"A lot of people feed their pets as well as, or better than they feed themselves," said Ron Tanner, vice president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which added a pet-food category this year to its 54th annual trade show.
"Gluten-free" was this year's new darling. Prize-winners like the addictively seedy Mary's Gone Crackers (Best Cracker) helped push the once-niche category, spurred by awareness of celiac disease, into the mainstream, where the distinction marked everything from Sen-Cha's green tea bars to Twin Hens' beef pot pies, and the meringuelike puffs of garbanzo flour, parmesan cheese and pink peppercorns called Cupola Clouds, from Amandari in Wexford, Pa.
"Fair trade" was another increasingly common modifier to plain old "organic," as noted on the prize-winning raspberry sorbetto from Blackwell's Organic in Red Bank, N.J.
Of course, there were plenty of familiar luxuries to reassure old-school fancy foodies that "good for you" still isn't everything. The decadently creamy Port Clyde lobster macaroni and cheese from Maine's Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. (deemed Outstanding Pasta) is not only the definition of an online food-order splurge, at $48.95 for two frozen 9-ounce casseroles. One dish, in all its mascarpone-and-cheddar-lobster-strewn lavishness, equals one-and-a-half day's worth of your suggested intake for saturated fat.
Truffles, that ever-present upscale flourish, were more pervasive than ever. They infused the show's "Outstanding New Product," a black truffle butter from Aux Delices des Bois. They perfumed Sabatino's tartufi flour, used in bechamel, pizza or pasta. They also permeated cheeses from California (Cypress Grove's Truffle Tremor goat) to the cinnamon-dusted Speziato al Tartufo from La Casearia Carpenedo near Venice.
But there were other global story lines cooking, too.
The weakness of the dollar, which makes traditionally popular European ingredients more expensive, opened a door of opportunity for products from emerging countries. The South American pavilion was particularly bustling, with wild Camu Camu marmalade from the Peruvian Amazon vying for attention with organic cachaça from Brazil, outstanding olive oils from producers like Las Doscientas in Chile and Zuccardi's Arauco in Argentina.
The Europeans were still a major presence. An olive-oil finalist from Spain, Marqués de Griñon, was the most elegant oil I tasted all day; its golden, grassy fruit had a distinctive finish of pepper and vine-ripe tomatoes. The French company A l'Olivier presented an impressive line of emulsified olive oils that spread like butter.
But Americans continued to produce impressive renditions of classic European flavors - like the intensely veined blue cheeses from Oregon's Rogue Creamery that are now being exported to Britain, and the lavender-honey fromage blanc from Nettle Meadow near Lake George, N.Y., one of the rising American cheesemakers at the show. The crackly pig skin and herb-rubbed meat of the whole porchetta being sliced by Porchetta Primata from Todd County, Ky., could have been mistaken for the Roman original.
The French-influenced D'Artagnan of Newark, N.J., meanwhile, gave its upscale twist to the all-American hot dog, filling franks with all-natural duck, bison, and heritage pork.
Whereas previous shows have been dominated by a few signature flavors - e.g., pomegranate, peppadew, and blood orange - this year's products gravitated toward a more general trend: assertive, exotic spices, and piquant combinations of sweet tempered by salt and heat.
For savory condiments, that meant bruschetta toppings of roasted peppers in spicy tomato sauce from Byzantine, chopped green olives and almonds from Terra Medi, and fiery peanut sauce for chicken from Native Kjalii Foods.
No candy or preserve, though, was complete without the tingle of something savory. The elegant pineapple marmalade from Poivre d'Or in Mauritius captured a classic island combination with flecks of "chilli" and sea salt in its mashed golden fruit. Moroccan spice illuminated hot drinking chocolate from Schokinag. The heat of ginger ignited crumbly fudge morsels from Britain's Burnt Sugar, as well as the lemonade from Gingernize that won best Cold Beverage.
And there was hardly a bonbon or chocolate without a sprinkling of fleur de sel, the flaky sea salt that crunched inside the little ginger-pistachio caramels from DAS Foods, and the sublimely salty butterscotch from Shootflying Hill that won Outstanding Dessert Topping.
The trend was so hot that one exhibitor, K.L. Keller, began offering to sprinkle its truffled salt over chocolate gelato being scooped at the Ciao Bello stand just a few booths away.
"It'll be an ice cream cone you won't forget," was the exhibitor's pitch.
It was an enticing offer, no doubt, even without the flax.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.