Highlights From The Fancy Food Show

Treasure hunt or travesty? It depends on your attitude.

Non-professional foodies express envy when I tell them I’m going to the Fancy Food Show. I guess because it sounds so, well, “fancy. I don’t know what people imagine: small, exquisite plates of foie gras and caviar arranged vertically; exotic grains cooked with pristine baby vegetables; elegant finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off; and petit fours.

It’s none of that, though I did try some bourbon-infused, sustainable California caviar that struck my fancy. And yes, there are fancy (and incredibly delicious) cheeses, but you have to find them among a great number of booths filled with wheels of commodity queso.

There are also tiny gems of companies working hard on making delicious food from good, thoughtfully sourced ingredients. But you just might miss their small displays hiding behind the enormous Hormel booth or the flashy celebrity chef launching his or her latest product line.

The yearly show in San Francisco takes place in both buildings of the Moscone Center, over three days. Walking the whole floor in one day, as I did, is a challenge. There’s no way to taste anywhere near everything, so the key is to look at it like a treasure hunt, and keep moving. Here are the highly subjective results of my personal trek.

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Things That Shouldn’t Exist:

Business names like this one

Processed foods like this one that proclaim “it’s now even easier to eat fruit!” When has eating actual fruit ever been taxing?

Overbaked Trends:

Bacon: Why won’t it die? I tried a bacon marmalade spread that made me desperate to wash my mouth out with the (fortunately placed) microbrew across the aisle.

Greek yogurt: It’s great and everything, but at the end of 2012 will there still be room on the grocery shelves for regular yogurt? You know, the tangy stuff that doesn’t taste like whipped cream?

Chips that aren’t chips: Call me a crank, but some of these new snack chips made from beans, lentils, and alternative grains have too many flavors (sun-dried tomatoes, sesame, basil pesto, chipotle anyone?) and their textures are either like cardboard or (in the case of the puffed versions) greasy, rancid, Styrofoam. Stop it and give me a potato chip, a corn chip, or even a sweet potato chip. Please.

An Old Favorite That Still Delights:

Laura Chenel’s line of cheeses are fantastic. Soft goat cheese has become ubiquitous in grocery stores nationwide, but it wasn’t always so. Laura was the first to make this French style cheese in the U.S., and today she continues to break ground with cheeses like the Tome, and the Mélodie, which I was told is now made in Sonoma County, CA, after a stint of production in France while the company’s new cheese facility was under construction.

Greenest Surprise:

Gone (mostly) are the thousands of tiny plastic spoons. In their place, many exhibitors are using clever, compostable, scoops called EcoTensils.

Favorite Moment:

The passionate owner of Vin Tucci Wine Infused (and utterly delicious) Cookies treated me to an unexpected moment of poetry in articulating his food philosophy. “There are some things we eat in life, like raw oysters, juicy peaches, and fresh mozzarella, that tell us to slow down and pay attention,” he said, adding, “We have to wake up when we’re eating, or we’re just consuming calories.” Words to live by!

A Few Random Favorite Bites:

Susan Feniger’s Edamame Green Siracha Hummus was the bomb. You may remember her from early food TV in the show, Two Hot Tamales. She’s launching a line of products to go along with her new book, Street Food.

Oren’s Kitchen Slow Roasted Artisan Nuts are perfectly seasoned (rather than “flavored”) fresh tasting, and elegant. No acrid spices or rancid oil like you might find in so many commercial nut products. Owner Arnen Oren is a classically trained chef who has worked in some fine restaurant kitchens, and it shows.

Oregon Growers and Shippers makes seasonal preserves and jams from locally grown fruit. The jams are good, but even better are the company’s efforts to support the farmers in its region. Oregon is home to so much fabulous fruit, including strawberries, pears, and marionberries, and I like the idea of the farmers who grow them having a local outlet for their produce.

Canaan Fair Trade sells wonderful olive oil from centuries-old olive groves in Palestine, as well as other goods like spices and grains. All the farmers are represented by the Palestine Fair Trade Association and receive Fair Trade premiums. This social venture is providing a much needed opportunity for farmers who have a very difficult time staying on their land, finding markets for their wonderful products, and supporting their families.

Community Grains brings heritage grains grown and processed in California into the marketplace with artisanally produced polenta, pastas, and whole grain flours. This is a great example of how a food business can preserve biological diversity while strengthening the regional food economy.

Sierra Nevada Cultured Butter is sweet and tangy and incredibly full-flavored. I could almost give up cheese if I could eat butter like this on my bread every day.

Image: Embajada Ecuador

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.