Three men lift their cups. They sniff the contents thoughtfully, assessing its bouquet. "This has a robust, earthy flavor," said Ken Lee, who led the tasting. "I would pair it with gamier foods like duck or maybe a mushroom fricassee."
What was being sampled, Bordeaux or a cabernet sauvignon? No, the men were soon nibbling Bhutan Red Rice, which is grown high in the Himalayas. "It's nourished with glacier water," said Lee, who is chief executive officer of Lotus Foods, based in El Cerrito, Calif. "You're tasting trace elements of natural minerals."
Everyone knows that rice can be sticky or clumpy. That it can also be "oaken" and have "hints of cherry" were only a few of the curious lessons taught at the 49th Summer Fancy Food Show, which the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade convened last week in New York City.
More than 1,800 American and 500 international companies were there, serving a wildly diverse smorgasbord of more than 60,000 gourmet items.
On the lookout for future ways to titillate your taste buds were nearly 25,000 retailers, chefs, restaurateurs and gourmands - including many from Baltimore. To navigate the crowded aisles at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, they needed both bon appetit and bon chance.
Get ready for sea-salt rubs, exotic types of oil (macadamia nut, anyone?) and anything from Australia, the next "hot spot" for imports. As seems only appropriate for a setting where blueberry mustard is displayed next to smoked mussel salsa, perhaps the biggest single trend from the Fancy Food Show is "unlikely pairings." In the "outstanding new products of 2003" competition were a steak sauce made with peaches, green-tomato mincemeat, and rice vinegar flavored with yuzu, an exotic Japanese fruit.
Unusual as the above may sound, however, many attendees considered them to be mere reinventions of the wheel. "This is my 44th show. I came for the first time when I was 8," said Eli Schlossberg, president of Castle Specialty Food Consulting, a Baltimore-based company. "I can assure you, a truly new item comes along only quite rarely. Maybe once every 10 years." When asked to name such bench-mark products, he mentioned olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Japanese rice crackers.
Ellen Thompson, director of events planning for Eddie's of Roland Park, agreed with Schlossberg that there didn't appear to be any such breakout products this year. "If it's new, we want to see it, but it's getting harder and harder to find things that are truly unusual," she said.
Thompson did, however, express some excitement about peppadew, a South African pepper the size of a cherry tomato that is delicious, she said, stuffed with herbed cream cheese. "I'm serving them at my wedding reception!"
That she would address her own needs (searching for the perfect post-nuptial canape) while working in her professional capacity is typical behavior for the foodies who attend the Fancy Food Show. That's because foodies know that cooking is personal. Intimate, even. New flavors involve coaxing and a bit of romance. For someone to open his mouth, after all, you first must convince him to open his mind.
So, while Ken Lee patiently conducted his rice seminars, Miguel Puig of Miguel & Valentino was busily explaining that the best saffron comes from a crocus flower grown in La Mancha, Spain. It is always picked by hand, he said, and must be a brilliant red, "never rust-colored."
And Shelly Haygood of O Olive Oil Products distributed tiny bunches of lettuce for dipping into her Yuzu Rice Vinegar. "Rice vinegar tends to be sweet," she said, so yuzu (which once grew wild in Tibet and China, before it was introduced to Japan 1,000 years ago) is the perfect complement, with its astringent hints of lime, tangerine, grapefruit and pine.
While the food industry overall is dominated by conglomerates, the gourmet side of the business is open to entrepreneurs. At least initially, the only requirements needed are a kitchen and, well, good taste.
A decade ago, for instance, Catherine Bergen moved to California's Napa Valley with little money, but a passion for food. This year, she was a finalist in the 2003 "Outstanding New Product Lines" awards given by NASFT, for her Tulocay's Made in Napa Valley brand.
With 50 different products, it is a whole pantry's worth of vinaigrettes, herb rubs, dessert and savory sauces, mustards and "fruit condiments." Bergen now has 35 employees, yet she hasn't lost her homespun wit, right down to the inclusion of her Jack Russell terrier, Jane, in all the company's advertising.
If you're wondering what a fruit condiment is, by the way, her newest, an award-winning Peach Balsamic, is a not-too-sweet jelly that's tasty on a cheese plate, spread between layers of a poundcake or served with ham, chicken or a pork tenderloin. "We are surrounded by fruit in the Napa Valley," she said, "so we're always experimenting with new ways to cook with it."