The Winter Fancy Food Show is here in San Francisco through Tuesday, sprawling through the windowless, blue-carpeted acres of the Moscone Center. It's huge, filling both the North and South Halls on either side of Howard Street, over 2000 vendors on display, all here to make deals, talk shop, taste, schmooze, scope out the competition, see which way the market is moving. It's the biggest food-product show in the country, attracting all levels of the industry from big distributors with furry-suited mascots to small cheesemakers. The sleek Italians are here, promoting the wines of Sardinia, just a few aisles away from the guys touting a line of wine-bottle carriers and gift bags.
So what's on display? Everything. It's both cheering and depressing at once. Everyone seems to have the utmost faith in their product, a shiny white-teeth optimism that of course America needs bacon-flavored microwave popcorn that's also vegetarian and kosher, or applesauce in astronaut-style squeeze bags. Would you like to try a glass of water shipped from Siberia? Wouldn't you like to fancy up your dessert presentations with chocolate-truffle foam, now in a handy squirt can? Goji berries are good for you, you know. Here, you can eat them in cookies.
Everyone has a gimmick. These truffles are vegan and aligned with Indian ayurvedic practice, stamped with what could be the logo of a yoga studio and filled with coconut ginger-lemongrass ganache. These crunchy little cheese straws are made by real buttery-accented Southern ladies handing them out as if at a United Daughters of the Confederacy tea.
Tabletop wedding fountains spout ginger-haberno barbecue glaze as an entire Hyatt's worth of men in dark blue suits crunch spreadsheet numbers behind brightly lit cheese displays. Pisco sours are being poured in the Peruvian aisle (a good thing), Lincolnshire elderflower soda in the British one. All the chocolate is decadent, all the cakes indulgent but guilt-free. And everyone is still smiling, smiling, under the fluorescent lights, snapping up samples and trading shop talk about warehouses and brokers, reps and prices. All the packaging is bright, brighter, brightest. Hand-sanitizing stations are set up at the end of every few aisles, even as it's impossible to estimate how many fingers have dug into the big bowls of loose nuts on display at this table, or scooped into that oozing wedge of Brie. One uses a toothpick, looks for untouched edges or single-serving cups, and hopes for the best.
So what was worth trying? The new whole-milk ricotta at West Marin's Bellwether Farms, creamily rich and lusciously smooth, the product of months of experimentation by artisanal-dairy matriarch Cindy Callahan and her son Liam. Unlike their Jersey and sheep's-milk ricottas, made the traditional way from the leftover whey pressed out of their other cheeses, this ricotta starts with full-fat milk that's cultured, like yogurt, then left to coagulate and ripen.
The company's sheep herd is expanding, with lambing happening year-round now. This means more milk, which means the rest of the country will finally get the chance to breakfast on Bellwether's excellent sheep's-milk yogurt, as the company finally begins distribution beyond California. Callahan is upbeat; 2009 was a very good year for her sheep's-milk products. Down the road, she hopes, might be a Bellweather blue.
Representing the green hills of Vermont, the Grafton Village Cheese Company is looking back to the roots of its popular Cheddar. Tasty, wax-sealed blocks of easy-to-love New England cheddar made be Grafton's stock in trade, but right now they're most excited about their old English-style wheels of bandage-wrapped cheddar.
Raw milk from their two best farms goes straight from the milking parlors into the cheese-making rooms. Once the cheeses are formed and cloth-wrapped, they're sent over the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a custom aging facility built by the small-batch cheesemakers of Jasper Hill. The cloth wrapping lets the cheese breathe as it ages, collecting more flavor-inducing bacteria and developing an alluring bovine funk over 16 months in the caves. It's not quite up to the grand complexity of a great English cheddars like Montgomery, but it's closer than most. So far, the company is selling it by the wheel to a small number of cheese stores and high-end supermarkets.
Sauerkraut hasn't hit the scene yet, although it feels like a safe bet that it will by next year. Instead, there's the palate-cleansing, corpse-reviving blast of Mother-in-Law's Kimchi neatly balanced between crunch and bite, heat and ferment.
Putting her mother and aunt to work serving up samples is company founder Lauryn Chun, who got the idea after hauling jars of her mother's homemade kimchi home to New York City following every visit home. Friends devoured the spicy condiment and begged for more. Now, she sells her Mason jars of fermented cabbage in fancy New York gourmet shops like Dean & Deluca as well at Bay Area-based online retailer Foodzie. While Chun organizes kimchi-and-wine pairings in Manhattan, her mother stands by a more traditional approach. "Koreans eat it three times a day," she tells curious customers at her daughter's stand. "If we don't have kimchi, we can't eat."
Something to drink? There's lemon-ginger and berry-hibiscus kombucha, ready to retail at $3.50 a pop over at the Honest Tea booth. It tastes like kombucha does, like diluted cider vinegar with a hint of fruit. It will be rolling out nationally in March, and already the spokespeople at the booth can hear the happy hippie ka-ching at the registers of Whole Foods and elsewhere.
More alluring are the Edwardian English-summer drinks from Belvoir: a lightly herbal elderflower pressé the color of pale champagne, a vigorous, not-too-sweet ginger beer. Lovely on their own, they'd also make wonderful bases for summer cocktails, if San Francisco's bartenders ever look up from their current hot-and-heavy with absinthe and bitters. What could be more ladylike than a double-elderflower whammy with the ubiquitous St. Germain elderflower liqueur?
And then, of course, comes chocolate. Chocolate is everywhere. It's still decadent, still indulgent, saving the world through fair-trade sourcing, scouring out those annoying free radicals, filled with everything from red wine to lemongrass. The cream of the crop, though, is elegant Valrhona, still clad in French Vogue-editor matte black. But the doors to the chateau have been eased open slowly, as the company launches an expanded line of baking chocolates geared towards the serious home cook, along with more single-origin bars and bonbon assortments. A box of 52 squares, each a single bite, is divvied up between 4 levels of cocoa percentage (from a 33% milk to a 70% dark) and 4 places of origin. It's the size of a small jewelry box, and much more of a sure thing, especially for the ladies on your list.
Ginger continues its ascendancy, in both sweet and savory alike. But never better than in the teeth-sticking chewies of the Ginger People, who clearly know just what this sample-weary audience needs.