Cool eats (thankfully) at the Fancy Food Show

Posted: July 11, 2007

NEW YORK - As if it weren't already sweltering enough at the summer Fancy Food Show inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center, spice-meister Dave Hirschkop literally dialed the heat up a notch with a twist of the pump on his adjustable hot-sauce bottle.

The founder of Dave's Gourmet was inspired by adjustable suntan lotion technology to create his dual-chamber bottle, which blends mild and spicy brews in any proportion. It's like a reverse SPF for your meal, spritzing on a sunny blush or a scorching bronze.

It was one of the more innovative items at the 53d annual Fancy Food Show, where an estimated 160,000 products vied for the attention of buyers for roughly 26,000 stores.

Chiles, as always, were a catchy theme. The show's Outstanding New Product was Tyrrells Sweet Chilli and Red Pepper potato chips, which led an unprecedented charge of products from the U.K. to the winner's stand.

This show wasn't entirely about spice. There was special attention paid to the organic movement, for which nearly a third of the 2,400 exhibitors presented products, and a resurgence in high-end pickling. The cachet of wine varieties helped flavor everything from grape juice to sorbet. Lemon was a hot fruit. There were the usual stellar olive oils (Castelas from Provence was this year's champ). And there were artisan odes to classic sweets, like the chocolate-covered peppermint jewels from Hammond's in Denver, or the sublimely soft black licorice snips from RJ's in New Zealand.

A bonanza of exotic ingredients from 73 countries sparked the imagination, from Sardinian bitter honey, to baobab juice from Mali, asparagus cream from the Piedmont, flaky sea salt from South Africa, stylishly packed Umbrian quick-cook risotto, and honeyed Benimosu purple sweet potato vinegar from Japan.

But it was the unexpected rise of British foods (yes, from England) that stole the show.

Chief among them were the scrumptiously moist little puddings from the Sticky Toffee Pudding Co., whose curd-laced lemon flavor won Outstanding Baked Good. Best Cookie went to the Ginger & Lemon from Elegant & English. And the Brits' cocktail expertise also shone through in high-end mixers from Fever-Tree - the bracing bitter lemon and all-natural Indian tonic.

The sticky puddings happen to be made by a Brit in Austin, Texas, but American producers showed great skill in refining traditional foreign products. Fra' Mani, founded by restaurateur Paul Bertolli in Berkeley, Calif., made an East Coast debut with some of the best artisan Italian-style salumi I've tasted, winning Outstanding Meat for its coarsely ground salami gentile. The Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. won Best Cheese for its Vermont Bonne Bouche, an ash-coated aged goat disc that achieved a stunningly rich texture with pasteurized milk.

There were slightly less authentic, but equally tasty, homages to other ethnic flavors, like the gingery Korean marinade from Wild Thymes (great for beef ribs or pork), or the inventive "dry glaze" rubs from Urban Accents in Chicago, which add an extra sweetness to cocoa mole and Bombay curry that lends the cling of a caramelizing crust. All-American Niman Ranch went international with its lemongrass-spiked Thai-spiced sausage.

There were numerous products infused with trendy super-fruits, like Belizza's pomegranate-acai sorbet that won Outstanding Diet Product. Pomegranate also brightened Rosa Mexicano's excellent black bean salsa.

Wine grapes played cameos in a number of winners, including Didier Goubet's organic merlot grape juice from Bordeaux (Outstanding Cold Beverage), and a blackberry cabernet sorbet named Outstanding Dessert from Ciao Bella (which also made a tangy Lebanese yogurt sherbet and a marvelous Alfonso mango sorbet).

That wholesome focus on fresh produce was featured by some of the best American picklers, like Rick's Picks of New York, who captured farm-market chic in a jar with gorgeous "phat beets" that rang of rosemary and ginger (Outstanding Appetizer), and "smokra" okra singed with smoked paprika spice.

Sweeter preserves were also big, like the intensely vivid sour cherry preserves imported from the Ararat Valley of Armenia by Harvest Song (Outstanding Jam).

Esoteric ingredients, like Himalayan goji berries and aloe, made their way into drinks touting various health benefits. But they were overshadowed by the myriad gourmet waters that dueled over whose source was the purest: Isbre's Norwegian glacier or the Tasmanian Rain "collected without ever touching the ground"?

After a squirt or two of Dave Hirschkop's adjustable hot-sauce spritzer, and the heat wave descending upon the Javits Center, they all tasted purely refreshing.


Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com or 215-854-2593.

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