What do single-barrel pickles, skillet bacon spread, and “Yellow-Snow Cupcakes” have in common? They were all on display, along with 80,000 other gourmet foods and beverages at the 38th annual Winter Fancy Food Show staged recently by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) in San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center. For three days, some 1,300 exhibitors from more than 35 countries strutted their stuff in the hope that their products would be picked up by retail store buyers and become the hot nosh of 2013.Plentils are terrific); botanical beverages such as Blood Orange Chili Juice from Wild Poppy Juice Company; mountains of blue cheese including Blue Heaven Blue Cheese Powder from Rogue Creamery; and boatloads of bananas as in Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s Wild Ophelia Peanut Butter & Banana Milk Chocolate Bar. Fancy coffees, teas (including tea “infusions” for cocktails), flavored waters and upscale, all-natural sodas like Bruce Cost’s sensational Ginger Ale continued the dominate the nation’s tastebuds. For a complete report on the food and beverage trends in this year’s show, check out the NASFT Website.
In the meantime, here's a taste of the delicious, decadent, unusual, trend-setting, tasteless, tacky, or just plain outrageous food and drink I discovered at this year’s Fancy Food Show.
HUMMUS Move over, chickpeas. Hummus gets an exciting new look and a gimme-more new flavor with three products from Eat Well Enjoy Life. I love the Sweet & Spicy Black Bean Hummus that’s topped with a daub of roasted corn, sweet pineapple and red pepper relish, and the Wasabi Edamame Hummus that is terrific tucked under smoked salmon on a cracker or toast. But my favorite is the Spicy Yellow Lentil Hummus with Sunflower Seeds & Apricot. I get out of bed a lot faster on the mornings I know this stuff is in the fridge.Sir Kensington’s has a lip-smacking flavor and pleasing texture. (The ingredient list also notes green onions, Dijon mustard, chipotle peppers, cilantro and cayenne pepper.)
I also know better than to knock a man’s homemade BBQ sauce, but maybe, just maybe, you want to try the Baby Back Rib Sauce introduced at the show by Stonewall Kitchens of Maine? With brown sugar to encourage “char,” molasses for smack, soy sauce for pucker, and orange juice concentrate for tang, it’s the whole package --- and your ribs and roasts and filets (and friends) will thank you.
GOOD THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES In my book, the most promising trend in the gourmet food world is the proliferation of MINIS –--- Lilliputian sizes of traditional high-calorie cakes, cookies, candies and even savory items such as potato latkes.
***I flipped over the elegant Cakebaby line from Ticklebelly Desserts. These two-bite wonders are gorgeous, scrumptious, and satisfy cravings completely without breaking the calorie bank. The Sea Salt Caramel Cakebaby (pictured here) is vanilla white cake with brown sugar caramel icing, caramel drizzle and French grey sea salt. There are also Southern Red Velvet and Triple Chocolate Cakebabies. Tickleberry desserts are available in some Ralphs, Kroger and Target stores.
***Big taste, small size also defines the success of Jer’s Squares, the bite-sized beauties from this award-winning chocolate-peanut-butter candy company. The Squares come in all the original flavors: Cara Mella Dark Chocolate; Milk Chocolate; Pretzo-Change-O; and my favorite, Toffee Break. Made by hand in small batches with no preservatives or fillers. Order on line and they go from chocolate vat to your table in a matter of days.
***And cocktail hour gets a lot more interesting with the coming of bite-sized latkes from Linda’s Gourmet Latkes. In addition to the traditional potato latke, the company offers onion latkes and sweet potato latkes. At the Show, they introduced the new black bean latkes and minced mushroom latkes. All are delicious topped with a tiny dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and minced chives. The latkes are sold frozen and keep in the freezer for up to a year.
FLAVORED VINEGARS Family-owned and –operated Chapparal Gardens, on California’s Central Coast, does a lovely Winter Ambrosia vinegar that tastes like Thanksgiving dinner, with flavors of apples, pears, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. I also liked their Pear-Ginger-Wasabi vinegar which is great in coleslaw and tuna salad. More recipes on the Website.
FUNCTIONAL FOODS I gave the Kombucha Wonder Drink booth wide berth. I mean, really, the name kombucha isn’t particularly appealing, the concept of a “wonder drink” sounds like pure hocus-pocus, and “fermented tea” isn’t exactly a yummy come-on in my book. But I gave it a try – the Asian Pear and Ginger Kombucha -- and found it quite palatable.
A mixture of freshly brewed organic teas infused with organic fruit concentrates, the drink is carbonated, and promises to “restore health, promote longevity and bestow mental clarity.” I’m not stocking up on the stuff based on those claims, but it IS a tasty alternative to sodas, and hey, those folks in the Himalayas (from whence this “ancient tradition” comes,) do seem to live to very old ages.***And, if you’re looking for a novel excuse to indulge in chocolate chip cookies, look no further than the “functional cookies” of The Cookie Department. The Snap Back cookie promises to “detox” your hangover with its blend of ginger, cayenne and blackstrap molasses. The Chocolate Chip Nookie (no, that’s not a typo) promises to boost “vitality” via its superfood ingredient “maca.” The Tough Cookie contains 10 grams of whey protein along with some peanut butter. The Awaken Baked contains the caffeine of one cup of coffee. Taking your medicine was never so much fun.
CHEESE The Spaniards won my heart in this category, with a voluptuously creamy blue cheese called Azul Penacorada from the Extramadura region of Spain. It’s moist and buttery, with ample blue-grey veining and a lovely mellow “blue” flavor. It’s part of The Rogers Collection, a small Maine importer of specialty foods, which also sells the Finca Pascualete Mini Torta, a creamy, nearly liquid cheese that’s hand-made with milk from the Merino sheep who graze on the wild flowers, natural grasses and wild herbs of Extramadura, giving their milk a distinctive flavor.
***From Guffanti, a well-known name in Italy’s Piedmont region, comes a three-year-aged Provolone that’s a little nutty, a little fruity, a little salty and intensely flavorful. According to Giovanni Guffanti, the cheese owes its flavor profile to the mixture of milk taken from cows in the evening and milk taken from cows in the morning. The company also features a gorgeous Gorgonzola Piccante aged 160 days instead of the usual 90. The result: exceptionally robust flavor, more blue marbling, and more aroma. Gorgonzola piccante is firmer than creamy gorgonzola dulce and can be aged substantially longer.
***From Holland comes the oddest of the bunch: Kokos Coconut Cheese, a Dutch, double-aged Gouda (above) that has coconut cream mixed in with cow’s milk before aging. The result is a soft, fruity cheese with a hint of coconut flavor and an insanely smooth mouthfeel. Apparently wineries LOVE the stuff because it pairs so well with all varieties of wine.
***I also discovered the scrumptious flavor and heart-warming story of Lillé, the Coulommiers-style cheese from Vermont Farmstead. Some years back, a group of neighbors near South Woodstock Vermont, grouped together to buy a failing family farm and its surrounding rural landscape. In short order, the farm turned into an award-wining cheese company producing a new generation of unique farmstead and artisanal cheeses. I fell in love with Lillé, the creamy, dreamy American answer to France’s opulent Coulommiers. At present, Vermont Farmstead cheeses are available only in New England. Some can be purchased on-line.
WHOLE GRAINS I’ve been a big fan of Village Harvest grains --- rices, farro, quinoa, barley and more. But I was really thrilled with the new cooked and frozen whole grains they introduced at the show. Now cooks short on time can sprinkle their choice of whole grain into a pot or microwave dish and have a hearty dish in a few seconds flat. The grains are frozen at -300 degrees to maintain their integrity, meaning you can pour out exactly the amount you want – no clumps. Some of the blends are seasoned with herbs and spices, others flecked with things like dried cranberries and almonds.
CHOCOLATE The aisles of the Moscone were jammed with pure chocolate, liquid chocolate, chocolate-covered you-name-it, and even nonsensical chocolate – consider the Alabamoo Pies and Chocolate Thongs and Pasties (would I lie?) from Tom & Sally’s.
But Blanxart was one of the true shining stars, with exquisite discs, bonbons, brics, bars and pralines that tasted as good as they looked. The company’s extraordinary treats include Williams Pear Mascarpone Truffles, Pine Nut Nougatine, Dulce de Leche Praline, dark chocolate discs with crystallized orange, and white chocolate bonbons with lemon that taste far better than any white chocolate has a right to taste. Created in Barcelona in 1954, the product line features handsome packaging with logos designed in conjunction with the Arts and Professions Museum of Barcelona.
***Real Beanz is an iced coffee beverage that promises to “get you through the day” and “enhance your lifestyle” by allowing you to “power up with energy-infused herbs or slow down with relaxing floral extracts.” I admit these are admirable goals. But after a few sips I realized the best way to enhance my lifestyle was to stay clear of this gross-tasting drink.
***“Feeling your oats” is a lot more fun than drinking your oats, trust me. The Simpli Oat Shake comes in Chocolate, Tropical Fruit and Coffee flavors. It consists of “simply ground” oats, water, flavor powder and gums for texture. At the company’s booth I tasted the product made with plain water. It was plain disgusting. If you can come up with a good reason to drink oatmeal instead of eating it, knock yourself out, but DO at least opt for the coffee-flavored Oat Shake which is passably palatable.
***BRINGING HOME THE BACON Of the scores of bacon-blessed products at the Show, one stood out: Skillet Bacon Spread is a blend of Nueske bacon cooked slowly with onions, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and spices until it has the consistency of a marmalade or chutney. It’s great on turkey burgers, grilled cheese, baked potatoes and hash-browns, and English muffin fried egg sandwiches.
***Egoiste coffee was introduced Hors’ a Moscow-based company that produces a half dozen types of coffee. Made at plants in Switzerland and Germany, Egoistr uses a new technology called In-Fi to produce instant coffee that contains natural ground roasted coffee in each soluble crystal. (The proportion, I was told, is 70 percent freeze-dried coffee, 30 percent freshly ground.) The claim is that the “instant” coffee retains it’s original aroma and taste far longer than regular instant coffee. I can’t attest to how it tasted a few days after it was opened, but the cup of coffee I tasted at the show was fragrant, smooth and satisfying.
***Yellow Snow Cupcakes. White cupcake. White frosting with a puddle of yellow frosting in the middle. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone would want such a thing. But if you do, check out Brand Castle, the packaged mix line that also includes the “Brains! Cupcake Kit,” "NInjabread Cookie Mix" and an "Ugly Sweater Cookie Kit."
***AN IDEA WHOSE TIME SHOULD NEVER COME “Stack Wine. Take It With You.” That’s what they call it. I call it the ultimate in laziness, and a boon to binge drinking, by the way. I mean, jeez, you don’t even have to refill your glass. Just grab an unopened one: “Unzip” the plastic packaging; “unsnap” one of the four heavy plastic tumblers that are filled with wine; and party on.
Together the four glasses contain 750 ml, or a bottle of wine. The wines available are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Merlot, but there’s not a peep on the labels or Website about where the wine comes from or what it might have going for it. The hype says Stack Wines by-pass the hassle of a bottle, corkscrew and stemware. So does a quality “box” wine, such as Black Box Sauvignon Blanc. Or a screw-top bottle, if glass isn’t an issue. And plastic cups? Heard of them? (Oh, did I mention the impact on landfill of a new “glass” each time you need a re-fill?)
***And then there was the product that totally stopped me in my tracks. Holy Crap is a gluten free cereal that is high-fiber, organic, salt- and sugar-free, made with chia seeds, buckwheat, hemp hearts and dried fruit. The British Columbia export bills itself as “the world’s most amazing breakfast cereal” and the company had a couple of effervescent cheerleaders in its booth talking up the virtues of the product.
I looked. I listened. I tasted. And, about all I could say was, well, "Holy Crap, that tastes awful." But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself at HolyCrap.