Fancy food

Last week San Francisco hosted the annual Winter Fancy Food Show. It takes over the Moscone convention center downtown and runs roughshod on food professionals of all sorts for three full days.

Vendors bring their products, hoping to connect with buyers. Buyers come hoping to find products. Other people mill about getting in the way with their pesky questions and cynical journalistic tendencies.

I am interested in very little of what fills those giant halls. My big picture take-aways this year are:

  1. If you are thinking of starting a fancy tea company, you might want to go back to the drawing board because, to me, the market looks a wee bit saturated.
  2. I’m glad to see fewer people are risking their life savings trying to start a granola company, but sad to see so many people making “snack bites.”
  3. Apparently there is a large segment of the population that wants to drink water but cannot abide by the taste and there are many companies trying to bridge that gap for them. Many. I predict flavored water is tomorrow’s fancy tea.
  4. There is also plenty of fancy soda on the market and I was forced to consider whether “bits of real ginger” are something you want in your ginger ale. So far I’m thinking not so much. Vignette and Hot Lips still lead the fancy soda troupes on overall quality, flavor, and sweet-but-not-too-sweet sweetness.
  5. While it is possible to package delicious flavored popcorn (props to San Francisco’s own 479!), judging by all the examples I tasted it seems to be infinitely easier to make nasty flavored popcorn.
  6. Flavored popcorn is the new tortilla chips and salsa, at least Fancy Food Show-wise.
  7. I get it. Bacon is delicious. You can make lots of things taste like bacon. Guess what? None of it comes even close to being as good as, you know, bacon. Accept this and move along.
  8. Indian is the new Thai. Or something. Lots more prepared Indian dishes out there – frozen or shelf stable.
  9. The folks at La Tourangelle had already looked into the million dollar idea I offered up to them (I want a source of pine nut oil!), and found it just way too expensive. “No one wants to pay $30 for a little can of oil,” I was told. They are, most likely, correct. Lord knows I don’t want to pay $30….

Each year I do find a few gems among the processed crap, painfully not-quite-actually tasty baked goods, and endless array of tea. This year, those gems included:

  • Bermuda Triangle from Cypress Grove. It’s not new, I’ve probably even had it before, but it hardly ever sells retail (mainly at restaurants), so I had no memory of it. Totally crazy delicious. Note to cheesemongers in the Mission and Potrero areas of San Francisco: if you carry this, I will come to your store to buy it.
  • The folks at La Quercia continue to take those Iowa pigs and turn them into delicious coppa, prosciutto, and other luscious cured slices.
  • Wild Planet Foods now cans sardines as well as sustainably caught tuna. Yum.
  • Whitson Chile Products from Terlingua, Texas. They use a fourth generation recipe to make an aromatic chili base that is not quite hot but is fabulously and deliciously warm. The candied jalapeños are oh so right.
  • Olli Salumeria in Virginia is just getting started. They source locally pastured pork and have a nice Roman man (Olli!) cure it to great success.
  • In a  Pickle out of Fort Worth makes a dill pickle and then puts it through a “sweet and spicy process” with some Sante Fe Grand chiles to great effect. I sort of liked how cagey they were about the process, like maybe I’d go and open a rival pickle company which, let’s face it, no one needs to do because pickles are becoming a lot like tea.