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Photo: Lily Whiteman

Among the Gourmets

Metroland food critic grazes his way through Manhattan’s Fancy Food Show

By B.A. Nilsson

They were as different as chocolate and cheese, the items on display at the 55th annual Fancy Food Show in Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center earlier this week, but they had in common a handmade determination. The 2,400 companies with products on view thus tried to straddle the concepts of corporate production and small-batch precision.

Tapestry chocolates, for instance, is an 18-month-old offshoot of Daffin’s Candies, which started more than a century ago as a small Ohio retailer and now has a series of shops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Tapestry displayed an all-new range of tasty items that included toffee, mint and peanut butter melt-aways, chocolate-covered pretzels, and good old gourmet-styled chocolate bars with the likes of caramel or peanut butter within.

“We’re introducing everything here,” said spokesman Stan Lefes, making sure we enjoyed a range of samples. “But because this is a higher-end product, we’re looking to get into specialty retail stores.”

Many others at the show echoed this ambition. Jer’s celebrates one of the finest of all food combos: chocolate and peanut butter. It’s an almost inadvertent company, started by IBM sales manager Jerry Swain 10 years ago when his homemade candy gifts to friends proved so successful that he decided to go after a retail presence.

As for the internationally local, Ritter-Sport is another chocolate maker with a century-old heritage. The company is based in Germany and already enjoys national distribution, and it also offers a high-end product seeking specialty retail space. Good marketing combines the shrewd and the opportunistic: Ritter-Sport is introducing a strawberry- flavored bar, the sales of which they’ll donate for breast cancer research.

And so to cheese. I met Utah-based Beehive Cheese Co., a five-year-old company that already has a specialty-retail presence and, based on the astounding flavor of its Beehive Buzz cheddar, ought to be everywhere. Beehive Buzz is rubbed with a blend of ground espresso beans and lavender buds, which unrolls on the palate with delightful surprises. Also among the flavor-added winners were Marieke Penterman’s Foenegreek Gouda, which combined flavors I wouldn’t have thought would meld so well, and Sartori Reserve’s Merlot Bella Vitano, a farmstead cheese reddened by its wine immersion (both Wisconsin products). From California comes the Marin French Cheese Co., offering a Rouge et Noir line that hews closely to French tradition in offering a Triple Crème Brie with and without blue veins. France was on hand as well, with a delicious wine-matured raclette from Jean Perrin. Other international cheeses that impressed me included the U.K.-based Somerdale’s white Stilton with apricots, a Welsh Red Dragon that combined cheddar with mustard seed and ale, and classic feta from Mevgal, based in Thessaloniki, Greece.

I report this not just to boast about how much it’s possible to sample in the course of a crowded few hours, but to illustrate the breadth of specialty food production. Tour a local farmers market and you’ll find a similar, smaller-scale array of handcrafted cheese and jam and sauce and such, but the Fancy Food Show gave me a look at fresh ideas and different approaches to these products.

Although there was far less in the way of accessories, I saw baskets and bags and teapots and other servingware. Carbon steel snob though I am, I was impressed with the balance and edge of a Hammer Stahl high-carbon (but still shiny) chef’s knife, with its intricate, decorative tang.

Sauces now run a wild gamut of purposes and flavors, with extreme heat one of the competitive characteristics. I subjected myself to Ultra Death from Blair’s Sauces, billed as the hottest sauce on the planet and certainly one that immediately dissociates you from your surroundings. Blair Lazar is a former Jersey Shore bartender who started the company in 1989. You’ve seen Melinda’s sauces all over the place, but possibly not some of the specialty ones like fiery Naga Jolokia, taking its name from the world’s hottest chile, or the comparatively restful Mango Pepper sauce.

Along with the many smaller domestic producers were international contingents that gathered under their country’s banners. Thus we saw an aisle of Moroccan products, an aisle of Indian foods, and aisles given over to Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Italy, and so on. Tuscany even had its own area, and that’s where I met Franco Lombardi, who makes Pornanino Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the heart of Chianti. Along with offering tasting samples, he demonstrated his oil’s worthiness by rubbing it into the back of his hand to show that it left no oily traces. “Only the best olive oil will do that,” he explained.

I studied and tasted tomato products, sausage, olives, roasted peppers, gelato, yogurt and so much more, all of it vying for that precious retail space yet looking at higher-end retailers like Whole Foods and Wegmans, of which we have neither near Albany.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to get on the retail shelves. You have to fight to maintain that presence. Peet’s Coffee is a Berkeley-based outfit that’s been hand-roasting coffee for nearly half a century, and you can find a small selection of their product in local supermarkets, but it’s lately dwindled even smaller by incursions from coffee behemoth Starbucks, the Wal-Mart of hot beverages, now forcing its beans in our faces. (As a side note, Peet’s was the original inspiration for Starbucks, and their early histories entwined.) If I were to go back for anything, it would be another beverage: Bellagio Sipping Chocolate from Caffe d’Amore in California. Having already overindulged, I almost turned down this final indulgence, but there’s always room for more decadence and this more than proved it.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery’s 11th annual fundraising event, “A Little Bit of Jazz & More,” will take place from 5:30 to 8 today (Thursday, April 29) in the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady). The “more” part of the proceedings includes a cornucopia of food, including a carving station with turkey breast and roast beef, a pasta station, an hors d’oeuvres display and, if you don’t want to fetch your food, circulating trays with even more hors d’oeuvres, including sesame chicken, a Mediterranean artichoke tart, shrimp Wellington, spanakopita and more. There will be complimentary beer and wine and Chocolates by Lindt. The jazz part is a performance by Colleen Pratt and Friends. The event includes a benefit drawing with a choice of a $500 gift card at either Town TV or Empress Travel, and gift baskets sponsored by the Schenectady Day Nursery Board of Directors. Reservations are $50 per person or $100 for honorary committee status, and may be made by calling Jim Kalohn at 894-6305. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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