It doesn’t take much to convince food industry types to go to Paris. It’s Paris, heavy-weight contender for food capital of the civilized, Michelin-starred world. But to get 136,500 of them to go to Paris for the same five days—simultaneously coordinating thousands of exhibitions and myriad events across a span of 215,000 square feet—requires logistical maneuvering of heroic proportions. Luckily, the folks at SIAL have been at it for every two years since 1964, self-appointed shepherds of an age of culinary globalization.
We were the many citizens of the Global Food Marketplace, in 2008 and again this year, descending with ravenous hunger on the City of Lights by night, and engaging major players by day. SIAL 2010 actually hosted more countries this year (over 100) and more exhibitions (5,700) than any previous year. Clearly, even as attendance ebbs and flows, interest and internationalism (if also, sadly, plane fare) are increasing.
Parisian gastronomy aside, what actually happens inside the massive event space of SIAL isn’t immediately relevant to the craft of the chef. SIAL is better viewed as a massive, five-day panorama of the dynamic between the professional kitchen, global retail, and the evolution of consumer expectations. On the one hand, a chef’s technique or product could end up on the shelves of gourmet markets, altering diner expectations and thus driving further innovation in the kitchen. On the other, the trends, products, packaging developments, and dialogue that emerge from an event like SIAL can have a profound impact on the backbone of the industry.
SIAL simply reminds us that the seemingly impassable gulf between high-concept cuisine and mass marketing isn’t without its occasional—and transformative—cross-pollinations.
One of the most prominent examples of that came in the form of two products, both utilizing Ferran Adria’s sci-food brainchild, spherification. Born in the laboratory of el Bulli, spherification was avidly adopted by forward-thinking kitchens looking for new textures and flavor delivery systems (with a dash of spectacle for good measure). But at SIAL, we saw products that can bring a taste of the mad genius of el Bulli to consumer—and professional—kitchens everywhere.
The Perlage di Tartufo from Tartuflanghe is no doubt aimed at the ultra-modern foodie, the kind who might have surrendered a kidney for a seat at el Bulli and is now draping every dish in black truffle, in mourning upon hearing news of the restaurant’s 2012 shuttering. Perlage di Tartufo professes to “imitate caviar,” and indeed it does, with the “same color and texture as caviar,” but a distinctive and highly addictive burst of truffle in place of caviar’s characteristic rich saline pop. And while it will surely enliven many an otherwise drab dinner party cocktail hour, we think spherified truffle juice might actually be of use to professional kitchens that don’t have the resources for house-spherification, but aspire to sleek, modern, molecular cuisine.
And it’s not just under-resourced chefs who win when spherification goes commercial. Mixologists might have a new ally behind the bar with Monin’s La Perle de Monin (alginate spherified syrups). Suspend flavors like Cassis, Caraçao Bleu, and Green Banana in your next cocktail and you’ll get the benefits of spectacle (without having to light anything on fire) and flavor-suspension: instead of a balanced but homogenous cocktail, flavors actually intermittently burst in the mouth—a timely innovation in an era of exploratory cocktail deconstruction.
Chefs may have been in short supply at the event, but most of the products at SIAL showcased a market of changing public expectations—chefs take heed. After all, if you can get spherified truffle juice at home, you’re likely to expect more dining out. Products at SIAL were like barometers of changing tastes. Soléou’s Viva 4 BIO Oil was one of them. It’s a mix of four organic oils (olive, roasted sesame, rapeseed, and sunflower) in a 75% cardboard container that protects the oil from light and spoilage, meaning less waste. And, naturally, the container is 100% biodegradable. A product like this only emerges in a market where sustainability and health are seriously prominent concerns. SIAL’s ever-expanding Health-Nutrition Village should be another hint; conscientious consumption—with gourmet contours—is here to stay.
SIAL products largely indicated a renewed emphasis on quality and craftsmanship. La Tourangelle has been hand-crafting high quality nut oils for a century and a half (and counting) and their showing at SIAL was correspondingly authoritative, making pure, bold flavors like Huile de Pistache and Huile de Pépins de Courge (pumpkin seed oil) as accessible to home cooks as food service pros. Purveyor of gourmet heavy-hitters like foie gras and fresh truffle, Provence-based Plantin, brought some of its truffle-infused salts and honeys to SIAL, along with its aromatic, nuanced black and white truffle oils.
Among SIAL’s 106 countries exhibiting, a few really stood out. When we weren’t milling around the myriad products and demos on SIAL’s Culinary Innovations Stage, we were sampling from SIAL’s international pantry. After a luxuriously long visit to take in the excitement at Food & Wine from Spain, we stopped by the Flanders booth and were immediately impressed by the variety and quality of the preserved fruits of Aldia (no surprise, they’re self-professed “Masters in Fruit”). And naturally we were among the throngs at New Zealand’s booth, where this trailblazer in New World gastronomy was showcasing its pristine proteins to a carnivorously-giddy crowd.
Proteins everywhere were on strong display. Prosciutto de Parma hung several of its aged beauties to entice attendees (it worked) while Casaponsa dangled its sesame-crusted salami like a fish lure (with much the same effect). And for those of us not entirely porked-out (which was all of us) Canada Pork was there with a characteristically mouth-watering showing of its products. No doubt SIAL was as great for carnivores as it was horrible for pigs everywhere.
This is a small, fractional sampling of some of the products and innovations we encountered at SIAL. 215,000 feet is a lot of space to cover, especially when so many exhibitions, not to mention La Cuisine de SIAL, require serious time and attention (and eating). But among many of the products we saw, a few were more than viably professional, potential game-changers in service practices for hotels and restaurants looking to increase profit between service hours.
Profit margin-friendly products like Harney & Sons Teas are as high quality as they come (“designed for upscale foodservice operations), so it’s no surprise we went a little crazier for tea than we normally do, especially for the Dragon Pearl Jasmine. Smart buyers and managers might incorporate them into a brunch menu—or, for a larger chunk of change between lunch and dinner service, a high tea menu. And if F&B managers walking by SIAL’s Culinary Innovations stage happened to see Rudy Dupuy at France’s Malongo Espresso booth, creating miniature works of art on top of cappuccino foam (we’re talking bear tracks and flowers on your cappuccino), they might be inspired return to the razzle-dazzle service of yesteryear, before one-touch machinery ripped artistry away from the craft of the barista.
Sure, SIAL is mostly the rightful province of large-scale producers, grocery buyers, purveyors, R&D specialists, marketing pro’s, and even the titans of agribusiness. But it can be of some use to the back and front of house. When observed as a whole, SIAL is like a mosaic representation of the direction of trends, production, and consumer appetites writ large. Whether it’s one of the many products SIAL recognizes as a trailblazer in trends or an innovation in packaging that transforms the shelf life (or quality) of a mass-consumption product, SIAL reverberates throughout the industry. And with 46 years and 23 shows under its belt, it’s becoming a tradition the Global Food Marketplace shouldn’t live without.