My Best Product Picks… Winter Fancy Food Show

18 01 2011

The San Francisco Fancy Food Show is almost done, only a few more hours to go! I spent five hours day one and three today tasting through as much as I could, hard work, really! I think I could not have eaten more cheese than I did yesterday. Overall there were a ton of great new products, but I have gathered some information about some of my favorites, so look for them! I am also mentioning some of my favorite products that even though they are familiar I had to sample again. Exciting trends and popular items I found were the ghost chile, single origin chocolate, tea made from chocolate, salumi, chocolate bars and truffles, and low calorie, dry sodas and beverages.

Taste No. 5 Umami Paste
This was a real shocker to find, within the booth at Picadilly Imports is this gem, gorgeous packaging and a truly unique product. Umami is of course considered the 5th taste, a taste of savory deliciousness found in products high in glutamic acids, the artificial version being MSG. Here producer Laura Santtini has taken the products that are famous for being high in umami and combined them to create a paste that can transform a bland meal into something more savory. The paste includes tomato, Parmesan cheese and porcini mushroom and is in a tube perfect for smearing onto a cracker or using as a rub for fish or meats Another great idea is a squeeze tossed into pasta. On its own it was really good, and on a little cube of cheese also delicious, and shelf stable before opening

Mrs. Renfro’s Gourmet Salsa
I rarely if ever eat salsa in a jar, but just the other day my favorite Mexican market salsa even disappointed, I mean you just can’t get great tomatoes right now, so maybe this put me in just the right mood to dig the Mrs. Renfro’s Ghost Pepper Salsa! Also the ghost pepper, who knew? in 2007 the Guinness Book of World Records confirmed that the Bhut Jolokia is the hottest pepper ever, not sure why or how they did this, but… It has a kick very unlike most jarred salsas which I often find so dull and boring… I am sure that their other salsas must be great as well, but I am literally going out to buy this very soon. I think that it would be fantastic on eggs.

Original Glop
A Parmesan cheese and olive oil concoction that is ideal for dollops atop a burger or cracker. Truly delicious and they also make some other fun sauces.

Bella Cucina
Numerous beautiful dips and delicious light crackers and the most beautifully decorated stand in the entire show.


Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Definitely search out the American Cheese Society with a big presence from Wisconsin cheeses, my favorite was the Bleu Mont Dairy Co. Reserve, you could really taste the milk and the grass that the cows fed on in this cheese despite the long aging time.

Redwood Hill Farm
I am a huge fan of Redwood Hill Farm’s goat cheeses, especially Camellia and Cameo, although I am usually not so into goats cheeses. These still have the goaty flavor (which I enjoy) but without the dry chalkiness. The Cameo has peppercorns and lemon verbena laid on top of the cheese for added flavor.

Cypress Grove
Although most bee-line for the Humboldt Fog, I am less of a fan of that but a huge fan of the Lamb Chopper, a firmer cheese with a great nutty texture. Just delicious.

Rustic Bakery
Some of the best crackers out there, and luckily I had to keep moving because I could eat their cheese coins all day long.

Mozzarella Company Dallas Texas
This company has a really nice Scamorza and offered a really unique pairing of their blue with a ginger snap, it’s more of a dessert cheese, soft and spreadable rather than crumbly. Very tasty.

One of my favorite French cheeses from the Jura, really simple nutty and delicious. I love to chop it into bite sized pieces and take it on trips for snacking.

I have always been a fan of Karoun string cheese, especially with caraway seeds, but now they also have Yanni, a grillable that’s less salty than Haloumi. Really tasty and they are a local producer here in Northern California.

CC MADE Artisanal Caramel
These amazing caramels and caramel sauces are not to be missed! Try a cone of caramel corn in one of two flavors, Pistachio Caramel and Spiced Almond Caramel or the Bitter Sea Salt caramel. Cassandra Chen and I worked together at Jardiniere and so I am so happy to have a chance to once again taste her creations! She’s a foodie and really knows flavor, so as a fun exercise she has also paired her caramel sauces with unique salts. She was also kind enough to give me tips on her favorite products in the room! CC Made is in the New Product area.

Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolates
I got drawn into this huge booth by the Muscat grapes soaked in Shiraz and covered in chocolate, like a grown up Raisinette, and then by the Lemon Ginger Yuzu Gummy Bear, delicious. Then I saw it, “Apple Ghost Chile Caramel” and was extremely intrigued. I had up to this point never heard of ghost chile

Moonstruck Chocolate Co.
Single Origin Chocolate Venezuelan 39% and 74% and Dominican Republic 72% Chef Julian Rose is Master Chocolatier and Director of Research and Development. Their catalogs they have some really fun truffle like critters, a Toffee Pig, and Extra Bittersweet Lamb. Fortunato No. 4 is a bar made from Pure Nacional cacao, thought to be extinct but found in a remote canyon in Peru and Moonstruck is the exclusive retailer in the US. They also have Chocolate Cafes if you find yourself in the Portland area.

Dufflet Small Indulgences www.
Caramel Crackle almond and pistachio salty crispy crunchy snack and other crispy bark type chocolate snacks. Very tasty!

Fearless Chocolate
Raw Organic Chocolate, San Francisco Bay Area based. I recommend the Super Seeds Crunch 70% Cacao

Olli Salumeria
Made by 4th Generation Italian Salumiere Olli Colmignoli these salames are made with pork from pasture bred pigs on sustainable farms. The Lomo and Coppa were particularly good, my last bite yesterday and I have planned that it will be my first bite today. They are located in the new products room and are well worth a visit!

La Quercia Genuine Artisan Cured Meats
Owned by Herb and Kathy Eckhouse La Quercia specializes in amazing organic charcuterie products hand made using high quality base products. All the meats are great, especially their Berkshire Heirloom Prosciutto (the first and only organic prosciutto currently available in the US) and a great thing is their packaging has biodegradable interleaving.

Hudson Valley Foie Gras
Do not miss this booth! Foie gras, rillettes and charcuterie abound, and perhaps you can talk to them about how you can help defend your freedom to choose because foie gras becomes illegal in 2012, I guess it’s ok since the world will have ended and what not…

I have always been a fan of Yamamotoyama’s teas, especially their packets of easy to mix iced Japanese green tea (great to drop into any water bottle while you are travelling and don’t have time to make a coffee in your hotel room!) Today I tried an amazing and fun product, SushiParty, a soy wrapper in multi color (Sesame, Pink, Spinach Green, Paprika Orange, Original and Turmeric Yellow) that is ideal for wrapping just about anything. Today I had it with a much welcomed salad, but it could be a godsend when I find myself trying to deal with a Thai style shrimp wrap or some such thing. All are non GMO and naturally colored.

Sushi Now Instant Miso Soups
I love miso soup but I get really irritated at those plastic bags that you end up disposing of after 1-2 servings, and they squirm around my cabinets and fall out every time I go in there, so I was excited to see these fun soups in a nice recyclable plastic jar, add as much or as little mix as you want to balance the flavor to your liking. The traditional was the best and they do a Vegan Sesame that is made without the bonito flakes subbing mushrooms.

McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil and Olive Products
A long time favorite oil of mine, the oil is delicious and they also have a line of soaps and lotions called 80 Acres. after a long hard day of tasting and eating nothing is more relaxing than massaging your tired sampling fingers with some of the McEvoy olive oil based body butter infused with Lemon Verbena.

La Tourangelle California Gourmet Oils
There wasn’t quite the same crowd surrounding Preeti Mistry as there was around Guy Fieri and the Ace of Cakes dude, but her Thai Carrot Ginger Soup was delicious, and vegan. Preeti was a contestant on Top Chef Season 6 and used the La Tourangelle Thai Wok Oil in the soup. Their avocado oil was delicious as was the pumpkinseed. Their nut oils are all made using local Northern California nuts and of course they have a delicious white truffle which I like to use on popcorn.

Briannas Fine Salad Dressings
These gorgeous packages are a standard on the shelf, but I had never tasted their Rich Santa Fe Blend, a subtle blend of peppers, but not spicy it would make a delicious dressing or marinade and it contains not fat at all! Their new Classic Buttermilk Ranch is tangy and tasty and the Dijon Honey Mustard more at home as a dip than a dressing, sweet and rich.

Hint Water
I am a big fan of flavored waters without any added sugar, and Hint has absolutely no sugar at all, it’s one of my favorite beverages because it has zero calories. Their flavors tend towards fruit based items, it reminds me of Smart Water before they started in a different direction.

Ayala’s Herbal Water
Very similar to Hint Water in that these have no sweetener or colorings, but they are as the title suggests based on herbal flavorings, there’s a really exciting range of flavors, and two are actually sparkling, but my favorites are Lemongrass Mint Vanilla, Lavender Mint, Cloves Cardamom Cinnamon (very fall like!) and Lemon Verbena Geranium. I appreciated that the vendor took me through a “flight” of the waters from lightest in intensity to fullest, just like wine, and some of the flavors are reminiscent of wines, the Lemon Verbena Geranium reminding me of Gewurztraminer. These could be really interesting in a cocktail. They are USDA Organic certified and the water comes from a spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Also has zero sugar, zero calories, zero preservatives and zero artificial ingredients.

12 Beverage
I was inundated with “low calorie”, no added sugar soda type beverages, but one that really stood out was 12 Beverage. They make an absolutely delicious “white” beverage with notes of fennel and ginger. No wonder it actually tastes good it was designed by Alfred Portale and David Burke, two New York chefs. The flavor is very adult and reminiscent of wine but a great non-alcoholic alternative. Not overly sweet either.

Duchess of Rutland Botanicals
I don’t want to get you too excited because these are not yet imported, but they are delicious sodas lightly flavored and not too sweet! Elderflower & Rose and Raspberry & Lavender.

Steven Smith Teamaker
It’s amazing how many of the best products I tried came from Portland. This tea was really amazing and if you ask nicely they may let you try some of their cool tea infusions. First they take local fruits, such as marion berries, and infuse them in water, then they make tea with that water, so it gives a very subtle fruitiness to the beverage. They were really delicious.

Mighty Leaf
A long-time favorite of mine they have some great flavors and now make larger tea bags for steeping iced tea in bulk. I take this tea with me whenever I travel, you’d be amazed at how relaxing a Southwest flight becomes when you smell their Jasmine brewing in your cup of hot water rather than crappy airplane tea…

Tea made from chocolate, it had a really interesting slightly earthy flavor. They served it unsweetened and it reminded me of buckwheat tea, it’s made from the husks of the chocolate and is supposed to be very healthy. They also make fantastic chocolate coated nibs, Kakosi nibbles.

A few purveyors were decidedly annoyed when rather than asking them about their product I asked them about the cool Ecotensil, a tiny strip of heavy coated paper that you bend into a spoon shape, brilliant idea and 100% biodegradable and/or recyclable! They break down faster than corn based spoons and take up less room when shipped!


Despite the plethora of great food it was hard to find any alcoholic beverages, unless of course you head to the Mexico pavilion where a party was going on… The Beemster Cow was dancing for producers of vegan food and folks were enjoying some of the great tequilas and mezcales. Premium Mezcales had a great lineup of products including an extra aged Mezcal. While over there check out Amate tequilas including their Grand Mayan and Quinta Esencia Agave Nectar They make a dark agave nectar with more flavor than most.

Other ways to get your drink on, Tortuga Rum Cakes is now making a rum flavored turtle chocolate, in keeping with the name (tortuga of course means turtle in Spanish the name Columbus gave to the Cayman Islands, like the little turtle shells sunning on the shore) and they have a delicious rum soaked cake in multiple flavors. The Perfect Puree of Napa Valley was making cocktails with Jenni and Marko Karakasevic of Charbay yesterday and today with H Ehrmann from Elixir and Square One.

If you are at the show don’t forget to stop by Jelly Belly for some dog food flavored jelly beans (kidding, but I did taste them) and to check out their cool jelly bean artwork!

Journey to Italy Day Four: Umbria

28 05 2010

May 28, 2010

After some early morning blogging we headed off to Umbria in our “van”, a quick hour and fifteen minutes or so and arrived at the Hotel Villa dei Platani in Foligno, a really beautiful villa on the outside with swanky and trendy room furnishings inside.  Just about as different as you can get from the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, you could tell right away by the fancy lamp and very different fruit plate.

After a quick email check we headed out to meet Marco Caprai, son of Arnaldo Caprai in the nearby town of Bevagna.  This quaint Roman town is said to be the unique due to the two churches built facing each other, the first unfinished.  When we were greeted by Marco Caprai he told use we were going to go on a quick walk to get an aperitif, which of course doesn’t sound too bad after a long trip, but imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that this “aperitif” was pork based!  On the way I could not help but notice a gorgeous little bottega with photos of Frida Kahlo in the window, luckily I saw Marco greet the owner so I anticipated our return.

I could tell the minute I saw the Nocineria (place where they sell “carne suina”, i.e. pigs) that I would love it because of my love of everything swine…

We entered and our senses were overtaken by the rich smell of all the hanging meats.  I was of course in hog heaven.  We were treated by a selection of items, Pancetta made from a slab of the pig that is salted and then rolled and wrapped in paper and hung to age, Lonza, the loin of the animal, Ciauscolo which is a fattier sausage, Porchetta, and my all time favorite, a dry salsiccia aged with Montefalco wine that had a much harder and chewier consistency and incredible flavor.  Owner Rosita Cariani is a fourth generation producer of these products while her partner whose name I did not catch is only third generation, so basically it seems that she is the boss of the place.  They noticed how excited we all were to taste and so they sliced thinly some Coppa di Testa, basically a head cheese usually made in winter that includes all parts of the animal, the guanciale (cheeks), head, gelatin, etc. along with garlic, orange rind, lemon rind and nutmeg.  They were sure to come out and show us the type of garlic, red garlic, which seemed to be very important to the production of this product.  It had a melt in the mouth texture and was just delicious, I think the reason I haven’t enjoyed many head cheeses in the past is the chunky fatty globules that don’t seem quite appetizing, but this texture was just perfect.  We ended it off with a well-aged pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese aged and rubbed with olive oil.  And of course we had to accompany this with some Arnaldo Caprai Grecante.  The reception at this wonderful Nocineria was so warm and friendly, with that the wine and cheese and these amazing meats I would have been happy to stay there all day.  They also sold fresh cuts of Chianina beef and the local specialty, lamb.  When we shook hands I could not help but notice and feel comforted by the super soft buttery feel of these hands that not only butcher, but craft such exquisite and time honored recipes.  I have always loved salumi, but lately in San Francisco it has seemed overdone, but now I really understand the passion that is imbued in those who have visited an authentic Nocineria and understand their quest to emulate such a place.  It was truly magical.  And I was so proud to be wearing the jacket from my friend Stephen Gerike of the National Pork Board that features his own farm’s logo, Boris Max.  If you visit the store is called “Da Tagliavento”, Gran Maestro di Salumeria, Corso Amendola, 15/a Bevagna.

coppa di testa

Sad to leave the Nocineria, we stepped out to find that school had just gotten out for lunch break and little children were walking through the town excited to go and join their families for lunch.  This town of about 5000 inhabitants still operates much like it did in ancient times, and it was refreshing to see that this culture is still strong in Italy.  We headed over to La Bottega di Assu, the restaurant I had seen on the way in.

Upon entering you immediately notice the organized chaos of the place.  It is tiny with only about maybe 10 seats at three tables.  We combined two tables and began to admire the charm of Maria Assunta, the proprietor (Assu is her nickname) and the incredible surroundings.  Marco explained that this spot is the place to be in town, famous for local Umbrian dishes, wines, but also sort of a mecca of culture.  Stacks and stacks of books line the shelves as they intermingle with the bottles.  Under the bar that hosts black truffles, bread and prosciutto you find boxes of pasta and ceramic ware.  And the left wall is covered with a scrapbook of photographs of Maria and her family, including the apple of her eye, her 9 month old grandson, who also made an appearance during lunch when his mother and father came in to help with the lunch rush (there are also four outdoor tables).  The eye darts from photo to photo and book to book while Maria carves some prosciutto and serves water, some Franciacorta and hearty wheat bread.  Those that have seen my house  and office will understand how comforting that type of controlled chaos is to me, but it is clear that everything also has its place.  When we asked about some of the photos of the family she grabbed a book, seemingly at random, and pulled out a photo of her mother in 1955, pregnant with her.  Then she ran off to continue to cook, and I carefully filed said photo back in the book and replaced it.  The tables are complete with flowers and colored pencils in case you get the urge to draw, which I did, and music fills the air.  We had a simple local specialty, basically bruschetta or grilled bread doused in olive oil and nothing else.  Marco explained that the locals did not use salt in their bread because the popes started taxing salt, so salt was very valuable and they saved it for the salumi (which I thought was very reasonable).  We enjoyed a very nice panzanella salad with fresh mozzarella, lots of olive oil, tomatoes, olives, red peppers and celery, and then Marco tempted (and dared?) us to have a “little” bit of pasta which we enjoyed with guanciale (cured pork cheeks, kind of like a fresher version of bacon).  Maria zipped around and expertly served the table, throwing in a few comments here and there and when I expect I looked like I was about to burst she jokingly wafted a plate that was headed outside in front of my nose, teasing that it was coming my way.  Her smile and vibrant personality was both infectious and addictive.  I really felt like I had walked into an Italian version of the movie Chocolat, she could have easily inspired such a story.  From her photos you can tell that she has a mischievous streak and the glimmer in her eye just shows her zeal for what she does.  Another amazing meal.  We enjoyed Marco Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva with lunch, and I was not taking notes so I do not even know what vintage it was.  I do know that we had about four bottles amongst seven of us (it was one of those the wine just keeps coming deals) and we left the lunch happy and fulfilled.  We chatted outside with a bunch of folks, some from Memphis, some from Pennsylvania, the gentleman had just run into a former student.  It was like this place had a magnetic vibe to it.  Just an amazing time.

So off we went, fat and happy, to Arnaldo Caprai.  Boasting a very slick tasting room the place has a stunning view.  We were treated to a tour of the vineyards where experiments are being conducted on various vine trellising systems.  Of course we then enjoyed a tasting of their wines.  Two whites, Anima Umbria Grechetto IGT 2009 and Grecante 2009, followed by a red Anima Umbria Rosso 2007 made from Sangiovese (85%) and Canaiolo (15%) before we were presented with the blockbusters.  Montefalco Rosso 2007 was a mix of 70% Sangiovese and 15% Sagrantino a really chewy rich wine with great balance but a large expression of concentrated fruit.  This was followed by the Montefalco Rosso Riserva 2005, super dense deep and earthy with gum gripping tannins but this was no match for the Sagrantino di Montefalco Collepiano and the Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni.  These wines are MASSIVE.  Full of tannin that takes over your entire mouth and won’t let go.  Tasting them without food was tough but luckily later in the evening we had the chance to taste older vintages with dinner, only then can you truly understand the purpose of these wines that adeptly navigate the rich Umbrian cuisine.  We finished the tasting with Sagrantino di Montefalco Passito 2006, a dried grape wine that is really intense.  Both sweet and still very high in tannins I could not imagine what pairing would match it.  Marco suggested it was a little wine to “drink alone during the day.”  But he also suggested it was great with dessert.  I thought perhaps cheese and luckily he wanted to prove me wrong which he did by bringing out some 12 month old Pecorino and a 36 year old Parmeggiano (I was happy to admit my error in the pairing but the cheese was amazing.)  He said that cheesemonger has a limited number of molds so the cheese is very hard to get.

We finished up and after a quick nap at the hotel it was back to eating.  We arrived at the beautiful Villa Roncalli where chef Maria Louisa created an exceptional meal for us.  We drank the Arnaldo Caprai Nero Outsider, a lush expression of Pinot Noir with an amazing Chianina meatball with capers and shaved parmesan on super fresh lettuce.  Monkfish with tiny slivers of zucchini and fried squash blossoms with Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso Riserva 1998 was amazing, but the Farro soup with many drizzles of olive oil and ricotta ravioli stole the show along with the Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 1997.  This was where it became evident that although the soup was super rich the wine just lifted it and made the meal work.  Amazing that such a huge wine could be a delicate foil for a rich dish, but the tannins wafted away and you found that you could not help but drink the wine, food, wine, food, wine, bite, sip, bite, sip, the way it was intended.  Pigeon was served with a thick noodle and then a lamb (I got the shank) but by that time I was done.  Until of course we were presented with more Sagrantino di Montefalco passito with one of the best desserts I have ever had, pears delicately poached with a semolina type cobbler type thing on them sitting in a bed of zabbaglione served with what to me tasted like an eggnog type ice cream, no doubt just a rich egg base with some nutmeg.  And just like Marco said, it was incredible with the passito, amazing!  To top off the evening their dog came by to say goodnight and we retired back to the hotel where I slept like a log.

Today it’s off to Assisi, Perugia and Spello!