Fancy Food Show is market of gourmet dreams


New York -- Each summer Baltimore's food retailers flock here to the Fancy Food Show to sample thousands of gourmet products from boutique food makers and importers in hopes of finding the hottest products of the season.

Judging by the great many displays devoted to variations on the olive -- olive oils, marinated olives, tapenades and other spreads and dips -- we are likely to be seeing a lot more of them in the next few months. These rich little fruits and their oils were among the most pervasive items at this year's show, sponsored by the National Association for Specialty Food Trade last week.

All things Mediterranean -- risotto, couscous, red pepper, pesto, pasta -- continue to be as popular as they have been in recent years, as were Southwestern items, low-fat snack foods, prepared dishes, food mixes, coffees and teas.

Some of the fresh ideas were whole wheat tortillas flavored with blueberries or jalepenos, and the equally original Ostrich sausage.

"Every year I think they can't come up with a new idea, but they do," says Dennis Graul of the more than 20,000 items displayed at this year's show. Mr. Graul will offer between 20 and 50 new products that he discovered at the show at Graul's Market in Ruxton where he is manager.

Nancy Cohen Kaplow, CEO of Eddie's of Roland Park, says she'll be bringing in several new olive oils found at the show.

"Olive oils from new locales are chic -- California and Spain in particular," says Ms. Kaplow. Spain, for instance, has typically sold its olives to Italy, where it is used to make oil. Now the Spanish, Greek and Israeli companies are producing their own oils in order to capitalize on the huge demand for "healthful" oils, she says.

About 176 companies were selling olive oil at this year's show, which is at least a 20 percent increase over last year, says Ron Tanner, the specialty food trade association's communication director.

Mr. Graul, who already stocks "30 or 40 olive oils from all of the olive-oil producing regions" found a new organic Spanish olive oil, which he will begin selling in his store.

"People will use the fancy olive oils for dipping bread, or for dressings" but most people don't want to spend $14 or more for a bottle of olive oil for cooking, he says.

The second biggest news, after olives, was probably the ever-increasing number of coffees and teas.

"Coffee is just beginning to brew in Baltimore," says Ms. Kaplow. "People may think that coffee has been big, but with the entrance of the national chains [such as Starbucks], this is just the beginning," she contends.

And riding the coattails of coffee is tea. With the "coffee bar supplanting what the neighborhood pub used to be," tea consumption is also up, since those who go to coffee bars to socialize don't always want coffee, says Sonny Glassner of Glasz Cafe in Mount Washington, also attending the show.

"Tea used to have an aristocratic-British image, but what I saw was tea being presented and packaged in a very sophisticated-Italian-modern-yuppie way," Mr. Glassner.

"There were 26 tea companies at the show three years ago and today there are 130," says Mr. Tanner.

Among the numerous teas with attitude, was the new TAZO, spelled out in Greek letters. Its sleek, artful packaging brings to mind the young and fashionable sipping tea in coffee bars in Oregon, where it's made.

The popular grains of the past few years, such as pasta, risotto and couscous -- along with more flavored mixes with these grains -- were still big. "Flavored mixes offer a new ethnic taste as well as convenience," says Ms. Kaplow, who expects couscous to be even more popular this year. Couscous already outsells any other grain in her store, she says.

We can also expect to see more mixes for things like soups and desserts that require adding an ingredient or two, mixing or baking.

"People want to feel that they know how to cook. If you add ingredients, it's not really taking you much time or effort, and it feels homemade. To a lot of people, this is homemade -- their version of Grandma's cookies," says Mr. Tanner.

One example of this gourmet convenience food -- available in Eddie's for the first time this fall -- is Richard's Special Vermont Pizza, R.S.V.P., designed for busy people who like good food. Refrigerated pizzas with toppings such as goat cheese, rosemary, and red pepper pesto will be about $9 for a pizza that serves two people.

Consumers concerned about fat and calories will have more choices of chips, dips, sauces, cookies and cakes to satisfy those snacking urges without the guilt. Mr. Tanner estimates that 20 percent of all the new products being displayed at this year's show are low-fat.

Graul's expects to introduce several low-fat dessert items. "Anything you label low-fat is going to sell," says Mr. Graul, but light doesn't have to mean light in taste. "They are coming up with ways to tweak the existing food, reformulating it to make it better," he says.

Much of the reformulating this year, however, was in the area of packaging and marketing. Old names created new packages to update their images, and some new products used humor as a marketing tool. Take, for examples, the new Bubba Grit Chips, similar to corn chips, and Y'alsa, a hot salsa made from Southern ingredients, including okra, corn and black-eyed peas. And the cleverly named Dirt Ball chocolate cookies, are designed to put a smile on your face before they ever touch your lips. Johnny Wishbone Secret Sauce, made in Baltimore, touts its "Jewish-Jamai- can" tradition and features a fanciful caricature of its inventor on the package.

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