Imagine a convention center the size of about ten football fields filled with endless rows of specialty foods. One stall sells Wagyu beef and another sells Gochujang cheese. There are cauliflower snack puffs, cucumber dip, plant-based shrimp, a plethora of soft drinks, and Snickers coffee. The Japan Foreign Trade Organization features several product lines from across the country and a chef preparing chicken teriyaki during a live cooking demonstration. This is the Winter Fancy Food Show.
The annual trade show took place last week in Las Vegas. It is organized by the Specialty Food Assn., a nonprofit trade organization founded in 1952 whose members include artisans, importers, suppliers, retailers and wholesalers from the specialty food world. Thousands of people stream through the convention center during the three-day show, but none are as knowledgeable or popular as Whole Foods Market food culture ambassador Cathy Strange.
I asked Strange to help identify some new trends and products that consumers can look forward to in 2024.
Wearing a vest with a pin that read, “The best thing in life is cheese,” she led me through endless rows of snacks, desserts, and dairy products. It was like walking around with the mayor of a small town. Every few booths people waved and called out with greetings and warm smiles. They all wanted her to come over.
“I have to get some butter with you,” she said as she walked purposefully down an aisle. “It is the best butter in the world. Oh yes, and the buckwheat. “I think that was row 2300?”
In her nearly 34 years at Whole Foods Market, Strange has overseen the selection of all specialty foods, including cheese, olives, handmade chocolate and adult beverages. In her new role as Food Culture Ambassador, she focuses on training the various in-store market teams and is one of more than 50 members of a Trends Council for Whole Foods Market that includes collectors, buyers and various culinary experts.
“We come together and identify what we see as not just flavor trends but product trends and also just staying ahead of the curve,” she said. “Trends that aren’t happening yet, but maybe only in a few years.”
One of the trends she expects involves alcohol and cheese. “I see a lot of similarities to Prosecco and other alcohols when it comes to washed rinds,” she said.
Jasper Hill Farm Withersbrook Blue Cheese
She directed me to the Jasper Hill Farm stand, where I could sample a raw-milk Vermont blue cheese dipped in ice wine, a product made from the juice of frozen apples.
The cheese is a variation of the farm’s Bayley Hazen blue cheese. Strange, who has also served as an international cheese judge for decades, points out that this particular cheese has received numerous awards.
Mateo Kehler, co-founder of the farm 20 years ago, explained that the cheese is aged in the cave for two months and then placed in a bag with about 3 ounces of Eden iced cider. The packages are turned every few weeks to ensure the cheese is properly coated.
The first thing you notice is a surprisingly fruity aroma. The cheese is mild, without the harsh astringency that sometimes occurs with other blues varieties. The residual sugar in the cider melds beautifully with the cheese, giving it a nice acidity and a noticeable but fleeting taste of fermented apple.
“People are often intimidated by blue,” Kehler said. “We think of these blue cheeses as gateway blues.”
Withersbrook’s new apple cider-cured blue cheese will cost between $32 and $36 per pound and is expected to be available at Whole Foods and other retailers in May.
Better Buckwheat Crackers from Maine Crisp
“I think we’re going to see more and more buckwheat,” Strange said as we approached a table full of crackers. “When I was at a Michelin restaurant in Norway, they had buckwheat with foie gras and it had three different textures. It just makes a big impression in restaurants.”
The Maine Crisp company makes five types of chips and crackers in three flavors, all from buckwheat, the seeds of the flowering plant. It is not a grain and is naturally gluten-free.
The fig and thyme chips are light and crunchy and generously peppered with dried fruits and walnuts. I wish I had had a box 10 minutes earlier when I tried the Withersbrook Blue. There’s also an olive and za’taar crisp, as well as a cranberry almond cracker and a new range of crackers. Select flavors can be found online and in stores throughout Southern California.
Funky Mello Vanilla Marshmallow Cream
Next, Strange took me to the Funky Mello booth in the Diversity Pavilion, a section of the show designed to celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion in the specialty food world. The Texas-based company makes a plant-based marshmallow creme made from the chickpea byproduct called aquafaba.
Married couple Delisa and Zach Harper are behind the brand, which produces flavored marshmallow cremes as well as Dippsterz, small packaged pretzels with marshmallow creme for dipping.
The Harpers recommend using the cream in coffee, as a topping for pancakes or waffles, and as a dip for fruit. I also enjoyed eating it straight on my wooden tasting spoon. The texture is more reminiscent of marshmallow flakes than cream and is infused with toasted sugar notes that evoke memories of campfire roasting marshmallows.
The full line of creams and dipping sauces are already available online, and the vanilla and cookie flavored creams will launch at Whole Foods Markets in the Los Angeles area in March. According to the site’s store locator, you can find the products at three stores in California, including 7 Vegan Market in Garden Grove.
In addition to my tour of the fair with Strange, I spent three days researching new and innovative foods that I really wanted to see at my local market.
Art of broth sipping broth
The Art of Broth is a brand that creates hearty plant-based broths and packages them in single-serve tea bags. You dip the bags in hot water and a few minutes later you have a steaming cup of soup.
“We have developed an innovative four-hour cooking process at a precise low temperature,” said Sophie Helfend, the company’s 23-year-old CEO. “We dehydrate the broth to ensure there is no water activity, allowing for a two-year shelf life.”
Although plant-based, Thai lemongrass, chicken, beef, and vegetable broths all have the same rich mouthfeel and deep, developed flavors of a bone broth or slow-cooked vegetable broth thanks to the use of kitchen yeast.
Helfend said the plan is to tap into airlines, senior housing, hotels and universities and turn it into a “global brand.” Sipping lemongrass broth at 30,000 feet sounds like a great idea.
Prime Roots x Three Little Pigs vegan foie gras
I was skeptical when someone told me that there would be a plant-based foie gras at the fair. I had read that Nestle tested a vegan foie gras called Voie Gras in Spain and Switzerland last year, as well as a handful of other trials. But how could anyone recreate the extremely rich, delicate flavor of duck liver?
The Prime Roots x Three Little Pigs Koji Foie Gras comes pretty close. The plant-based deli meat company has teamed up with the decades-old charcuterie brand to produce a line of koji-based foie gras and pâté.
Koji (the mold used as the base for soy sauce, miso, sake and mirin), along with coconut oil, pea protein and a variety of other ingredients, gives the product the same essence as a good pate. There’s the same meaty flavor with a smooth but slightly grainy texture.
It’s the only fake meat that could make me change my mind about the entire genre. However, I like it best as a savory spread that has nothing to do with bread or crackers. If you left the foie gras out of the name and called it a vegetable spread, I would still like it.
The foie gras and pâté can be purchased online.
Super Mario Charapaki Chocolate
It is a cookie dipped in chocolate. It’s also a game. The cookies contain Super Mario characters that you try to free without cracking them. If you win, you can eat your Super Mario-shaped cookie in one piece and be happy. If you lose, you still get to eat a cookie.
The chocolate chip cookies will be available at Japanese markets in the Los Angeles area this spring.