A staggering 18,000 foodies and trend-seekers poured into San Francisco's Moscone Center this week, prowling the aisles, cheek by jowl, as they hunted for the newest, hottest and buzziest edibles at the 38th annual Winter Fancy Food Show, the biggest food trade show in the West.
Daunting in size and scope, this year's event showcased more than 80,000 new food products from 35 countries -- and featured a taste marathon that often bordered on the ridiculous. For every flax-infused or coconut-laced item, there was a dash of quirk in the booth next door, thanks to the presence of Hot-Cans, self-heating cans of soup and coffee; tiny marinated peppers called "Sweety Drops"; and Fresh Origins Herb and Flower Crystals in flavors such as basil and fennel.
The big trends this year include the presence of coconut and flax in virtually every food group; mountains of low-fat, high-fiber, bean- and lentil-based chips; an explosion of "meal starter" sauces and kits; and low-calorie, low-fat, gluten-free, vegan everything you can imagine.
One of the trade show's most exciting components is always the hall devoted to products so new they are just making it to store shelves. Among the discoveries here was the month-old Nuttyness line. This line of chocolate-dipped marzipan bars was inspired by the sweets of Kristian Salvesen's childhood.
"This is what we eat in Norway," the Oakland resident says. "The bars are everywhere, and they are so much better than anything you can get here."
Unlike the very sweet marzipan candies typically found here, Salveson's are almond-forward, with just enough sugar to let you know it's candy. The flavors -- orange-cayenne, lemon-ginger and almond-pistachio, for example -- make them even more interesting.
After strolling and tasting my way through the entire show, these were the 10 most memorable bites. Some are available on store shelves now. We may have to wait a few months for the rest to arrive.
1 Magnolia All-Natural Tropical Avocado Ice Cream: Barely sweet, this unusual, ethereal ice cream offers a seductive, velvety texture and true avocado flavor. The ice cream is $3.99 per pint; $3.99-$4.99 for a pack of four bars. Other flavors include lychee, Thai tea, coconut, mango and a stellar purple yam.
2 Nuttyness Marzipan Bars: Fresh marzipan infused with creative flavors and dunked in top-notch chocolate make these hefty bars a perfect bite of dessert. One 2.5-ounce bar is $5.99. The bars are available at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley and Chocolate Covered in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood. They can also be found at www.nuttyness.com.
3 Republic of Tea Watermelon Mint Tea: The booth reps were excited about their basil-flavored Moringa, a raw rooibos tea, but the unexpectedly juicy watermelon-mint is far more fun and delicious. The tea, sold in large pouches designed for iced tea pitchers, has a summery melon aroma and flavor. The tea will be available March 1. A box of eight pouches will sell for $6.99.
4 Sheila G. Brownie Brittle: A union of two addictive food genres, these flat, crunchy brownie-flavored chips have all of the rich flavors of a brownie, minus a lot of the fat. Unlike competing brands, Sheila G's brittle retains the fresh flavors of butter and vanilla. One serving has 120 calories. A 4-ounce bag is $5. Learn more at www.browniebrittle.com
5 Nettle Meadow Honey Lavender Fromage Blanc: This soft, spreadable goat cheese from New York has a smooth, luxurious mouth-feel and a gorgeous, yet not overpowering lavender flavor. A 5-ounce tub is $6.99. Find it at specialty cheese shops or online at www.nettlemeadow.com.
6 Brown Sugar and Apple Vinegar Skillet Pumpkin Sauce: This bold pumpkin paste is packed with attitude. It could work as a bruschetta topping, a panini spread or a sauce base for a skillet of shrimp. The Seattle-based company, which earned recognition for its bacon jam, sells at specialty grocers and wineries for $8 for a 7-ounce jar. Find a store near you at www.skilletstreetfood.com.
7 NewTree Pearls: These chewy, chocolate-covered bites of dried fruit and other sweets are packed with flavor. The pearls contain everything from biscotti to milk chocolate, but the best are orange, black currant and cherry. The chocolate is high quality, and the fruit is slightly tart. A 2.82-ounce bag is about $2. NewTree Pearls will be widely available beginning in April.
8 Lounge Attire Premium Cocktail Cranberries: At long last, the Day-Glo, sickly sweet maraschino has been replaced with a prettier and significantly tastier alternative. Even better: These sweet, marinated cranberries are a deep ruby hue. An 8-ounce jar of about 100 cranberries is $12.95. Find them at www.cocktailcranberry.com.
9 Mange Le Gastronome Red Pepper Vinegar: A serious standout in the ever-expanding vinegar category is this line of brightly colored, viscous vinegars made with fruits and vegetables. The vinegars have just enough kick to brighten a salad or sauce and enough flavor to stand alone. The best-seller is the red pepper, which retails for $12.95, but even more fun is the sampler box of ten 40 mL. samples for $19.99. The line isn't yet available in stores, but you will find it online at www.mange-legastronome.com.
10 One Degree Organic Foods Vegan Bread: Unlike so many cardboard-flavored, vegan whole-grain breads, these loaves are soft, fresh and far too delicious to drown in butter. The line includes four types of bread -- ancient whole wheat, lentil grain, flax and spelt, and sesame sunflower -- plus a range of flours for bakers. A loaf is $5.49. Find it at Raley's, Zanotto's in San Jose and Nob Hill in Livermore.