When you say you've eaten so much cheese that you can't eat any more cheese, people don't believe you. "That's not a real problem." "I can't imagine ever not wanting cheese." "I could eat an infinite amount of cheese and still want more cheese." That's what people say.
And then you go to the Fancy Food Show. You can't fathom how big the Fancy Food Show is. Try to imagine it and then add a second level. If you eat only one thing at every single booth, you would be eating nearly 2,500 different products. But of course each exhibitor has multiple products - the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), which organizes the show, estimates there are over 180,000 products being exhibited. That's like eating every single thing in your local supermarket over four-and-a-half times.
The kind people at NASFT provided tickets to a group of us in the Boston University gastronomy program to see what's going on in the world of fancy food, talk to producers and eat all of the cheese. We spent a day at the show, held in Washington DC this year, and I'm here to report back on the world of fancy food. Normally I don't believe in shilling for companies that throw a free bag of chips your way, but in this case we tried about a million things so I can be choosy and only write about the good ones.
Because, at a show this size, it takes a lot to stand out. I had no idea how many companies were putting fruit purees into squishy, squeezable containers. And you start to get the feeling that some companies won't rest until they've covered every nut in existence in some type of flavor powder. Also, a surprising number of producers told us how their foods could be mixed with alcohol.
A few things were truly awful, which always makes me wonder how the product had gotten so far along without anyone tasting it.
I do have to say, companies are really paying attention to packaging and branding. I don't care what people say, I judge every book by its cover. Many of the packages were simpler, with more white space and good typography choices, instead of full-bottle plastic wraps with pictures of liquids splashing all over and little signs and labels here and there proclaiming unneccessary things.
As far as trends go, it's haloumi. Buy some haloumi stock right now, because it is going to be very big, at least if food producers have their way. I had haloumi at no fewer than five booths, which surely does not account for all of the haloumi at the show. Sometimes it was called haloumi, sometimes it was spelled halloumi, sometimes it was "grilling cheese" for the risk-averse, but it was everywhere. Which is fine, because haloumi is delicious, and honestly when you think about a cheese you can grill you wonder why it isn't the most popular food in America.
Vineger-based drinks, because drinking vinegar is very good for you, I guess, are making a go at it. It's not something I'll be purchasing anytime soon, because it pretty much tastes like juice that you've poured some vinegar into, but maybe that is something you will like?
Of course, the usual suspects were all about. Gluten-free was everywhere. Everything was covered in sea salt and black pepper. Shutup about greek yogurt already.
Let's get to the good stuff, though. So, like I said, we ate hundreds of things. I had every type of hot sauce you can imagine. Every type of sauce in general. So many chips. You think all of the chips have been invented and then there are 40 more. We got to the point where we would only eat something if it looked truly amazing and even then we would split the sample up, for fear of our stomachs bursting. The only times I could not physically stop myself were when something was pumpkin-flavored or ice cream.
So, these were my favorites. I'm not saying my taste is the best and these are the definitive winners, but yes I am. In no particular order (except the last one, which is the best of the best):
As I said, I physically cannot stop myself from eating anything with pumpkin in it or that is pumpkin-flavored. It's possibly my favorite flavor in the world. So, Danielle's makes these fruit and vegetable chips, like coconut and okra, but they have one that is pumpkin, which tastes like a dried pumpkin that has been slightly salted. That's probably because the only ingredients are pumpkin, palm oil and salt. They're delicious. I could have eaten the whole bowl. Danielle's won a gold sofi award (it's like the Oscar of the Fancy Food Show) for their coconut chips and they have some very unusual varieties, like durian. You can find these in stores around the world, apparently, and you should.
This was the product that I immediately Googled after the show to see if I could get it stateside. My new favorite thing is bitter marmalades (and everyone in the audience gets one!) and this one I could eat straight from the jar. It has a dark, nearly-burnt orange flavor. I have sent an email to the Tiptree importer in the states - Source Atlantique - to find out where I can get it in the Boston area. If you can't wait, you can order it now on Amazon for extravagant amounts of money.
This is gelato in popsicle form. I don't know that it makes me think of gelato, since to me that super soft creaminess is what makes gelato so luxurious, but nevertheless, these are excellent. Look at these extraordinary flavors! Look at every single one. Doesn't every single one sound amazing? Yes it does. They are only on the west coast right now, which makes me sad and jealous of people on the west coast, but only because they can get these.
I was very skeptical of this at first, but a few of the people in our group called us after we had split up to say we had to stop by the booth. It's one of those "functional" energy drinks, in this case because it's made from the coca leaf which supposedly does something good (it's legal, so I'm assuming those good things are not cocaine-related). Whatever it is, it tastes good and it really works. It has a clean, pleasantly sharp and brisk taste to it, a far cry from the revolting chemical taste of other energy drinks. I was getting pretty sluggish by the end of the show, but the sample I had gave me a quick pick-me up, and the bottle I had after the show gave me enough energy to get me through the rest of the night (it has a lot of caffeine). I'm going to look for it at my local store, in case you were wondering.
Like pumpkin-flavored things, I cannot turn down ice cream. Or gelato or sorbet or anything in this category. I love ice cream. I know that's like saying I love to win the lottery, but I almost always have a taste for ice cream, even in the dead of winter. Particularly ice cream that has sprinkles on top. So, I hope you will believe me when I tell you that this is some of the best ice cream I have ever had. It's like the quintessential ice cream. Lemon and blueberries was insane. The salty caramel with smoked almonds ice cream sandwich was outrageous (and made up for a decidely disgusting ice cream sandwich we had earlier in the day). Thank goodness I don't live in Ohio or I would be at their shop every single day.
Suan Grant is primarily known for her Scotch Bonnet Pepper Jelly, but it was the Mango Lemon Fruit Butter that had us coming back for seconds. Look at what a good blurb that was. This stuff was fantastic. When everything in the world is flavored with wacky spices, sometimes it's nice just to have something simple. This tastes like mangoes and lemons, which go very well together - the rich, butteriness of the mango and the tart brightness of the lemons, all whirred up together until it is silky smooth.
The best for last. If they added a little pumpkin it would be the most perfect food on earth. Honestly, this was extraordinary. The goat's milk caramel itself is perfectly rich and buttery, but the best part is the 12-year aged scotch, which tastes like scotch. A lot of this alcohol- or liquor-infused nonsense doesn't taste like the liquor that is supposedly added, but in this one, you can taste the scotch. Not to say the scotch overpowers - in fact, the proportions could not be more perfect. This was the best thing I had at the show, hands down. And, founder Michael Winnike and his mom could not be nicer. Seriously, search this stuff out.
Honorable Mentions: Justin's All-Natural Candy Bars, Farmstead Goat Milk Caramels, Hapi Spicy Sriracha Peas, Stahlbush Island Farms Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Eastern Market, Washington DC