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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Extra Fancy

If you're like Ms. Slab you're a creature of habit. Every morning, she goes to the corner store and buys the same three things: quart of milk, 6.5 ounce bag of cheese puffs, 750 ml of fine champagne.

So imagine our surprise when, earlier this summer, Shawn Carter (a/k/a Jay-Z) put the kibosh on Cristal; ever since, life hasn't been the same. Cereal tastes flatter, the bathtub is less bubbly, and we've been watering our plants with water.

Don't get me wrong: Jay took a courageous stand and pulled off a truly remarkable feat (simultaneously being, and sticking it to, “the man”). We were still glum tho; boycotting $300+ bottles of bubbly seems an awful lot to ask. After all, we're only human. But we tried to play along because, on the plus side, this ban left us with a lot more cash to blow. So how best to spend it? I headed to the annual Fancy Food Show to find out!Yes, good reader, around the time that S. Carter butted heads with champagne magnates the 52nd Annual Fancy Food Show rolled to Manhattan's Javitts Center. In tow? 2,400 vendors, pitching edibles, drinkables, spices, condiments, intoxicants, and everything in-between. The Porkchop Express joined the fun–along with 30,000 other attendees–to taste samples and chew fat with fine food folks from around the world. Here's what went down.

The first thing I noticed had nothing to do with food, and everything to do with impractical architecture. Whoever designed the Javitts Center had a macabre sense of humor, because the place is really difficult to get to and nigh-impossible to navigate. It's like Venice (Italy) dropped in the Midwest (USA), a series of oddly-interconnected canals hopelessly landlocked near nothing of interest. I mention this only to justify my FFS strategy: sticking to the area nearest the entry, and dropping breadcrumbs to mark my route.As fate would have it, I landed in the foreign foods section. And tho I couldn't wait to get started, I was still a bit confused... What makes a food "fancy"? This is surely a question for the ages, but none of the press literature took a stab. Nor did the NASFT have a fancy little man in fancy pants, standing spry to answer my pedantic questions.
Life's Great Mysteries: the “dog” may have been “bad,” but why bottle it?

They should have; the answer is entirely unclear. Do you mean to tell me that Red Bull-style energy drinks qualify? Austrians sure thought so, peddling simulacrum with titles like Bad Dog and "[monosyllabic adjective] + [monsyllabic animal]." This brought to mind stuff you find in Tokyo: English product descriptions that lose something in translation, and rarely whet the appetite. Color me squeamish, but do I really want to be drinking something that color from a bottle with that label?
Uncle Joe's Mint Balls: Pushing the Envelope of Things I Might Eat

Speaking of which, how about the cheeky lads from Lancashire, England, who were pleased as punch to pitch their unfortunately-titled product. I've never met this Uncle Joe, but (if the picture above is any indication) he looks quite the “man about town.” Must I really taste his balls, minty or no? Even if they are, as the packaging argues, “pure” and “good”? And isn't this precisely what parents have in mind when they warn against strangers with candy?

An hour in, and I felt about as fancy as when I entered; not very, good reader, not very. On top of which, I picked up a headache trying to get a group of Canadian butchers to tell me what they call Canadian Bacon in Canada (this isn't over!). But the thing is, the FFS is really no place to get uptight. There are literally thousands of nibbles on-hand waiting to be nibbled, and it's been this way since the 50's (when my grandad used to trade stories and samples). It's just a surprisingly overwhelming experience. There are too many paths to delicious; you have to choose a route, stick with it, and make the most. So with that in mind, here are some brief observations in no particular order.
Greek yogurt tastes great. Plus, it's versatile. Try folding in a little mint, salt, and garlic (to eat with grilled kabobs); or add a little vanilla and superfine sugar for breakfast (or desert). The good news? Fage, which dominates the US market, is about to receive a bit of competition... other brands (like Dodoni, above) are on the way. Watch your step, kid.
Phat Hass: Aymara Avocado Oil

Avocado Oil has potential. I've long referred to the avocado as “nature's bacon,” because both make everything taste better. But this oil, pressed of 100% Hass fruits from the fertile Aconcagua Valley in central Chile, was disarmingly rich. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed... tho to this day I keep reaching for it in the kitchen, to sprinkle on tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or drizzle on a ham sandwich, or rub on porkchops before they hit the grill. The Chilean guys also suggested dripping a bit on dark chocolate... to which I said, “slow down champ, we just met!” Zing!
Funk Carica

Carica is really tasty. But what does it taste like? Dubbed the “Chilean Golden Papaya,” it looks more like a blond guava... and tastes like both of those fruits “made it” with a mango. And something else. Tamaya Gourmet sells them by the jar, and I kinda wish I had a jar right now... because this is one delicious mystery.
I love smoked and cured meats. If there was a bad one in the whole building, I sure as hell didn't notice. As for the best? Depends on your taste, but my vote goes to old faithful, prosciutto di Parma. That's a story for another day tho.Expensive olive oil tastes great. And, I might add, there are many to choose from in this world. North and South American, European, Middle Eastern, Australian, African... no matter the country, spending a little extra pays off. I felt real heavy after sampling 20+ in a row, but there's no need. Trust your instincts on this one, distinguishing characteristics are easy to spot: fruity, pungent, sharp, smooth, acidic, rich. Just figure out what kind of aftertaste you like, and what kind of olives float your boat. Then buy some. We had great Italian, Spanish, French, and a sassy, classy Moroccan: Les Terroirs de Volubilis, served in small samples like a glass of wine (above).
Philippe and Nathalie Traber, Flavor Geniuses

I love eau de vie. And that goes triple for the fine flavors of Jean Paul Metté, a Ribeauville distillery that has made small batches of their wondrous elixir since 1916. Philippe and Nathalie Traber grabbed the reigns in 1998, and these folks are perfectly suited to the craft. Metté has, over time, introduced more than 80 flavors, yet (sadly) I only sampled a few. The 12-year old mirabelle was absolutely unreal, hands down the best I've ever had: strong fruit flavor that holds its own in a 45 proof liquor without resorting to sugary sweetness. But I could also wax on about the fraise des bois, and the poire william... and whatever the bottle was that I started chugging before the Fancy Food Police dragged me away, screaming vive la France!
Medalla de Oro: Pisco Sours and Good Times at the Rivadeneyra booth

I really like Pisco. This Peruvian liquor tastes like super-fruity grappa, and there's a reason: over 50 pounds of Italian grapes are distilled in each bottle. After tasting shots of three Gold Medal varieties (including a single-grape mosto verde), and sampling a wonderful pisco sour (blended with ice, lemon and sugar), I pledged to spread the good word. This was actually the first time that the fine folks from Rivadeneyra had made an FFS appearance, and it was memorable. Semi-open bar equals... the most... popular... booth... ever?!
So there you have it, a few things to look out for. Or not. Either way, I'm now ready to take a stab at what makes a food fancy and suggest the following:

Cost.

But ingredients often matter (the rarer the better).

“Foreign” status doesn't hurt, either. (French fries... French dressing... )

And, sadly or no, style matters in this world. Especially with fancy food, where simple things like packaging and presentation can set a product apart from hundreds of other similar, high-quality competitors.

Finally, don't underestimate the importance of the reps. Things that work include:
  • A warm smile and/or laid-back attitude. I'm of the school that hates to be hassled, especially by overly aggresive vendors. But I also don't want to feel like an unwelcomed mooch, especially when I'm mooching without welcome. Also, I want my cake and eat it too.
  • Product knowledge. This seems like a no-brainer, but didn't always hold true.
  • Being from the country you are representing. Nothing is more oft-putting than, say, talking South American seafood with a guy who lives in a Van down by the East River, or listening to a French guy unpack the 'mysteries of Morocco.'
  • Spreading the love. In the end, nothing works better than good old-fashioned earnest enthusiasm. I'm not talking cheerleaders per se, just someone with genuine passion for their product. For this reason, producers and their families consistently made the best reps.
And last but not least, a hearty salud to the Italians, 90% of whom ditched their posts to cheer their team on to a World Cup Victory. Aiiight then!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab


Next year, the Summer Fancy Food Show will return to New York from July 8-10. You can also catch the festivities in Chicago and San Francisco, earlier in the year. Details here.

    And I quote, “The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade is a not-for-profit business trade association established in 1952 to foster trade, commerce and interest in the specialty food industry.”

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3 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

J-Slab

This weeks post left me chuckling at 8AM at a USAID office in Kampala that's supposed to be earnestly figuring out what the country should look like after a conflict.

You may see a food post soon on In An African Minute, since I've been dabbling at a lovely Ethiopian place run by exiled dissident journalist who serve unbelievably tasty plates for $1.

Also, I threw you a shout out on Blog Day!
http://inanafricanminute.blogspot.com/2006/09/5-blogs.html

Hasta.

Josh, Kampala (aka k'la city)

2:32 AM  
Blogger Amerloque said...

Okay, sorry for fucking up your comment space, but here is what I was trying to say:

More from Africa:

Based on some inside research with my half-Canadian brother, I believe I've determined that the realest of the real Canadians refer to their bacon as "back bacon" or "peameal bacon" - neither of which sounds as tasty as Canadian.

This page would seem to support the theory - http://peamealbackbacon.com/

Walker, Kigali

3:20 AM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

peace to the African contingent...

thanks for the link joshua. I have to try me some pilau.

& amerloque, great find on the peameal link... wish I had seen this earlier. tho it raises the question: is "back bacon" made in south florida still "Canadian"? or is that, like your bro, only "half"?

12:04 AM  

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