A few weeks ago we went to the annual Fancy Food Show in New York at the Javits Center. It’s overwhelming – aisle after aisle of delicious, often forbidden, always indulgent, good things to eat. The hall is banquet of speciality foods with distinctive flavors, and unique origin stories – mostly from small producers.
Candies, jams, and chocolate; cheese, both imported and from America; gourmet soft drinks and cocktail mixers; pastries, cakes and cookies are some of the popular categories. Most of the vendors are American, but there are large sections representing countries from around the world, as well.
There was a lot of buzz about honey this year. I thought I might be noticing because I just read Robbing The Bees, about of beekeeping and the honey business, but a count of the bee-related products showed an impressive 65 vendors. There was honey in a wide range of color and flavor from specific flowers and named regions, even some labeled organic. Sierra Madre Honey from Mexico was one of the most interesting, with intriguing sources like Golden Sunflower, Mesquite and Volcano (this last one gathered within sight of the crater.)
There were lots of honey products, such as flavored honey cream spread from Bumbleberry Farms in Pennsylvania with names like Lovers’ Leap Sea Salt Caramel, Molten Lava Spiced Chocolate, and Squirrel Crazy Maple. Mike’s Hot Honey is a versatile condiment originally developed to flavor pizza. The chili pepper infused honey is great on chicken, biscuits, fruits, and ribs – anywhere you want some sweet zing. Mike himself was in the booth and invited us out to Paulie Gee’s pizzeria in Brooklyn after the show to try some, but we couldn’t make it.
Maple Syrup is another traditional product that is getting more sophisticated. Runamok organic Vermont maple syrup is aged in rye whiskey barrels or infused with either elderberry or cinnamon-vanilla. Escuminac Canadian syrup is organic, made from a single grove. They also make a unique Yellow Birch syrup. Chef Steve Stallard offers Blis, a bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup from Michigan. These elegant syrups can be used for flavoring, just like balsamic vinegar, or as a cocktail ingredient, in addition to dressing up your pancakes.
Some vendors go beyond the taste of their product to make a social statement. At Spring Brook Farms in Reading, Vermont, they make award winning cheeses – Tarentaise, Reading, Ashbrook and Windsor County Tomme – but they also participate in Farms for City Kids. All their cheese profits are used to bring city kids to the farm for a rural experience.
Our show strategy (if you can call it that) is to aimlessly wander the miles of aisles with a few destinations in mind, stopping when something is eye catching, chatting with the vendors – often the owners – talking and tasting. We get to know the products and the people behind them. Along the way my show bag, already weighted by the thick show catalog, gets heavier and heavier – stuffed with brochures, product information, notes, and the occasional sample.
Some of our serendipitous stops included: Red Clay Gourmet from Winston Salem, NC for pimento cheese – that staple of the south – updated with hickory smoke, jalapeno, goat cheese and even sriracha; Sunburst Trout Farm also in North Carolina for fresh, smoked, and flavored trout and trout roe; Catskills Provisions for New York state honey, maple syrup, sauces and marinades, breakfast mixes, honey truffles and their latest brainstorm – honey whiskey.
Vinegar is a special interest for me, so we spent some time with Chef Jesse of Sparrow Lane sampling his wide range of wine, herb, and fruit vinegars from California. Vinegar adds sparkle, flavor, and mystery to almost any dish. Splash in a little to finish your sauté, braise or marinade. Wine and cider vinegars are the basics, but there are more than twenty-one flavors like walnut champagne, cinnamon pear, and mango to expand your repertoire.
The Italian section was right inside the entrance. C’era una Volta Sicilian cherry tomato was our first stop. Pasta sauce made from sweet, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes is a best-selling trend across Europe. Like so many things at the FFS it’s new, and they’re still working out distribution channels. You won’t see it in the supermarket now – but keep an eye out!
The Commonwealth and British Isles aisles were next, with fresh oysters, smoked salmon, haggis chips and more. A charming young red-headed Scott offered a taste of McGhee’s Bite-size Caramel Shortcake, chocolate-caramel shortbread cookies. Wow! We almost spent the rest of the day right there.
A few other things that grabbed us, in no particular order: Rutherford & Meyer fruit pastes from New Zealand – true fruit flavor; Hahn’s Old Fashioned Crumb Cakes in lots of fruit flavors; or Kenny’s Krumbs – if you just like the topping.
I feel like a kid in a candy store at the Fancy Food Show. Its great to see new products, taste new flavors, and visit with vendors. The show is a picture album of the speciality food scene, filled with snapshots of memorable moments, great experiences, and delicious possibilities.
Frank Whitman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org