Paris - A teardrop of salt, a whisper of saffron, a drizzle of lobster: luxury in small doses was the keynote at a giant food industry fair outside Paris this week.
Out with mustard cubes and marshmallow fluff: simplicity and taste were the common thread among the 19 products to receive a special innovation prize, whittled from a shortlist of about 400 at this year's SIAL fair.
But simple need not mean predictable, with flavour coming in sprays, as tiny grains to roll on the tongue or as bite-sized mouthfuls.
“The global trends are 'pleasure, health, practicality',” summed up Xavier Terlet, analyst and consultant for the international food fair, which wraps up on Thursday.
“In times of crisis, with the focus back on basics and centred on the home, what works best are goodies for sharing. Not the nasty, cheapest option, but little, unassuming luxuries.”
Examples could be a lobster oil, made by the last remaining canning plant on the Brittany island of Groix - which conjures up the luxurious flavour from grapeseed oil and crustacean carcasses.
“You can add it to a fish fillet, a seafood salad or even mashed potatoes,” the company's Emmanuelle Bernhardt said.
Likewise, truffle-flavoured Cajun nuts offer a hint of black gold, at a fraction of the price.
Or saffron, one of the most expensive spices on the planet, offered as a liquid spray, by a Paris region company, Foodbiotic, which developed it over two years of research.
“It's ready to use, and easier than having to soak the filaments,” said the firm's Maiten de Saint-Paul.
On the banks of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, Acetificio Mengazzoli, a 19th-century vinegar manufacturer, found a way to bottle liquid salt.
How is it different from seawater?
“Basically, our water is clean,” explained the firm's head of exports Marco Nodari, before the red, white and black vials filled with salts from Hawaii, the Mediterranean or the Atlantic.
“You can use very little water over vegetables and it's a quarter of the amount of salt you would normally use,” he said, pointing at official advice for people to reduce their average intake of sodium.
Precision is often the watchword, like the crunchy black pearls of balsamic vinegar, made by a eastern French firm Coolkal, which promise to deliver the same, tiny dose with each bite.
Or the smooth round balls called “Wikicells”, billed as edible food packaging and developed jointly by a French-American chemist, David Edwards, and the French industrial designer Francois Azambourg.
“As for an apple, we use the skin to deliver flavour, proteins, nutrients,” packing the cherry-sized bites with yoghurt, cheese, or ice cream, he said.
“It can be a chocolate wrap, or coconut, green tea and mint, vanilla, granola,” the sky is the limit, he said.
What all these food firms have in common is their insistence on the quality of their raw ingredients - natural, free of artificial colourings - their ethical sourcing and sustainable production methods.
In that spirit, an assortment of nougat - or liquorice-flavoured “bonbon coulis” are made from pure fruit and sugar, as are a line of flavoured, spreadable honeys, from raspberry to hazelnut.
Though artificial “E” numbers may have been chased out of the game, there is still room for fun, like with an aerosol can of chocolate mousse, which drew some amused, if doubtful smiles.
But the bottom line, said Terlet, is that one in two food innovations fails in the market: “Fifty percent of all investments in the agri-business are made at a loss.” - AFP