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Daunting but delicious munching at the 2011 Fancy Food Show

| Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011

Some vendors mutter that the switched venue — the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., instead of New York City's under-renovation Javits Center — mutes the energy of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's 57th annual Summer Fancy Food Show.

Certainly, attendance is down. Still, the event, playing out over three super-sultry days, draws 2,400 exhibitors from 80 countries to showcase 180,000 specialty foods and beverages.

No small potatoes, although Peru has piles of those, too.

Celebrity chefs roam the aisles or man booths. Patti LaBelle pitches her Lady Marmalade BBQ sauce line, and heads snap around at an Obama impersonator hawking hummus and falafel. Curious George joins the throngs, as does the Dalai Lama and Colombian Coffee's Juan Valdez, sans burro.

Competition is keen for the top prizes of Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation (sofi's), with a record 2,236 entries in 33 categories. A living sofi, that Oscar-like statuette with a chef's hat, engages the crowds.

As usual, there are oceans of oils — coconut, rice bran, olive, avocado and, for an earthy, nutty twist, Hammons Black Walnut Oil ( ).

Mountains of meats stretch out along miles of aisles, along with salsas galore, fine chocolates, innovative condiments and beverages from tea and wine to mezcal and craft beer.

Some products misstep badly: BaconAir — bacon-flavor oxygen inhalers — really• And, who lusts after a portrait of Daniel Radcliffe composed of jelly beans, or a tool set of full-size wrenches, bolts and pliers made of milk chocolate.

But, on the whole, it really is the tastiest trade show on earth.

This year, a trendy Korean Pop-Up Restaurant, Hansik, adds excitement. Chef Akira Back, from Yellowtail Restaurant & Lounge at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, hosts a menu of new flavors — sea squirts with finger lime caviar, nasturtium leaves and vanilla essence; free-range chicken with ginseng air and ssam jang. Recently claiming title to the hot new cuisine, Korean food occupies more than 25 exhibit booths.

Top trends

Real time, official coverage of the event streams on Facebook and Twitter. A panel of trendspotters spreads out across the show floor to identify and communicate the top five trends. The panel's verdict:

Booze-infused foods: Scotch, tequila, whisky — especially bourbon

DIY: Mushroom growing, mozzarella making, cakepop kits

Popped food: Corn, rice, sorghum

Japanese-inspired: Candy, barbecue sauce, tea and seaweed

Cherries: This year's flavor king and fruit of the moment

Other reviewers offer additional notes on what to watch for in 2011-12:

Finger Limes ( ): Chefs love playing with this petite, pinky-finger-size Australian citrus fruit, now also grown in California. The interior pulp has the look and texture of caviar, yielding bright pops of tart citrus.

Anything/everything goes chocolate: Dark, white, milk, spiced with chilies, mixed with sea salt, single origin, Fair Trade

Goat-milk caramels and dessert toppings: Especially with sea salt

Ghost peppers: The new "hot" chile, said to be the world's hottest, according to the Guinness Book of World Records

Artisanal ketchup: Including pumpkin

Gluten-Free: The fastest-growing segment of the specialty-food market

Mini-size treats and downsized-portion packaging

Of course, the cheeses, global and domestic, truly are amazing. Ditto the artisan meats — especially the hams, including Prosciutto de Parma, San Daniele Prosciutto and the incomparable Iberico de Bellota from Fermin ( ). Crackers and snacks of all sorts continue an explosive growth. Tea tops the beverage list, but the most arresting new drink is blk ( ) — jet-black, said to be nutrient-rich spring water.

Exotic sea salts retained their fascination, but packaging efforts outpace the drive for sheer numbers of varieties. The Spice Lab's Gourmet Sea Salts ( ) combine a hand-crafted wood base with corked Pyrex test tubes of globally sourced salts for a unique gift item.

Other product standouts

Garlic it! Caramelized Garlic Finish ( ) scores overall Outstanding New Product. First-time competitors Lance and Lori Kezner discovered the tasty residue at the bottom of a glass jar of their homemade salad dressing. A Wow moment led to intensive R&D, the start of a company and a versatile new product brought to market. Triple blanching, seasoning and caramelizing mellows out the garlic. Use it as a flavor-enhancer, a condiment or an ingredient.

Ciao Bella Gelato Chocolate S'mores ( ), made with Belgian chocolate, chocolate chunks and marshmallow swirls, adds the 17th gold sofi to the company's trove of awards. But, don't stop at one. Work your way through the more than 50 amazing, chef-inspired flavors of gelato, gelato squares, sorbets and sorbet bars.

Anette's Chocolates , ( ) makes, among other confections, irresistible, addictive brittles. Winner of Outstanding Snack Food, the latest is fabulous — Chili Lime Tequila Tortilla Brittle . And, don't miss the Dark Chocolate Merlot Fudge Sauce .

Certified organic 479° Popcorn ( ) comes in eight flavors ranging from fleur de Sel Caramel to Black Truffle + White Cheddar.

Chuao ( ), known for ingenuity, mixes lightly salted, kettle-cooked potato chips with fine milk chocolate in a bar.

Kitchen Table Bakers' Parmesan Crisps ( ), made entirely of cheese, deservedly takes Outstanding Cracker. Available in nine flavors — including one called Everything — this "Natural Decadence" is free of wheat, gluten, sugar and trans fat.

Johnston County Country Cured Hams ( ) represent a Southern tradition modified by trimming the salt quantity and curing a locally raised, Austrian heritage breed, Mangalista (wooly) pig. Both the bacon and the prosciutto are exceptional, with appropriate "funk."

Lark Fine Foods' Salted Rosemary Shortbread Cookies ( ), marketed as cookies for grown-ups, appeal to sophisticated tastes. Also try sister-cookies: Cha-Chas , reminiscent of spicy Mexican chocolate cookies; Scourtins , French-style sweet and savory olive wafers; and Polenta Pennies , bite-size polenta cookies laced with lemon and studded with golden raisins.

Tate's Bake Shop makes the top cookie: Whole Wheat and Dark Chocolate ( ). Also, sample another thin, crisp biscuit, Almondina ( ), whose founder, an accomplished symphony conductor, uses his late grandmother's secret recipe.

Top condiment goes to Spiced Sour Cherry Spread ( ), a lush accompaniment to duck, game, cheese and ice cream.

Stubbs ( ) is an iconic line of barbecue sauces, marinades and rubs inspired by the late C.B. Stubblefield. His grandsons now work in the business. The Dizzy Pig ( ) puts a fresh spin on barbecue rubs by starting with fresh spices, blended in small batches. Choose from 11 styles.

Mary Keehn's Cypress Grove cheeses ( ) are world famous — Humboldt Fog, Truffle Tremor, Purple Haze. In addition, this year, she debuted a definite show stopper: a multitier wedding cake made entirely of her cheeses. Find assembly instructions on her website. She says she served one of these at her wedding.

As the show winds down, there's no time for one more olive or pickle or bite of porchetta. Volunteers move in to collect all specialty food and beverage remnants — 153,000 pounds, enough to fill eight tractor trailers. NAFT exhibitors donate all of this product to D.C. Central Kitchen, a hunger-relief organization.

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