If the specialty food trade has its way, there will be milk chocolate chess sets, smoked mozzarella elephants, orange mustard, and teriyaki popcorn under our Christmas trees this year.
A preview of new holiday treats was on display at the 29th annual International Fancy Food and Confection Show held in Washington recently for the trade only to munch, guzzle, crunch, and, in some cases, gasp over. (Ever had jalapeno pepper sausage?) This former food editor, who in the past survived chocolate-covered ants and shark's-fin soup, is here to report that the gourmet business is in full fang this year.
The show was held in the new Washington Convention Center, 130,000 square feet of it, which is roughly the size of several airplane hangars. Strapping on our roller skates, we taxied past several hundred displays from 21 countries as well as many American ports of call like Bountiful, Utah; Captain Cook, Hawaii; and Moonachie, N.J.
Food-shop buyers sat nibbling and writing orders at cafe tables between booths. The conversation was gourmet all the way:
''Try this; it's a chevre with chestnuts,'' murmured Edwina Cavaniola of Richter Brothers Inc., as she dished out goat cheese on crackers.
Buyers were busy taking notes on one of the trendier eats of the show: offbeat combinations like the vegetable pate (spinach, cauliflower, and broccoli in colorful layers) or green-pepper pate packed in colorful pottery casseroles.
We rolled past the booths for L. Madlon's German-recipe cookies (almond and caramel), but made in Japan and packaged in tins decorated like paintings; past the Fini pasta booth: ''Would you like to try a tortellini?'' (which turns out to be spinach- and ricotta-filled); past a booth devoted to basil mustard, past another devoted to Japanese chocolate in horse form, and on to Gimme gourmet popcorn in flavors like chocolate pudding and peach. (Another company, Pioneer International Foods, also offers French onion, teriyaki, and Caribbean curry-flavored popcorn).
Those chewy, jellyish candies children love are known generically as gummy bears - and bears are big for the holidays. Variations on this chewy theme were all through the show, but the aptly named Gummy Bear Company had a corner on public relations, with actors dressed in bear suits handing out blurbs.
During a lull, ''Daddy Bear'' took off his head and set it down on the fake green grass, near a blurb claiming that new ''gummy gators and racing cars backed with marshmallow . . . are among the best-tasting gummy products in the country.''
When a voice said ''Louise, do you like mustard?'' it was a mistake to say yes. The voice belonged to J.S. Humphreys, a real mustard maven who announced that there are more than 30 varieties in the show (an underestimate), and offered a dollop of Pretty Marsh Farms all-natural hot sweet mustard.
Another company alone, Cartwright & Butler, offers tarragon, honey, lemon, and green pepper mustards, while Paul Corcellet, whose line is imported by Dean & Deluca Imports, does 23 different varieties of mustard, including orange and star anise.
At nearby Aunt Leila's Fruitcake, Merrellyn Miller of Mobile, Ala., said there really was an Aunt Leila, her grand aunt, and this is her (passing out a sample) white fruitcake recipe. For Christmas, there was ''Everything Nice,'' a brand of dark fruitcake made in Oakland, Calif., from a Jamaican recipe.
A local Washington food-store buyer, Robert Greenburg of Food Mart, stopped in the aisle to pass along a hot gourmet tip: Try the Scottish chocs at J. & A. Ferguson's, he whispered. ''We're buying them for the holidays.'' The Glasgow company has been in business in Scotland since 1794, enveloping truffles, pralines, creams, toffees, and fudge by hand in what it calls ''dark chocolate coverture.''
Ginger, mint, violet, and rose creams are among the more toothsome flavors, and some fans, it appeared, would stop at nothing for a supply of them. ''We had a case of violet creams vanish, but the rose creams survived,'' sighed David Bayne of J. & A. Ferguson.
The Ferguson booth was set in a large section devoted to British imports. Nearby, several Britons from various food companies sat down to a staff luncheon at a patio table - a luncheon menu with a decidedly French accent: ''vichyssoise , saumon fume, saute de venison aux champignons, meringue et creme aux fraise, fromage et biscuit aux choix.''
The British were hawking, among other foods: Belshire, a tangy soft cheese flecked with chives and onions; Sage derby, a cheese marbled green with that herb; ''Apple Bee,'' a zesty drink made of apple juice, carbonated water, and honey; Scotwild Ltd.'s saddle of red deer and a thick cream of smoked trout soup; Bluebird's ''gold bullion'' toffee packaged like something out of Fort Knox; and the familiar Cross & Blackwell label on an unfamiliar product, Branston Pickle, a pungent relish for meats.
The number of cheeses at the food show was staggering, from the popular sweet-tasting ''dessert cheeses,'' cream cheeses flavored in peach melba, and apricot lemon, through the imported exotics. One of the most delectable of the cheeses was a basil torta marscopa with pine nuts, a meltingly pungent cheese with a brie consistency, from Gourm-E-Co Imports.
But when it came to goat cheese, la belle dame aux chevresm is Marie-Claude Chaleix, who had her own goat cheese booth at the show. Mlle. Chaleix, who is writing a book on goat cheese, says more than 300 varieties are produced in France. She is the president of a French chevre organization that held a goat cheese fair last year and presented goat cheese diplomas to contestants. More than 800 chevres were tasted by the jury, she said.
She rattled off the names of the most popular chevres: le chabichou, le chevrot, le chevre boite, le flamenac, le crottin, la taupiniere, le charollais, and her favorite, le rocamadour. She describes the rocamadour as a small, flat, coinlike cheese with a creamy, mellow texture. Chevre has been especially chic in the American food world ever since the hoopla over serving it hot to the dignitaries at the Western economic summit at Williamsburg, Va.. The flavors of some of the chevres vary from piquant to slightly gamey, or, as Mlle. Chaleix prefers, ''goaty.'' Especially goaty (and for strong stomachs only) is a new product: goat butter, which this correspondent finds indescribable.
The Chaleix booth, in the French section of the show, was a chevre's throw from that of a chocolateur named Jean-Claude Panel. Mr. Panel, whose brochure states, ''I was born in chocolate,'' was drawing a crowd of chocolate lovers. Among them was a Washington bon-bon vivant named Robert Lockwood, who murmured that he buys 24,000 pounds of chocolate a year for his marketing organization, Lambert, Lockwood & Co., which specializes in restaurants. ''And Panel's is the best,'' he beamed between bites of pralines and amandas (almond nougat dusted with chocolate and cocoa).
For anyone who's traveled in the south of France, there is a sweet cookie called calisson that is the Provence equivalent of Proust's madeleine. Shaped like a leaf, it's made from cantaloupe, almonds, and a touch of orange, covered with a sugar-glazed wafer. A taste of calisson brings back remembrance of things past in southern France, the only place it has been available until now. But Didier Chabert, president of Chabert Y Guillot mentioned that the calissons (which have been made in France since the 17th century), will shortly be available in the US at Bloomingdale's.
Fouquet, the famous 1 1/2 centuries-old French confiseurm (confectioner) also held forth at a booth in the show, with displays of the soft, powdery delicacies known as Russian fruits, pralines, and a new line of fruit with vinegar: cherries, apricots, and grapes.
Finally, no fine-food show would be complete without a dab of caviar, and it was there at the Hansen Caviar Company of Englewood, N.J., where a display of frozen Beluga malasol glittered like black diamonds. On the wall is a picture of the founder of the company, photographed with his foot planted proudly on a one-ton, 14-foot-long beluga sturgeon, caught in the Volga River near Astrakhan in what is now the Soviet Union. It was worth $3,600 in 1908 when it was caught and would probably bring $100,000 today, according to company estimates.
As the show wound down on the last day, the food people gathered up their exhibits: A woman in a black and white striped dress trudged across the hall wrapped in garlands of red chilies; a man in a beige suit strolled along with a Mickey Mouse display.
In the press room, the man who put the show together, Morris Kushner, was working his way through - of all things - a chocolate-covered doughnut. Mr. Kushner is president of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade Inc., which sponsored the 29th annual International Fancy Food and Confection Show.
He pronounced it a success: ''This show is the greatest show we ever had. . . . We've had overwhelming publicity, with seven ambassadors, three trade commissioners, and one prince here. Since the '72 show we've issued critiques and with the critiques this time, 2 percent said it was good. The rest said it was excellent.''