More than 600 purveyors of gourmet foods sought the attention of buyers, brokers, shopkeepers, party planners and journalists this month at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. And plenty of them were stretching the definition of "gourmet."
Retail shops and supermarkets from around the country sent their buyers on a mission of taste to this semiannual trade show Jan. 17-19, sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. Among the products they encountered: a meatball mix (which was surprisingly good), countless crackers, kosher sparkling water and even Bacon Marshmallow S'more Kits (unspeakably bad).
Even in the recession, food-makers created lavish booths and flashy installations. Costumed ladies passed out penny candy like old-fashioned cigarette girls, and the bowls of free food samples seemed bottomless.
Blood Orange Marmalade and Triple Nut Kentucky Bourbon Brittle were among recent winners of the Sofi Award, a spotlight for excellence. Bacon Popcorn made the San Francisco Chronicle's list of highlights. On the darker side of the spectrum were big, clumpy chocolates designed for shelf stability (meaning, no cream, butter or any ingredient demanding freshness) and price point (cheap). The result: bad bonbons.
Savor California, a collection of gourmet artisans, sent its members out to roam the floor in search of the unofficial worst-in-show product. The dubious honor went to a bag of truffle popcorn. When opened at the Savor California booth, heads turned, brows wrinkled and a chorus of "What's that smell?" resounded. At this show, popcorn served as a vehicle for both the sublime and the malodorous.
Can't miss: 'Hippie Chips' and tequila
Every show has big spenders whose booths draw a crowd of shoppers, gawkers and swag-seekers. Stubb's, a prominent Texas barbecue sauce-maker, wheeled in a full-size trailer replete with smoker, grill, front porch, rocking chairs, red gingham tablecloths and overall-clad salesmen. Freshly barbecued ribs and a smart lineup of tasty products delivered on the promise of the presentation. Another dazzler was Rock 'n' Roll Gourmet, sellers of "Hippie Chips," whose booth became a surf shack where loud music, psychedelic lights and free-flowing shots of tequila -- a winning combo in any trade show setting -- accompanied their products.
But it was chocolate maker TCHO that stood out for presenting substance, not just style. The craft batch manufacturer of premium chocolate based on San Francisco's Pier 17 started five years ago as a marriage of high-tech and food cultures. Founder Timothy Childs, a former NASA engineer, pioneered the flavor wheel -- a way to organize chocolate's flavor profiles beyond the standard description of cacao percentages, such as "72% cacao."
TCHO's chocolate flavor wheel
In September, TCHO launched an organic, fair-trade chocolate line that stands out in a slim field. Most organic chocolates are limited in flavor depth because they are limited in bean selection; only a small percentage of the world's cacao beans are organically grown and fair-trade certified. TCHO passed out its flavor wheel to visitors, and they were donned by chocolatiers who support the brand, and by extension, the effort to make chocolate as ethical as it is delightful.
Susie Norris is a chocolatier, TV producer and author of the new book "Chocolate Bliss."
Photos, from top: Buyers and journalists tried out the latest offerings from more than 600 gourmet food makers at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Credit: National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. Bottom, the TCHO chocolate taste wheel. Credit: Susie Norris.