SAN FRANCISCO - There were lavender honey truffles and cloudlike marshmallows with names like Caramel Swirl and Kona Coffee Crunch. There were extra-virgin olive oils from famed estates and bottled water from the lava rock of Iceland. There was elegant gelato and tacky Chocolate Passion Body Powder "For Discreet Dusting."
For three days recently, San Francisco's enormous Moscone Convention Center was turned into a food-lover's paradise as the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade staged its 32nd annual Fancy Food Show. The show, open only to people in the industry, featured more than 80,000 specialty food products from more than 30 countries.
Aisles were lined with Indian simmer sauces, artisanal crackers, pasta shaped like cheerleaders and megaphones, chocolates galore and cheese from Italy's Sud-Tirol region, where a "herd" of cows means two - all hoping to be discovered by retail store buyers and morphed into the hot nosh of 2007.
FANCY THAT - The annual specialty-food trade show in San Francisco recently was a smorgasbord from simple to sublime. CNS Photo by K.C. Alfred.
Organic was big, with more than a quarter of all the foods displayed touting their pristine pedigrees.
Convenience was even bigger, as shelf-stable sauces, refrigerated marinades and packaged mixes for Gallo Pinto and Texas Two-Step Stew jockeyed to help home cooks get dinner on the table quickly and effortlessly.
And there was clear evidence that consumers are at least thinking about eating healthier. Witness the scads of products labeled all-natural or "enhanced" with vitamins and antioxidants, the new products made from the acai wonder fruit and smaller-portion products such as Chuao Chocolate's slim but satisfying 0.3-ounce ChocoPods.
However, as in previous years, luxury foods made the biggest splash of all. Somehow, gluten-free just can't compete with triple-creme cheese and ginger ganache wrapped in Venezuelan, 70-percent chocolate.
Here's a look at the show's highlights, and a glimpse at what might top our tables this year.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Just when I thought I had heard all the hype about glitzy bottled waters, along comes a quaff bragging of "water that never touches the ground." Tasmanian Rain is a new bottled water from the island of Tasmania, which, the Web site tells us, has "the purest skies on Earth." The rain is captured and shipped to the United States, where it is bottled at a plant in the foothills of the Appalachians. The price is about $3.50 per single-serving bottle.
Gleneagles water also claims a distinctive heritage: It comes from the area in Scotland known for fine whiskey (which is made with local water). Supposedly, the heavy rainfall of the region filters into deep canyons where it is naturally purified. But I'm guessing that it's the prize-winning packaging - a sleek, triangular bottle - that gets people to fork over the big bucks (also about $3.50 a bottle).
The Moscone Center was awash in flavored and enhanced waters, too. Hint is a new purified water that is lightly infused with natural flavors, and with no sugar, juices, artificial sweeteners or calories. The Pomegranate-Tangerine water is tasty and refreshing. The Pear is elegant. Both taste best when iced. The Peppermint water is sharp and unpleasant. A single-serve bottle costs about $1.70 and will soon be in gourmet and natural food stores.
Today's consumers may be fixated on low-fat products, but that's clearly not stopping them from enjoying the full-fat pleasures of cheese.
More than 25 booths were dedicated exclusively to cheese, with dozens of others featuring cheese in their collections. We're not talking austere hard cheese or reduced-fat numbers, but rather gooey triple-cremes and luscious rounds from little-known dairy co-ops around the world.
Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Colorado showed off a raw-milk cheese called Sunlight that's semi-firm and mildly piquant with a beguiling hint of sweetness. Cowgirl Creamery's Pierce Pt. cheese, available only at this time of year, is made with organic cow's milk from Northern California's Strauss Family Dairy. Its rind is washed in moscato wine and rolled in dried herbs. Echo Mountain Blue by Rogue Creamery is a delicious cow-goat production.
But the cheeses that made me really swoon were Italian productions that manage to combine intoxicating flavors with dreamy textures. Rocchetta is a young mixed-milk (sheep, cow and goat) cheese from the Piedmont region that is silken and fluffy in the center and nearly liquid along the edges. Cravanzina is a small, soft-ripened cheese, also from Piedmont, with a rich, tangy flavor. Ciamballina is a cow's milk cheese that's hard-aged and dusted with cornmeal, crushed walnuts, paprika and garlic. It's delicious all by itself, even better on toasted bread swabbed with olive oil.
Some of the most exciting fare at the Moscone traveled from Australia and New Zealand. There were admirable cheddars, marinated feta and deep-yellow butters that need no coloring agents. Passion fruit pate, an intensely sweet and perfumey gel that's great with cheese, is imported by 34 Degrees Food With Attitude.
Olive oil is gushing Down Under. One of the nicest is Yellingbo Gold, a slightly peppery unfiltered olive oil from the trees planted and tended by the Meltzer family. Honey's big, too. Airborne New Zealand does a butterscotchy Tawari honey and a clover honey speckled with black truffles that is terrific drizzled over fresh pears and blue cheese.
Judging from the tidal wave of tea at the show, the simple, old-fashioned brew is the drink of the day. We're talking black tea, herbal tea, white tea, green tea and even "extremely green" tea, the description given to tamayokucha Japanese green tea by the Aspen, Colo.-based boutique company Two Leaves and a Bud. We're talking tea bags in which the tea leaves share space with dried mango bits (Tea Forte's Green Tango) and slivers of sweet pear (Revolution's White Pear Tea). We're talking tea in cookies, cakes and even expensive chocolate truffles. Tea for folks who want to relax and tea for folks who want to get up and go. Jackie Chan's InstaGreen, a granulated green tea packaged in a paper sleeve the size of a fat toothpick, is meant to be poured into a water bottle. The action star also introduced Tea With a Kick, a green tea energy drink made with ginseng and taurine that tasted pretty gross to this tea lover.
One of the most newsworthy debuts at the show was the line of snack bars and iced teas "for women" introduced by Luna and Republic of Tea. The new partnership offers a line of ready-to-drink bottled ice teas fortified with the vitamins and minerals deemed important to a woman's health, as well as a line of "tea-infused baked snacks" called Luna Tea Cakes. The iced teas include Ginger Currant Black Tea and Mandarin Orange White Tea. Tea-cake flavors include Vanilla Macadamia "for mood balance" and Orange Blossom "for healthy skin."
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
Every Fancy Food Show has its "Say what?" experiences. This year I was fascinated by a little-known fruit from Chile, the carica, that is said to be a cousin of the papaya. A spokesman for Tamaya Gourmet said the bright yellow pulp is a cross between mango and pineapple. I didn't really taste either in the chunk I sampled. Rather, I found it pleasant but nondescript, with a slightly sour aftertaste. Fans say the super-firm fruit holds up well in cooking preparations. But I'm wondering who's going to opt for fruit that's "poached a few minutes" and packaged in a glass jar over something fresh and ripe. A jar of carica costs about $5.
Coconut water - from 7-month-old coconuts only - gave me pause, too. The makers of O.N.E. and Vita-Coco claim that the liquid is rich in potassium and essential electrolytes, and contains no fat or cholesterol. Taken from the coconut when the "meat" is still soft and gellike, the water is being marketed for rehydration after sports or illness as well as a mixer for fruit juices. The products are clear and tasty with a barely sweet coconut flavor.
TOPS OF THE TASTE TESTS
I went. I saw. I tasted it all. These were my faves at the annual Fancy Food Show:
Sweetriot calls itself an alternative to a chocolate bar. I see it more as an alternative to pigging out. This clever new product consists of the tiny nibs from the cacao bean, roasted and cloaked in three intensities of dark chocolate (50, 65 or 70 percent). Just two or three nibs give a blast of flavor and a pleasing tickle to the tongue. Only one or two calories per bite, 140 in the whole tin. It is about $5 per tin.
They're not the most glamorous candies out there, but Charles Chocolates Orange Twigs are certainly among the most delicious. The slim wands of milk chocolate ganache are infused with a hint of orange, wrapped in a fine layer of 65 percent bittersweet chocolate and dusted with confectioners' sugar. A 7-ounce package is $16. The assorted pieces in the company's edible chocolate boxes are also exciting. At present, available only online at www.charleschocolates.com.
Sahale Snacks were created by a couple of guys who climbed Mount Rainier together, griping all the way about the sorry state of the trail-mix market. Their take on the snack staple offers bold flavors and satisfying textures. The Ksar Blend features pistachios, pepitas and bits of figs, enlivened with honey and fiery Moroccan harissa. The Socorro Blend contains macadamias and hazelnuts along with specks of mango and papaya and a dusting of chipotle, cumin and cilantro. Six blends cost $4 to $6 each.
Talk about a win-win situation. Smoothies made with acai sorbet can pack up to 10 grams of protein and scads of antioxidants, and deliver fabulous taste in the process. Make your own with Sambazon or Belliza acai sorbet, or buy Sambazon's ready-to-drink smoothies. A pint of the sorbet costs about $5.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE 32ND ANNUAL FANCY FOOD SHOW
- Famed pastry chef Jacques Torres has teamed with King Arthur Flour to create two new cookie mixes. The French Kiss Cookies and Mudslide Cookies are moist, fudgy and fabulous. Available at www.kingarthurflour.com for $12.95 a package.
- Linda's Gourmet Latkes are potato pancakes that come frozen and cook up crisp and delicious. I especially like the cocktail-size latkes, which can be topped with anything from smoked salmon to gorgonzola cheese. The product is made in Los Angeles.
- Chicken Nuggets From Alexia are panko-breaded morsels filled with ground chicken mixed with broccoli and cheddar cheese, or spinach and feta. They're tasty, satisfying and an easy dinner for kids. A six-nugget serving has 200 calories, 12 grams of fat and 11 grams of protein. Coming soon to supermarkets.
- B.T. McElrath's new Peanut Butter Pave is a sophisticated peanut butter cup made with natural peanut butter. It is blended with white chocolate ganache and covered in 60 percent cacao dark chocolate with milk chocolate stripes. It will be available at most upscale markets.
- Savory Secret, a small Nashville, Tenn., company, made its first appearance at the show with a savory cheesecake that was fluffy and smartly seasoned with plenty of fresh herbs. Made with a flaky pastry crust, the cake can be cut into wedges and teamed with salad or into bite-sized pieces for a cocktail party. There are seven flavors, including Red Pepper, Pine Nuts & Feta and Gorgonzola & Pear. A 20-ounce cake costs $20 and serves 10 people. At present, it's available only online at www.igourmet.com and www.savorysecret.biz.
- Starr Ridge Sandwich Cookies look old-fashioned but have a bright, modern flavor. Available in Chocolate With Mint and Lemon With Lemon Cream.
- Kato shelf-stable finishing sauces from New Zealand can turn a simple chicken breast or lamb chop into a memorable meal. Billed as "restaurant quality," the sauces come in Green Peppercorn, Hollandaise and Bearnaise.
- Nueva Cocina is a line of packaged rice mixes, dried soup mixes and seasonings packets with Latin flavors. The tasty Gallo Pinto, red beans and rice, requires about 15 seconds of effort and 25 minutes to cook. The online store is at www.nuevacocinafoods.com.
- Toffee Break is the newest gift from Solana Beach, Calif.'s, Jer's Handmade Chocolates. The crunchy, buttery toffee is jazzed up with all-natural peanut butter and chocolate. Visit www.iwantchocolate.com for an all-toffee box.
- The large, fluffy, handmade marshmallows called Plush Puffs come in 15 flavors. They are great floating in hot cocoa, squished into a s'more, or melted atop a pan of brownies. They're online at www.plushpuffs.com.