FANCY FOOD SHOW, summer version. Of course the fact that it was located in Washington DC, where we met almost twenty-six years ago, solidified the idea for Lenore. She said she felt guilty leaving town when our season here would just be kicking in, but in the end, seeing a good friend who just had her first child helped ease the guilt. “After all, he (baby, Seth) would be in school before you know it and I would have missed it,” she said.
Summer version of the show was to be smaller than the winter, but some show is better than no show, so off she went. It was at the Washington Convention Center, on all levels—took her and another friend, Alice, three days to do it justice. First day they went was a Sunday and the search for parking was the first challenge, even with the parking goddess, Alice, in the car. Seems many churches are in the same area and to accommodate their parking, they are allowed to park perpendicular to the curb. It really seemed to help, but still nothing was available. The convention center itself must have planned for the Metro (rail) to be the exclusive mode of transportation; it seems there is no convention center parking at all. They finally found the Radisson Hotel a short distance away that had plenty of parking.
Equipped with a list of what we want to carry or expand in our store, Lenore and Alice started on the first level. Luckily there was a large show case display of all the products that had won this year’s accolades for most innovative and creative. Among them a retail pack for fennel pollen, at the top of Lenore’s list. They tell me they spent the next two days trying to find this product on the grand floor of the show. So I soon got the picture that this smaller version of the show was bigger than they needed.
There was another motivation for this venture for me. It was for Lenore to scope out how to become a fancy food exhibitor. We do have some nice spice blends and soon to have more, and we are thinking big. It certainly would be great to be on the exhibitor side of the aisle at these shows. So I waited anxiously for her report.
When Lenore arrived home she announced that the “box” of samples and pamphlets she had collected over three days would not arrive until the next Thursday. As I am writing this now I am going off of her memory.
Seems Lenore finally found the location of the fennel pollen; a small display with other vendors who also “forage” for their products. Beautiful! I am intrigued. Lenore actually met the founder of the line of products called Wineforest Wild Foods, who is also the author of a book I was familiar with, “The Wild Table” by Connie Green. Who is known in California as the foraging goddess. The forward of the book is written by a personal favorite chef of ours, Thomas Keller. Green is now taking some of her wild finds to market for those of us too busy to go foraging. Look for her products to sit on one of our shelves soon.
We really enjoy filling our shelves with local products so when we find some that tastes good and are produced in the USA, we are very inclined to add them to our shelves. A new product of interest is the organic estate grown olive oil from ENZO out of California. It is made in the Italian tradition of four generations of farmers, and it fits the very smooth buttery flavor description that Lenore says will round out our many other EVOO choices in the shop.
We have been looking for some specialty Mexican products to carry, both for local Hispanic families and for the cooks who enjoy making authentic Mexican recipes that have become so popular in our American mainstream cooking. The fancy food show had two large aisles of Mexican products, some of which we hope to carry as long as our in-house expert agrees. That would be Florencio Lopez, our cook and server who enjoys teaching us his native cuisine.
Of course, we simply cannot compete with the big boys, so a perpetual goal of ours has been to find tasty and good products that have not yet hit the shelves at big box stores. Luckily there was an aisle dedicated to new vendors—first timers who are at the beginning of this food manufacturing journey. Lenore found really good cookies with exotic flavors that would be perfect to add to the selections we carry for beach picnics. In addition, there were s’more options, one of which, we will buy—especially since they are made by a company in Seattle. Imagine up-classing the s’more with a handmade marshmallow stuffed with nuts and caramel! Put that between your graham crackers!
My nightly phone calls from Lenore left me with my mouth watering. She seemed to taste everything in sight. She didn’t just taste what was on the list, for example, but she spent some time explaining why she needed to taste the many lines of chocolates designed to pair with wines. She stopped at a chocolate vendor whose display was designed to demonstrate how soil and the resulting cocoa bean were related. Alice, she said, was very good at identifying the flavors and even where in the world they had been grown. Just like wine, she said.
On the second day of the show Lenore called with the answer to two questions we are asked frequently. The first discussion occurred at a French truffle vendor’s booth. A gentleman took time to expound on the virtue of truffle oil even though it is a chemically induce product and not the real thing, a controversy we hear mentioned frequently on cooking shows as well as in cooking periodicals. Seems to the French it is simply a matter of what is available. When truffles are fresh, but of course slices of the real thing are preferred, but when out of season, infused oil helps bridge the gap. Simply, Lenore said, the issue doesn’t seem exist for the French, who developed the craving for truffles very early in culinary history. And besides if we didn’t use infusion to extend the truffle flavors past their season, then we would miss the product she described as “pretty amazzzing.” Truffle flavored cashew nuts! I can hardly wait to get those into the store.
The second insight Lenore said was from a Canadian maple syrup vendor. Why do we in the USA grade maple syrup? And why do most consumers prefer grade B to grade A? The simple answer here was that in Canada, they don’t grade the syrup, because grading implies quality. The USA grade A stayed in the tree longer and was harvested later than grade B. The Canadian display showing vials of syrups from pure clear in color to very dark brown conveyed this well, because the later the syrup was harvested the darker it became. He also said Canada and the US are in dialog about changing the grading system so as not to portray one better than the other, just longer in the tree, which determines flavor but doesn’t become necessarily better. This allows the consumer to pick by their personal taste preferences.
Another reason Lenore was so captured by the Canadian maple syrup display was that they were touting the discovery of four new antioxidants, often considered the most powerful food defense we know to fight diseases. At least for now, these new ones are found exclusively in pure maple syrup, A nutrition angle is always good for adding ingredients to our pantry, especially when the pure stuff tastes so much better than the imitation.
Let me sum it up with some specialty “fancy” food trends. Look for more designer cookies, specifically brownie “crackers,” and others a little more sophisticated “SLIMS” that were made from traditional loaf cakes like banana bread, cut thinly and twice baked and packaged like a biscotti. Then there were cookie “chips,” a sweet version of the salted snacks with the same texture that also challenges us to “eat just one.” Famous southern recipes for sauces are now packaged for upscale convenience. For example, a popular southern treat, banana pudding sauce, first made famous by vanilla wafers, is now in ready to use format. The manufacturer now has a spinoff product made by adding a little bourbon to the pudding for a banana-bourbon pudding shooter? Said shooters also are conveniently prepackaged for any buyer over 21.
More innovative thirst quenching drinks, such as the Q-tonic and Q-Kola, have been revamped with clean ingredients that one can pronounce and with nothing artificial added. Of course, any product with clever marketing seemed to catch Lenore’s attention, too. Like one cereal product that was first designed as a shelf stable product loaded with healthy stuff especially slow burning chia seeds and hemp hearts. This was developed first for emergency food kits to use following natural disasters such as tornadoes (and tsunamis, maybe.) After test marketing in grocery stores the founder of the product named it for the most frequent comment taste-testers made, “Holy crap, this is good!” Thus its name, HOLY CRAP. Gets my attention, too.