SAN FRANCISCO - The hottest food trends this year: all things coconut, exotic oils, beer-laced products, regional heritage foods, herby drinks and spicy sweets.
That's what 18,000-plus buyers found this week at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Each year, buyers for upscale delicatessens, groceries and shops scope out the newest thing in the cavernous Moscone Center, which for three days turns into the biggest, most over-the-top snack party imaginable.
More than 1,300 companies display and offer tastings of their wares, vying to entice buyers with Italian cheeses and California jelly beans, and making forays into Korean seaweed snacks and artisanal pickles from New Jersey.
Buyers come from around the country to see what's hot. Some are from farther afield. Rajeev Lee and Allen Smith were scouting out new products for Maybury deli-supermarket in Dubai.
"We cater to a lot of ex-pats, and these are the foods they want," Lee said.
This years big trends:
Coconut. In canned juice or as an ingredient or simply a dried, unsweetened snack, coconut was legion at the show. Pouring tastes as fast as he could, Benny San Andres of Sun Tropics of San Ramon, Calif., talked up the clear liquid's healthful properties. "One can has the potassium of five-and-a-half bananas," he said of the juice his company imported from Thailand.
Vegetable and fruit oils. You use olive oil, once bought walnut oil and tasted truffle oil. But how about Austrian pumpkin seed oil? Or tomato seed oil? Or cherry pit oil or chili seed oil? Marietta De Angelo spent a year as an exchange student on a farm in Neuruppersdorf, Austria. There she learned to love pumpkin seed oil, which is drizzled on anything from salad to vanilla ice cream (really). She and her husband now run Culinary Imports in Rowley, Mass., and import the oil. They also sell cherry seed oil -- "good on fish and ham" -- and tomato oil -- "great in salad dressing," she says.
Beer as an ingredient. The past several decades have seen a resurgence in the art of brewing. Now beer is making its way into foods, such as the Beer Flats crackers from Daelia's Food in Cincinnati. The crackers come in porter and pilsner flavors. For serious beer lovers, there's Beer Candy from Santa Clara, Calif. Computer programmer and longtime brewer Steve Casselman started making beer candy a few years ago and has branched out into beer jelly. It is strong stuff -- no slight beer taste here. A spoonful of jelly tastes like a serious swig of strong stout. "It's really good on pancakes," Casselman said. "You take the first bite and you think, 'This isn't right.' Then with the second bite, 'That's OK.' And by the third bite you're thinking, 'That's pretty good!' "
Heritage foods. America's growing love affair with its sometimes forgotten foods and animal breeds was on full view at the show. One such food was black walnuts, the robust-tasting American walnut species that grows mostly in the Southeast. Shelling the walnuts stains the hands, and anything they touch, black. Well-known to bakers in the Southeast, the nut is making inroads elsewhere. David Hammons is the fourth generation of his family to run Hammons Black Walnuts in Stockton, Mo. Each year his company sells 2 million to 3 million pounds of black walnuts, depending on the crop. They aren't grown commercially. They're wild and hand picked. Sixty-five percent come from Missouri, where harvesting black walnuts is a nice income addition for locals, Hammons said. "We buy a lot of people's Christmas when we buy walnuts from them."
Herbs in drinks. Herbal drinks are big this year but far from the common mint and chamomile tea. New taste combos came from Numi Organics of Oakland, which had Broccoli Cilantro Tea; Wild Poppy Juice in Los Angeles, whose booth featured Blood Orange Chili Juice; and Victoria's Kitchen, which had Licorice Mint Almond Water.
Spicy sweet. Salt has been showing up in sweets for several years; sea salt caramels and chocolates are available seemingly everywhere. Now hot is migrating into the candy world. Gourmet Thyme in St. Paul featured cayenne shortbread. Nuttyness in Oakland, had orange cayenne marzipan. Poco Dolce Confections in San Francisco had peanut brittle infused with chilies. And from Burlington, Vt., came Lake Champlain Chocolates' Spicy Aztec with cayenne, pumpkin seeds and cinnamon.
Not quite a trend, but heartwarming, was Christmas Milk, an ultra-pasteurized eggnog available seasonally. It got its name when Heidi and Shane Fausel of Frisco, Texas, adopted their son. He'd been in foster care before he came to them, and as Christmas approached he kept talking about a drink he remembered having in the home of one family he'd lived with. He didn't know what it was called, only that it "tasted like Christmas." The Fausels let him try every drink they could think of, but none of it was what he remembered.
Then Shane brought home eggnog. The boy took a drink and said, "That's it! It's Christmas Milk."
The Fausels decided to create a company around Christmas Milk, which they launched in 2011. A percentage of all sales goes to agencies that help children in state care programs find families to adopt them.
By Elizabeth Weise