Food show faves

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The annual Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco is an opportunity for producers to introduce new flavors to retailers and other foodies.

Having just returned from the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, where I spent two days sampling untold numbers of cheeses, cured meats, chocolate, jams, snacks, teas, and other gourmet offerings, I’ve had a chance to mull over my favorite finds. These are items that stand out in my mind (and on my palate), and which I’ll seek out.

goldenstarGolden Star White Jasmine Sparkling Tea. In a sea of tea drinks–ranging from single-origin loose leaves to biodegradable sachets to nutrient-rich tea energy drinks–this was the absolute winner. The Northern California producers combine jasmine silver needle tea, a smidgen of cane juice, and lightly carbonated spring water to produce a lively, refreshing,  food-friendly beverage. It’s currently available in Whole Foods markets in California and online. If you’re not near a Whole Foods in California, it’s definitely worth ordering online.

vosges1Vosges Haut-Chocolate. The show’s vast exhibit halls were chockablock with gourmet, artisanal chocolates, and I sampled many of them. Most were quite good, but my hands-down favorite is still Vosges. Chicago-based chocolatier Katrina Markoff concocts wildly creative combos–Green Matcha, Mo’s Bacon Bar, and the like–of spicy, smoky, salty, and sweet. What struck me about Markoff’s talent, as I nibbled on a sample of the hickory-smoked almond-studded Barcelona Bar, is that it always results in a surprising blend of flavors that never outshines the chocolate. Vosges sets the standard.

heritagepopcornHeritage Popcorn. Yep, you read that correctly. This Idaho-based company’s popcorn is made with heritage strains of corn, which produces light, airy kernels. Their purple-kerneled Rosita variety is also high in antioxidants. I popped up a sample of this for my family, and I thought my 5-year-old niece was going crawl into the bowl. Forget Orville Redenbacher, and try this stuff instead.

labneLabne. This fresh cheese made from strained yogurt is nothing new if you’re from the Middle East, but it’s getting ready to follow its cousin Greek yogurt (a thick, strained version of yogurt) into the mainstream. Yum. This stuff has the consistency of sour cream or soft cream cheese (it would make a wonderful substitute for either) with a mildly tangy top note. Karoun Dairies has a nice version. Ciao Bella Gelato Co. had their Lebanese Yogurt Gelato, a subtly tart, rich-tasting dessert made with labne and a Sicilian lemon juice. It’s currently only available for food service, but they’re looking into selling it in pints at retail. I hope they do.

oystermushroomsKorean king oyster mushrooms. These mondo-size mushrooms offer meaty texture and flavor that’s perfect in a stir-fry. I’ll seek them out at Asian groceries.

Floor show

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An artist uses Stubbs BBQ Sauce to create portraits of the company's founder at the Fancy Food Show.

I’m in San Francisco for the Winter Fancy Food Show, a trade shindig for producers and retailers put on by National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. (Check out their fun consumer site, Foodspring.) It’s a bustling show, with lavish displays filling Moscone Center’s vast exhibit halls.

“Recession? What recession?” I wondered. 

“Oh, they must have paid for all that by September,” my sister-in-law later told me.

cimg0834The show is slightly scaled back this year, but not that a rube like me would notice (it has been some time since I’ve attended this particular trade show). “It’s a little bit smaller,” said an Oakland, CA-based caterer who attends every year. “Maybe.”

Here’s a quick rundown of just a few highlights:

Infusion. Expect to see even more flavor-infused salts, oils, vinegars, and other products on store shelves. Sometimes this leads to flavor confusion because infusion is a tricky proposition. One flavor shouldn’t overwhelm the other. Sometimes the flavors marry well; others, it’s not so successful. I sampled an orange-infused olive oil from Sicily and all I could taste was orange.  And I do not want raspberry-cheddar cheese under any circumstances.

Tea products of every kind. From rare tea leaves to biodegradable tea bags to nutrient-enhanced iced tea beverages, we’ll have more opportunities to sip than ever.

Artisinal chocolate. The chocolate wave is still going strong, though there are so many players–each claiming to have the rarest, fairest-trade, single-origin bar–that it’s hard for consumers (well, me, anyway) to distinguish them.

One of my favorite finds thus far: Golden Star Jasmine Sparkling Tea. This stuff tastes amazing–crisp, refreshing, an elegant warm-weather sipper. You can find it at Whole Foods.