YES, the chocolates were suave, and the jams often sublime. Sure there was smoked salmon every few yards. But the hit of the International Fancy Food and Confection Show in Washington last week was the D.C. Convention Center. It was large enough to allow 130,000 square feet of exhibit space (compared to last year's 96,000 in New York) and it was so well-organized that countless tons of perishables and delectables were moved in with no hitches to speak of.
For 29 years this semi-annual trade show has presented the newest delicacies to distributors, wholesalers and retailers to tempt them to stock their shelves for the coming season. But the emphasis has lately shifted from confections (gummy bears are still proliferating and are the hit of Paris but show signs of heading for hibernation) to the savory side of fancy foods. Still, as the show grows so grow the chocolates. Belgium, if the show is a reflection of life, is one unending chocolate factory, where all the world's beauty, from shells to cameos, is reproduced in milk, dark and white chocolate. There were even two chocolate pizzas. We were captivated by the Galler chocolate bars filled with coffee or praline, especially those coated in white chocolate. Michel Gue'rard is also turning his superb chocolates with cre me frai che fillings into chocolate bars.
What are fancy foods--or specialty foods, as they are formally called--after all? High quality and premium price is the official answer. And the example given at the opening press conference was that specialty foods shortbread would have a butter content of more than 30 percent. An important facet of fancy foods is imports--$850 million worth--and those imports are largely cheeses, crackers and cookies. Three-fourths of the cheese and cracker sales in specialty stores are imports, and almost that proportion of cookies. The cracker business is booming; Stoned Wheat Thins alone, it was said at the conference, account for $15 million a year sales. In 1970, it was stated, there were a mere 1,000 specialty stores; now there are at least 6,000, and 10 percent of U.S. supermarkets carry fancy foods.
Whatever happened to Kiwis? Ever wonder whats happening to all those kiwis that used to decorate nouvelle cuisine? They are being made into jams.
Welcome to Washington:
Boston Brownies--wonderful moist chocolatey ones in up to 20 flavors, the batter being shipped from Boston and the brownies being baked on-site at Bloomingdale's and Georgetown's Market House.
Fruit essences--Vanns Spices in Brooklandville, Md., is marketing steam-distilled essences from Grasse, the perfume territory of France. Restaurants and pastry makers have long been using these highly concentrated and remarkably true flavorings to intensify the taste of their fruit desserts, and they have been available retail at La Cuisine. Now they will also be sold elsewhere, starting with Ursula's in Great Falls, in the same enormous variety from grapefruit to cassis to wild strawberry. One-ounce bottles are $1.26 to $3.50.
"Five years ago you couldn't find any real food at this show," said Bill Rice, editor of Food and Wine magazine; but the adjective of the '80s is fresh. Fresh vegetables, fresh fish, freshly made, fresh new idea, fresh-cooked, fresh taste. At a food show aimed toward distributors of specialty foods around the world, though, not much can be fresh. How do the fancy food people jump on the fresh bandwagon? By selling foods to go with fresh foods: salad dressings for fresh vegetables, jams for fresh homemade breads, sauces for fresh pastas and pastas for fresh sauces.
Some of the freshest tasting sauces were from Judyth's Mountain of San Jose, Calif. These chunky, light sauces--country garden, almond with leeks and capers, herb tomato with bacon, olive and walnut, cream garlic--are made in batches of 30 cases, taste surprisingly homemade and cost--well, nothing's perfect--$7 to $8 a jar retail. Two of them are salt-free.
And the Silver Palate, as usual, stole the show with the likes of dark and bittersweet hazelnut fudge sauce, raspberry liqueur fruitcake with liqueur-drenched vanilla sauce. Silver Palate threw the most idyllic of the evening-hours parties, this one in the Textile Museum garden, with baby vegetables to dip in its savory sauces and mustards, fruits and ice creams for its dessert sauces.
Now to the local success stories: American Cafe is going national with its smoked meats, marinated in apple cider and cold smoked over applewood. Nowadays chickens and boneless turkey breasts--both juicy and mildly aromatic--are to be found. By the holidays ducks are expected to be added, and the repertoire includes lamb, beef, sausage, goose breast, cornish hen and ribs.
Homespun's preserves, chutneys and relishes are also going national with a mail order catalog and wholesale operation. Jane Becker started them on 18th Street in 1981, and this year put up 12,000 jars of gingered pear preserves, orange marmalade and cranberry conserve (her staff having peeled 12,000 pears by hand) for a Rouse company promotion. We still stick by her hot and tart lemon relish.
Moneymakers' Madness A $60 Wine Breather. Edible snail shells, little ice cream cones molded into snail shapes in which to bake the garlic-buttered critters.
Everything else seems to be going back to basics, so why not food? By now olive oils have gone about as far as they can go--with premium wineries marketing special reserves, a struggle for supremacy between California and France as fierce as the greatest wine wars, and novelties such as bottles wrapped in gold and silver foil, and Leonardo extra-virgin olive oil being packaged in 1 tablespoon blister packs as table condiments (for a mere 5 cents). Next it's back to the olive itself. The show floor was studded with olives of all kinds, plus olive pastes in jars and tubes, and several versions of tapenade, that luscious Mediterranean olive, caper and anchovy paste (though the best we tasted, made by Anita Blatt, had no anchovies). One of these days we expect to see a do-it-yourself olive oil kit.
The olives variations were few, though, compared with mustards. The obsessive collector can find mustards with tarragon, shallots, anise, star anise, basil, chervil or dill; black olives, anchovies, green peppercorns, peanuts, curry, garlic, paprika or horseradish; lemon, lime or orange; sherry vinegar, honey, champagne, scotch or beer; without salt; crunchy or smooth; or combinations of the above.
As for vinegars, we've seen enough raspberry, blueberry, pear and sherry that they hardly pique our interest any more, but next look for black currant, red currant, peach and lavender. Whatever Happened to Kiwis? Ever wonder what's happening to all those kiwis that used to decorate nouvelle cuisine? They are being made into jams.
Some of the show's big hits were not edible at all. The Famous Pacific Dessert Co. might have drawn hordes for a taste of its Chocolate Decadence, but visitors left having bought a white T-shirt with chocolate-colored lettering that read, "Eat Dessert First . . . Life is Uncertain."
Theoretically edible but far more delicious to the eye than the tongue is the cookie train made from a kit by Ginger Fixin's. The gingerbread house for a mobile society.
Some foods are getting too big for their britches. "Chewing Gum for the Rich," anise and menthol-flavored, by Stimorol of Denmark, has been advertised (draped with a diamond and emerald bracelet) for some time. But now the ritzies have spread to chili, with "Black Tie Gourmet Chili." The stuff is not bad, but too mild for most chili heads. What does take your breath away, though, is that this Tex-Mex staple is being made by Italians--Truzzolinos--in Butte, Mont.
Outrageous Ad That Works The Besnier cheese company in Wisconsin touts its Tradition de Belmont brie and camembert as "Unmistakably french."
Put in your stocking order early for irresistible tastes such as Karen Lee's Double Sesame Dressing or Ginger Plum Sauce (from Seven Spoons), and Staud's apricot preserves (available at Garfinkel's) from a small Viennese company that picks special Danube valley apricots for their unique flavor.
We didn't count the purported 1,300 booths, but we tried to get to every one of them. Day after day, hour after hour, nibble after nibble. Still, we didn't get to taste Sorglamousse French fruit pure'es for making sherbets, mousses and ice creams, from just-picked fruits with their water extracted at low temperatures, then frozen. Rave reviews. We couldn't find any Italian booth that would let us taste artichoke paste, and we never even found Britain's dandelion and burdock-flavored soft drink. Finally we somehow missed the robot who was reported to have been passing out samples and risque comments at one Italian booth.
At one booth a woman was serving her colleagues samples of bread brushed with olive oil. We asked whether we might sample and ask some questions. "Do you have an appointment?" she sweetly inquired.
The French have long been synonymous with specialty foods in this country. After eyeing that business from across the channel, the British want to cut themselves a bigger piece of the pie, since theirs has shrunk from 11 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in 1980. They vowed at this show to increase their sales to the U.S. market by 50 percent in the next year, double their market in two years. This came after a British government study of the market and the allocation of $620,000 for the See FLASHES, H2, Col. 2 Fancy Foods FLASHES, From H1 first few months of the campaign, to start in September, and $23 million from the government for the total international marketing effort. We've been drinking British tea for more than 200 years by now, so what's new? The products targeted for expansion are cheese (Britain has plenty, but the problem is that U.S. quotas limit their volume of imports), crackers, cookies, jams, candies, tea, mustard and dry mixes, plus the introduction of game and caviar.
The problem remains of what the British are going to sell more of to that yawning American market. Black currant tea was the only specific answer given to that question in the press conference. Mustards, salmon (now there's a winner for the British) and shortbreads were later suggested. But a survey on the exhibit floor of the British wares--300 companies were said to be represented--showed slim pickings. We certainly liked Cartwright & Butler's vegetarian mincemeat with brandy and lime marmalade. The surprise hit of the British banquet on opening day was Hazlewoods Mint Sauce, a tangy and strongly herbed accompaniment for lamb. And the fact that we argued over the Farne Scottish smoked salmon cured in whiskey versus Strathaird's lighter and less salty smoked salmon showed that both had merits (though we liked even better AFS smoked mackerel from Canada).
The difficulty with Scottish smoked salmon, said Euan Miller of the Scottish Development Agency, is "there is 25 times more Scottish smoked salmon sold than it is actually possible to physically produce." This year they are trying to reestablish the quality salmon image, though he admitted that the finest is not exported.
But we tasted some pretty dreadful chocolates, and we can't imagine why anybody would import coconut marshmallow snowballs that aren't even as good as the junk food we have here, or dried alphabet soup whose primary ingredient is salt. Even the British Embassy cocktail party had nothing to show except a few pasty canapes and miniature pizzas. One woman complained that the bar didn't even have Beefeater's gin.
The grumbling continues about U.S. food regulations interfering with the possibilities of good eating (and good business). No Italian prosciutto. Stringent rules for fresh meats. And no unpasteurized cheese. But the greatest fury has lately focused on journalists, since one in New York wrote about unpasteurized cheeses being imported--apparently illegally--and sold in the city's specialty shops and thus the government cracked down and dried up the supply. That cuts out many of Europe's best cheeses which don't meet American standards but which the Europeans, it seems, enjoy safely. Said Giorgio DeLuca of Dean and DeLuca, half the cheeses he sold can no longer be obtained.
Cheeses are the mainstay of the specialty foods market, and among them at the show was a truly delicious mystery from Italy, Buonacasa's Prontoverde crema di gorgonzola, a spread made with nothing but gorgonzola and "melting salts." No, it isn't salty, it merely tastes like smooth and mellow, fully ripened gorgonzola, about the texture of Cheez-Whiz, and is said to have a shelf life in the unopened jar of six months.
Prepare for pasta. It is coming from many countries and in all colors. The Italians are sending us whole wheat in three different brands--we've always like DeCecco, but now have added Euvita to our list of good ones. And look for Fini pasta in the freezer, tiny agnolotti with porcini mushroom or pesto filling, raviolini filled with spinach and ricotta, tortelloni with the same filling or pumpkin and parmesan. Or look for it defrosted in the display case and being sold as "fresh."
One morning we saw a Fini staffer going back for seconds of pasta at the Pezzullo stand. What was going on? Daniel Leone of Tutto Pasta, Inc., claimed that the whole Italian delegation lined up at his stand every morning for samples; "All the other pasta stands, they look like a museum," he figured was the secret of his success.
Anybody who has felt the waste of handing out his business cards only to have them thrown away might look into having them made by the Ital-Karate company, which will print them on bubble gum.
They look a little more formal, though more perishable, printed on chocolate by Karl Bissinger's of St. Louis. But what we would order from Bissinger's would be the only-in-July specialty, chocolate-dipped raspberries. Fresh berries from Oregon are dipped in fondant, then in chocolate, and airmailed for next-day delivery; they keep for two days. To order, call 800-325-8881, and be prepared to pay up to $29.50 a pound.
Giving us back our own are the Filipinos, who displayed at their booth Jack and Jill chocolate cornflakes. While we weren't excited about the taste and texture of the Phillipines' Mama Sita dried sauce mixes, we were charmed by their testing method as contrasted with, say, General Mills test kitchens: "Our recipes are tested by 14-year-old people, because if a 14-year-old can do it, a working mother can," said the spokesman.
Whether or what they sold we don't know, but the Germans made a big hit with what they do best: a full- fledged beer hall right in the middle of the exhibit area.
Move over, Perrier. S. Pellegrino, the Italian sparkler, is being marketed in six-packs, and adding to its repertoire nonalcoholic aperitifs such as sparkling water with bitters, a pink one like campari and a white one that is drier.
In the "I'd like it if money were no object" category is Souffle' de Paris, a single-serving souffle' in a jar, the jar wrapped in a cute basket. Just remove the lid, put the jar in the oven and bake a puffy and surprisingly good cheese souffle' or Grand Marnier souffle'--at $5 to $7 a serving.
Speaking of Grand Marnier, it seems to be the flavor of the year, in chocolates, cakes, brownies, ice cream and jams. The gift of the year is a chili wreath. The sauce of the year is pesto, in jars, frozen or dried. Pesto is turning into the newest cottage industry; in Mount Kisco, N.Y., senior citizens are employed seasonally to strip basil leaves for the sauce.
On the Calorie Front.
This year less is more. Less salt, no salt, no sugar. Even chocolates are being touted as lower in sugar.
The fanciest of the fancy were at the Petrossian booth. Paris-based, this caviar purveyor is opening a shop in Bloomingdale's White Flint store in September and by November a Manhattan restaurant modeled after its Paris eatery. Look for its smoked salmon, smoked sturgeon and--best of all--smoked eel.
Popcorn's gone grand. We haven't yet found a flavored popcorn half as good as plain or old-fashioned caramel, but now the jazzy new flavors are being packaged in glamorous gray hexagonal boxes in three-box carriers and labeled Popcorn Cuisine.
Beware of anything labeled Grandma's. Most of today's fancy foods, it seems, did originate in some grandmother's kitchen, as gifts for friends or party food for families. But the real ones don't generally brag about the grandmother connection on the label. You're safer choosing something with a woman's--or two women's--first names: Polly Jean (good chutneys "made from over 40 different ingredients" and pungent St. Ives Relish) or PeggyJane (as in Peggy Goldwater, Barry's daughter, who calls her salad dressings' riches-to-riches story "sort of the American Dream").
Ina Clarke's Ga teau Noir came from Dutch Guyana via her grandmother, and this dense, moist fruitcake cured a month before and a month after baking does have a homey taste. It is another homespun success story, from 25 years of baking for friends to packaging cakes in black and gold tins and selling them at Bloomingdale's for $8 or more a pound.
The persistence award: Godiva, for its "golden Godiva pints" of ice cream to be sold in its boutiques at $3.75 each. "This is not the Godiva ice cream of a year ago but a new and improved ice cream," said the public relations person after last year's bombes bombed.
If you marvel at the price of chocolates, consider the cost of selling them. Perugina had the most elaborate booth at the show, an entire candy shop with brass and glass shelves and displays set out like a fashion boutique. "This is our winter collection," explained publicist Karen Collen, showing chocolate chess sets and puzzle boxes and mock Faberge' eggs. Perugina is "going upscale from the Italian ethnic market," she added, showing a porcelain piano as an example of ethnic. Going upscale cost Perugina $100,000 for its food show booth.
Another engrossing display was Dean and DeLuca's, which reproduced this irresistible Manhattan store in miniature, with baskets of grapes and pots of fresh herbs, and lots to taste, from Fini pastas to a myriad of cheeses.
Old friends to our palates are DiCamillo's outstanding Italian cookies and crackers from Niagara Falls: biscotti al formaggio, biscotti di vino, biscotti regina. This year's news is its focaccia, but we found the thin crackers too hard and bland to compete with its earlier delicacies.
If you thought the pa te' had gone as far as it could go, here are some mind expanders seen at the show: Les Nutons of Belgium's liver pa te' with cheese (brie, roquefort or swiss), which had the delicious advantage of mellowing the liver, and Tsar Nicoulai of California's three-layer pa te' of pimiento, feta and pumpernickel, which tasted neither as bad as it sounded nor worth the trouble.
Old Meets New.
In Mary's Riddle Pastries from Oregon, baklava is filled with chocolate chips in a sort of Mediterranean toll house cookie.
The coffee wars are steaming up. Newest on the scene are disposable drip makers with the coffee in them so you can set one on your cup, pour water through and toss away the contraption--or use it as a planter. Cafe de Marque was touting them at 55 cents each; Rombouts from Belgium had them for 50 cents each.
The Barbecue Scene.
On the barbecue scene: While the show was awash with barbecue sauces, the best we tasted came from, of all places, Carteret, N.J. Called Texas Best, naturally.
Most educational exhibit: Nielsen-Massey, purveyor of vanilla, with four kinds of vanilla beans on display and extracts from all four to sniff and sample, plus a fine booklet on the story of vanilla.
Oh, the pity of it: At the grand British banquet to kick off the show there were four rooms full of hors d'oeuvres, but the magnet was the caviar--Russian and American, beluga, sevruga, osetra, golden and salmon. The portions were generous, a couple of spoonfuls being dolloped on each blini. And the leavings were depressing; serving trays piled with half-eaten blini and a king's ransom of caviar dregs. All told, it was said, about 45 pounds of caviar were served, that caviar retailing for somewhere between $100 and $200 a pound.