Monday, January 14, 2008

Fancy Food Show in San Diego: A Glutton's Delight

For the first time, San Diego is playing host to the Fancy Food Show and as you can imagine, it is not for the faint of appetite. The show, which started yesterday and runs through Tuesday at the Convention Center, is aisle after aisle of specialty food and beverages from around the world, including for the first time on the West Coast, a Natural & Organic Pavilion.

I attended the show yesterday and while much of the crowd -- and it was a tremendous crowd -- was also fixated on the Chargers game, the aisles were packed with retailers, vendors, event planners and others in the food industry sampling an assortment of products that was simply overwhelming. After an hour or so, I had a moment when I unfocused my eyes and all I saw were mouths chewing and chewing. Gourmet? Yes. But gluttony was rampant -- forget New Year's resolutions and willpower. The Fancy Food Show is an industry chow down.

There were vendors from a number of different countries -- England France, Australia, Canada, Portugal, Spain -- and naturally there was a lot of cheese. I was mesmerized by what I saw from Italy, offerings that ran from pasta, sauces and olive oil to cheeses like Grana Padano, a hard granular cheese which looks much like Parmigiano Reggiano and is made with semi-skimmed cows milk in Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino and Veneto. In the U.S., more people are familiar with Parmigiano Reggiano, but Grana Padano has been around since the 12th century, when Cistercian monks in Northern Italy's Po River Valley processed the milk of their cattle into these large -- 65 pound -- wheels of cheese. It's actually the largest selling hard cheese in Italy and in San Diego you can find it at Venissimo.

There were some sublime offerings in the world of chocolate. A few stood out, including Poco Dolce's bittersweet tiles with sea salt, the single-source Chocolates El Rey, which uses Venezuelan cacao and Schokinag Chocolate, which makes an outrageous hot chocolate. I sampled the Extreme Dark, with a 79 percent cocoa content, and instead of getting what I worried might be a stream of bitterness, instead enjoyed a very adult, very luscious sip of warm cocoa.

Among the more mundane, though tasty, displays was bagged popcorn. This is not something I would normally bother with, but I took a couple of bags from Dale and Thomas Popcorn and popped them open last night. Their Movie Theater Popcorn was surprisingly light and crunchy with just the right amount of salt and butter -- yes, they use clarified butter. And, the Kettlecorn popcorn was almost as good as what you'd find fresh at the farmers market -- that wonderful combo of sweet and salty with a good crunch.

I also had a wonderful surprise with licorice. Black Opal Aussie Licorice has a terrific, thick black licorice that diehard licorice lovers will love. It's chewy and rich and very satisfying. They also make a raspberry flavor covered in dark chocolate which is simply ridiculously divine.

Given the heady world of celebrity chefs, there were surprisingly few on hand. Paula Deen had a booth, but I didn't see her there. Same with Emeril and Rick Bayless (Frontera). A physically diminished Paul Prudhomme was gamely sitting on a mobility scooter, sauteeing a dish using one of his spice blends. The star of the show seemed to be the Barefood Contessa, Ina Garten, sitting at her booth, surrounded by cookie and cupcake mixes and dessert sauces, signing autographs.

I didn't see a lot of local vendors at the show, but I did meet one pair from Encinitas, Judy Nakatomi and Kazuyo Hirose, who own Kanaya Fine Tea. I tasted their "first plucking" Sencha and Hojicha teas, both of which were lovely and smooth. The partners are just introducing organic tea powders that can be used as a quick way to make a cup of tea or add to another beverage or to use for baking or creating sauces. The two flavors, Sencha and Genmaicha, are subtle and filled with the same vitamins and antioxidants you'd find in their leaf tea counterparts. Locally, you can find them at Zinc Cafe and Cardiff Seaside Market.

I know this is a ridiculously short list given the sheer scale of what was available (and I tasted everything from mozzarella stuffed red peppers, smoked sturgeon and brandy-infused caviar to chocolate truffles, duck sausage and at least seven different olive oils) but actually much of what was there is currently on the shelves and in the refrigerated sections of most of your favorite markets--products by Soy Vay, Republic of Tea, Ghirardelli and others that you already know. Others are less familiar but they are stocked in a variety of local shops. I'll be writing about some of them shortly, but in the meantime, the next time you hit Vons or Whole Foods or even CostPlus, take another look beyond what you've spotted on your shopping list. You might see something I tasted at the show that will open up new culinary possibilities for you.

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