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Adventures in Taste

A trip through the miles of aisles at Manhattan’s Fancy Food Show

by B.A. Nilsson on July 18, 2013 · 1 comment

Two types of fancy foods dominate the Fancy Food Show: stuff you can make and stuff you can’t (or shouldn’t). In the former category are items that require creativity, like sauces and pastries; the latter includes things like processed meat and good olive oil, of which more in a moment. But this isn’t like a trip to the local co-op or Whole Foods. It’s a sprawling three-day affair that takes up most of Manhattan’s awkwardly placed Javits Center. You emerge from a voyage through its miles of aisles glassy-eyed but sated. I do mean sated. I do mean sated.

The show ran June 30 through July 2. Now in its 59th year, it’s sponsored by the even longer-lived Specialty Food Association, which brings together more than 3,000 artisans and importers. We have the association to thank for launching such brands as Ben & Jerry’s, Walker’s Shortbread and Perrier, so there’s always the hope among its members that such lightning will strike again.

Certainly there’s incredible potential in the many aisles along which the show’s 2,400 exhibitors shared their wares. And share they did, with samples flying so furiously that a continuous stream of trash bins wheeled across the aisles throughout the day.

While I give much credit to Wild Veggie for its six soup pureé/recipe starters (broccoli, red bell pepper, carrot, beet, butternut squash, even edamame)—these are things you should be making at home. A mayonnaise maker cleverly showcased the company’s product in a Caesar dressing tossed with chopped kale (which I’m picking as the biggest up-and-comer in the world of greens). But I challenge the usefulness of the product. Making mayonnaise is ridiculously simple, something I’m sure a lot of manufacturers would rather you didn’t know.

And that brings us to its most important component, olive oil, a product I use in my mayo and therefore was glad to see in profusion at the show. Although it merits a more in-depth article in the future, I’ll note that what you think is extra-virgin olive oil, what you’re buying in supermarket tins, is almost certainly crap. The sad truth is that you’re going to have to pay more for the good stuff. The happy truth is that the flavor is its own reward.

We think of Italy, of course, but there are plenty of other good sources, including California and Australia. Among those I sampled at the show was an excellent Tunisian oil from Terra Delyssa. It offers a single-source oil that, like all Tunisian oil, hasn’t gained any kind of a foothold in the U.S. market. Olave EVOO, from Chile, emulates the Tunisian styles by growing Nocellara, Frantoio and Coratina varieties, as well as an organic line, a few flavored oils (which is realized by a processing style and not a mere infusion) and even a cleverly marketed kids’ oil, touting the nutritive value of sneaking it into your offspring’s food.

Representing southern Spain was Silva, with the best of its oil packed in sleek black or white bottles, and an accompanying line of vinegar, salt and olives. Oliviers and Co. (O&Co) is a Mediterranean food merchant with its own boutique shops in New York and Boston, and features a line of 22 EVOOs sourced from Croatia, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Producers submit their best oils every year, and O&Co chooses a couple dozen to distribute, so it’s more of a seal of approval.

Among the larger distributors with lines of oil are Cento, whose San Marzano tomatoes are a staple of my kitchen, and United Olive Oil, which even has an unfiltered EVOO in its product line.

Cheese is a huge component of the show. I think I sampled most of it. Chocolate is another domineering force. I sampled as little of it as possible, saving room for cheese. Among the highlights: a gran pecorino from Fratelli Pinna, which also makes a killer ricotta; a Sarvecchio parmesan from Wisconsin’s Sartori Cheese Co., and, from right here in Cohoes, R&G Cheesemaker’s goat’s-milk camembert and maple-chipotle chevre.

If you made your name with a single item, like an excellent salsa, the imperative now is to widen your offerings. I learned that there really was a Mrs. Renfro, and the salsa I enjoy of that brand proves that sometimes you can yield your kitchen skill to an artist. The company is still owned and run by the Renfro family, but I was astonished to see that there are 15 more in their line.

I learned from Marygrace Sexton, who runs Florida-based Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company, that the so-called “not from concentrate” juice the big producers provide may well contain a cocktail of pesticides and other chemicals that are legal in the countries from which the fruit they use originates.

I learned from the Nielsen-Massey representative that the vanilla I make by soaking beans in vodka goes only a certain distance to provide the flavor I seek, and the process of making real vanilla extract means I have to get to used to paying a little more for the good stuff—just as with olive oil.

And I learned from Tropical Blossom Honey Co., a Florida-based apiary, that the future of bees lies with hobbyists like myself (I’ve just installed my first hive) who are diversifying the geography of the colonies. The company offers a particularly nice tupelo honey that, because of colony problems, is in short supply this year.

Above all, I learned a sad truth about our area. “Where can I find your product?” I’d invariably ask.

“Wegman’s,” I was told. “Whole Foods.”

“But I’m in the Albany area,” I’d explain.

“Ah. Sorry about that.”