Coolhunting at the Good Food Mercantile in San Francisco

Good Food Awards’ founder Sarah Weiner at Good Food Mercantile 2015. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Good Food Awards’ founder Sarah Weiner at Good Food Mercantile 2015

Photos by Wendy Goodfriend

"What if there could be a trade show where the good stuff is all there is?"

That was Good Food Awards' founder Sarah Weiner's eureka moment last year, when she was brainstorming ways of bringing the 150 or so winners of the annual awards to retailers' attention. The Marketplace, a public taste-a-thon the Saturday after the awards, was great at bringing the public out to taste and compare, but the crowds of eager foodies were there to sample and schmooze, not to make deals and stock shelves. Buyers were already in town for the massive Winter Fancy Food Show, which typically began just a few days after the awards themselves. Why not create, in Weiner's words, an industry-only "un-trade show" that could focus solely on the conscientious, locally-focused, small-scale artisans that the Good Food Awards sought to reward?

Enter Good Food Mercantile, this year's addition to the increasingly influential Good Food Awards. Open to all past and present winners, as well as members of the Good Food Guild, it offered many advantages for smaller producers and buyers alike, from a hangover-friendly noon start time to an easily navigated intimate space. For makers, the Mercantile was a chance to talk one-on-one with buyers from the taste-making stores whose salespeople would take the time to hand-sell items they believed in; for the buyers, they could fish where the fishing was good, discovering the personal stories behind three levels of up-and-coming brands.

And for this reporter, it was a great chance to see what's happening across the country, among makers who share sensibilities with many of the Bay Area's craftspeople while bringing their own regional flavor into the mix. We chatted, we sampled, we probably ate too much chocolate. Here, the producers whose creations you shouldn't miss:

From the (greater) Bay Area:

All of Fra'Mani's suave cured meats are catnip to charcuterie lovers. But don't overlook chef Paul Bertolli's elegant answer to deli-counter sliced turkey, a light-and-dark-meat Turkey Galantine that would elevate any desk lunch from sad to super-special.

Fra’Mani at Good Food Mercantile - Highlight: the Turkey Galantine. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Fra’Mani at Good Food Mercantile - Highlight: the Turkey Galantine

No one does brunch for bros better than 4505 Meats. Because every sausagefest deserves good sausage, skip the mimosas and instead, bring on the Cheddar Bratwurst, Bacon-Studded Hot Dogs and spicy Mexican Chorizo.

4505 Meats at Good Food Mercantile. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
4505 Meats at Good Food Mercantile

Now on our Valentine's Day list: snow-cool Mint Chocolate Almonds from Charles Chocolates, dipped in dark and white chocolate flavored with refreshing (but non-toothpaste-y) Black Mitcham peppermint oil from England's Summerdown Farm. If Lady Mary Crawley ever ate candy, this is the candy--pale, powdered, mentholated and rich--she would eat.

Mint Chocolate Almonds from Charles Chocolates. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Mint Chocolate Almonds from Charles Chocolates

And speaking of Downtown Abbey, nothing goes finer with the trials of Lady Mary's love life (or Edith's wandering love child) than a ruby-red glass of real Sloe Gin, the latest release from Sebastopol's Spirit Works Distillery. Almost impossible to find in the U.S., sloe gin made by infusing gin with the bitter, plumlike fruits of the blackthorn bush to make a gorgeously scarlet, deeply warming drink that's fruity without being sweet. Really want to polish the apple? Look for the special Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin, which boasts an extra layer of complexity gained by aging the gin in new French oak barrels for three months.

Spirit Works Distillery's Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Spirit Works Distillery's Barrel Reserve Sloe Gin

If you like Indian lime pickle, you should love, love, love Akka's Handcrafted Food's Meyer Lemon Tangy Relish, a beautifully balanced, appetite-piquing condiment that's just sweet, salty, and yes, tangy enough to wake up every bite of whatever you dollop it on. It's based on a recipe that founder Lawrence Dass got from his eldest sister ("akka" means "eldest sister" in Tamil), who created her own version of a traditional Indian citrus pickle using the Meyer lemons from Dass's backyard in Fremont.

Akka's Meyer Lemon Tangy Relish. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Akka's Meyer Lemon Tangy Relish

And now for the rest of the country:

Let's start with a spoonful (or three) of Chai-Spice Nut Butter, from Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina. Seriously, Berkeley, why did you not think of this first? Were you too stoned? Or not stoned enough? Mark Overbay, Big Spoon's earnest founder got the idea for his anti-Skippy spreads as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Zimbabwe, where the annual peanut harvest was a major event. Starting with a classic natural peanut butter seasoned lightly with salt and honey, Big Spoon Roasters now makes a dozen nut-butter variations from Espresso Almond Butter (almonds and peanuts with Counter Culture espresso beans) to Southern all-stars like Peanut-Pecan Butter and Peanut Sorghum Butter. But for Bay Area tastes, there's no beating the Chai Spice, a crunchy almond-and-peanut blend sweetened with wildflower honey and spiked with cardamom, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, and black pepper.

Big Spoon Roasters - Highlight: Chai-Spice Nut Butter. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Big Spoon Roasters - Highlight: Chai-Spice Nut Butter

Black currant seems to be the fruit flavor of the moment (bye, pomegranate!), so let's celebrate with Black Dinah Chocolatiers' Cassis de Resistance, dark Venezuelan chocolate filled with black currant-infused ganache. In talking with confectioner Kate Shaffer, we discovered that she had sunny memories of her years in Santa Cruz, studying literature and waiting tables, before love sent her to the tiny Isle au Haut (year-round population: 40) off the coast of Maine, first as the chef of a country inn, then to launch her own line of chocolates. After the inn shut down, employment opportunities on the tiny island were limited. Said Kate, "I didn't want to clean fish and I didn't want to clean houses," so she took her professional kitchen skills and launched Black Dinah Chocolatiers. Not surprisingly, most of her sales are online; look for Cassis de Resistance as part of her Farm Market box, a "taste of Maine" selection of chocolates flavored with rhubarb, cranberry, pumpkin, blueberry, and maple.

Black Dinah Chocolatiers - highlight Cassis de Resistance. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Black Dinah Chocolatiers - highlight Cassis de Resistance
Black Dinah Chocolates. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Black Dinah Chocolates

Robyn Dochterman and Deidre Pope of St Croix Chocolate Company in Minnesota were in no hurry to get back to their single-digit winter weather. Sure, our January sunshine was a draw, but the pair also loves to visit because San Francisco is the home of their favorite bean-to-bar, fair-trade, organic chocolate, TCHO, which they use as the base for their Special-Edition Chocolate Bars molded from artist-made bas-relief tiles of wrens and blackbirds. Dochterman and Pope were also celebrating the triumph of their chocolate-dipped, Good Food Award-winning Peanut Butter and Wild Grape Jelly squares, featuring wild grapes foraged from the roadsides in their rural hometown of Marine St Croix, some 45 miles outside the Twin Cities.

Head chocolatier Robyn Dochterman from St Croix Chocolate Company - Highlight: Special Edition Chocolate Bar. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Head chocolatier Robyn Dochterman from St Croix Chocolate Company - Highlight: Special Edition Chocolate Bar

Do you know an IPA drinker who has to mend his gluten-ingesting ways? Or a cider fan looking for a splash of something new? Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, of Salem, Oregon, suggests popping a can of their Anthem Hops Cider, a light, sparkling apple cider with the distinctive grassy, bitter-bright bite of hops. It's the hefeweizen of ciders, perfect for summer with a slice of lemon (hello, Dolores Park picnics!). For grown-up cider fans who don't need convincing, the guys from Salem have Wickson, a deliciously dry and complex single-variety made from the hard-to-find Wickson crab apples, as well as the gorgeously apple-y Bloom, which uses an ice-concentrated blend of sweet, bitter, and bittersharp apples (all Oregon-grown) to fill a glass with autumn sunshine.

Wandering Aengus Ciderworks - Highlights: Anthem Hops Cider, Wickson, Bloom. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Wandering Aengus Ciderworks - Highlights: Anthem Hops Cider, Wickson, Bloom

And speaking of drinking, let's raise a last glass to Good Food Award-winners Sook Goh and Roslynn Tellvik of Raft Syrups, in Portland, Oregon, makers of inventive, flavorful botanical cocktail and soda syrups. Use them in cocktails or mocktails, drizzle them over fruit, use them to sweeten your tea. Our favorite? The Smoked Tea Vanilla, made from smoky lapsong souchong tea, and tasting very much like a single-malt Islay Scotch, minus the bite (and buzz). A perfect treat for any non-drinker missing their peaty tipple, and a nice change from the usual fruity-sweet offerings for alcohol-skippers. Also on their roster: a fragrant Hibiscus Lavender, and an intensely ginger-y Lemon Ginger.

Raft Syrups - Highlights: The Smoked Tea Vanilla and Hibiscus Lavender. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Raft Syrups - Highlights: The Smoked Tea Vanilla and Hibiscus Lavender

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