BY DONNA MINKOWITZ | The words “fancy food” make my heart swell, for better or worse. In 1970, “fancy food” is what we called it when my father got a gift basket from his boss full of special jams, cheeses that weren’t Kraft Singles, and chocolates that were not from Hershey. That basket thrilled me. (The cheeses were still processed ones, but it was 1970 and for them not to have been, we would have had to be Italian-American or a different income level.)
The words artisanal and upscale and that strange new term “noms” had not yet been applied to food, but I would get a feeling of world-shaking satisfaction whenever I’d go to the Jewish “appetizing” store on Avenue J, where there were preternaturally bright dried fruits and smoked fish that magically smelled delightful, not off-putting. Hence “fancy,” special. We seldom could buy anything there, but seeing it was enough.
So it was with a sense of being in a childhood paradise that I found myself at the Summer Fancy Food Show last week, the national trade show for the Specialty Food Association, the 64-year-old association of producers and purveyors who sell “high perceived value” food to the American market.
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In booths throughout the mammoth Jacob Javits Convention Center, there were literally thousands of entrepreneurs proffering samples of soft elite French cheeses, Wagyu beef from Japan, blood orange juice from Italy. Miles of pickles and goat ice cream and quince paste, an overwhelming largess of “special” crackers and snacks and cookies, so many proffered fancy chocolates I literally could not stand to see another one. (Really!)
Eight-year-old me would have run naked through the convention center snatching up foods into my mouth, but 52-year-old me tried to go for the healthy stuff. That meant the meats and cheeses, dried fruit, smoked and cooked fish, and fermented pickles and sauerkraut. There are no fresh fruits or vegetables in the Fancy Food Show, and despite labels of “non-GMO,” “gluten-free,” “high-protein,” “superfood,” and “natural” slapped on everything, there seemed to be many more processed foods than whole ones.
Foodie culture has had such an enormous influence on our eating habits that Specialty Food Association delights often turn into what are ever-after considered plain-old normal foods stocked in every supermarket: Chobani, Roland canned vegetables and sauces, Jelly Belly beans, and Season sardines are all members. So are the companies that make the seaweed snacks, kale chips, Barilla pasta, and coconut water you can now find all over New York.
And you could (if you wanted to) sample all those now ho-hum products at the food fair. But like capitalism (and often, our appetites), the Fancy Food Show is focused on the new and different. Here are the five items from the show that made my toes curl:
The food that excited me most was something called Bio-Revival “Burst Active,” which, embarrassingly, was… not exactly a whole food. Well, maybe. Sort of. I loved it. Bio-Revival, a company in Jupiter, Florida, uses molecular gastronomy to create bright, glorious “fruit caviar” pearls out of (variously) fruit juices, honey, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar.
My favorite were the blackcurrant-juice pearls, which looked like large rubies and burst under my tongue. They were delicious. I wanted to give them to my guests at parties: they were beautiful, gleaming spheres of juice encapsulated in a ultrathin, taste-free layer of seaweed. (The molecular gastronomy process is called “spherification.”) I wanted to hand a spoonful to my best friend. The strawberry-juice caviar was also superb. (Bio-Revival also makes these jewels out of pomegranate, orange, and apple juice, though I didn’t get to taste these flavors.) The honey, balsamic, and even the olive oil spheres tasted exquisite, and they were some of the most beautiful-looking foods I have ever eaten. I would have liked to put all but the olive oil caviar in my cereal, or on pancakes. (The company recommends the olive oil and balsamic ones for use in salads, where they will not soak or wilt the greens.)
Pricing on Bio-Revival’s website is utterly confusing, but company vice president Eugene Richter informs me that in contradistinction to the prices listed on the website, all products are now available for the promotional price of $12 for 113 grams, which I think is reasonable considering that these pearls can, as Bio-Revival’s brochure says, “surprise your family and party guests with innovation and fantasy.” They are all preservative- and GMO-free. “Pearls” can be ordered with or without sugar, although the tasty ones I tried all turned out to have come with. (I suggest calling or emailing Bio-Revival to order, rather than using the problematic website cart.)
My second favorite product was something called CocoRau, subtitled “Raw Couture Collection.” Frankly, I am also faintly embarrassed by this choice. Not because it’s a line of raw chocolate truffles, but because a) they are tiny, one-ounce candies that retail for $6 a piece, and b) their maker, Konstanze Zeller, is a makeup artist who says she created the candies for “models,” intended as “beautifying” agents for their skin, with “antiaging nutrients that are good for your whole being.” The four flavors of “Raw Power Bites” have names that come from yoga and Hindu philosophy, and they are all made with raw, organic ingredients like cacao paste, pistachios, coconut oil, and molasses. Except for the green matcha-flavored one, which has some honey, they are all vegan.
The thing is — they are the most exciting chocolates I have eaten in years. I tried two, the “SAMADHI — orange bliss — desire” and the “TURIYA — espresso — energizing.” Samadhi is defined (according to Google Definitions, at least) as “the stage at which union with the divine is reached (before or at death).” Sounds like desire to me. It truly tasted like desire, too — the orange essence and Mexican chile powder combine with the raw cacao and almonds and hazelnut pieces to provide a truly sexy, genuinely beautiful bite.
Zeller also says she designed the chocolates to look “attractive,” and they do — surprisingly, that makes a huge difference. Turiya, according to various websites which may or may not have any authority whatsoever, means “pure consciousness,” “the serene and blessed state,” “the highest Brahmic consciousness.” I find it mildly hilarious (but not off-putting) that this is the yogic state Zeller decided to associate with espresso. But the chocolate, which I tried three times, is astounding. It did taste like it was giving me pure consciousness (in ways that just slurping espresso would not have). The almond flour and cacao and molasses (which is, in fact, loaded with great nutrients) actually did make the bite feel nourishing. Eating this caffeinated, healthy-tasting, delicious thing, I was willing to suspend disbelief and think for a minute that this bite might be anti-aging me.
It’s too expensive for a regular treat, so buy it for someone you care about for the holidays.
My third favorite (also not a health food): Les Trois Petites Cochons’ new Terrine Des Trois Rois, a sort of meat spumoni made of alternating layers of Armagnac-marinated prunes, chicken, and duck foie gras. For some of you, this will be an ethical horror as well as a cholesterol- and fat-bomb. But for me, it was like eating a wonderfully basso-profundo jam that somehow blended aptly with the butchest chopped liver you could find. It retails for about $18.99 online for seven ounces (which is a lot even for foie gras, but more than you can eat at several sittings, and more than enough for a dinner party).
Fourth favorite: a new Italian blue cheese covered in coffee — yes, coffee — and slices of coffee beans, from the Italian cheesemakers Luigi Guffanti, called Erborinato Sancalone Caffè. This lovely, almost dessert-like cheese — the coffee tasted at some points like chocolate, but the blue cheese itself was not sweet — was exhibited by an American cheese distributor out of Armonk called World’s Best Cheeses, which had an enormous booth full of little-known cheeses that were nearly all wonderful.
Fifth favorite: finally, a healthy one. Cleveland Kraut, a newish maker of great live, fermented sauerkrauts, has a fantastic new flavor out called Gnar Gnar. Most of the sauerkraut you’ll find at the grocery is shelf-stable and made with vinegar; Cleveland Kraut’s kind, fermented and probiotic, is far superior both nutritionally and in taste. Gnar Gnar, made with jalapenos, sriracha, green peppers, garlic, and leeks as well as cabbage, tastes both spicy and extra-fermented; a funky sauerkraut that you would be proud to have represent you in the world. The straight-seeming young men who make it, whom I met at the show, say that queer fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz is their hero.
Random other things I liked: Malai, a line of delicate ice creams in Indian flavors like rose and star anise, made in Brooklyn. Brewla, a popsicle made of cold brew, awesome and also from Brooklyn. A line of dried fruits called Fruit Bliss — also made in the borough of my birth — that are the most luscious, juicy, fresh-tasting dried apricots, prunes, and Turkish figs I have ever tasted, and all organic. (They get a steam bath at some point to keep the fruit “wet,” yet are not slimy like some other “wet” dried fruit.) Another line of organic dried fruit called Made in Nature that makes the fruit into something called “supersnacks” I would normally disdain, except that these are both healthy and addictive (their Figgy Pops, “energy balls” made of figs plus things like coconut, nuts, seeds, cherries, and chocolate, made me happy). An odd thing called Coffee Blocks, coffee made with grass-fed butter, egg yolks, and coconut oil, is something I hope this culture adopts.