|The sampling begins!|
...Seventy-one different products from sixty-seven different food/beverage producers (out of 780 national contestants) at the First Annual Good Food Awards at San Francisco's Ferry Building! I talked about this event in the January 14 post and gave my preferences and predictions for the winners. For a comprehensive list of all of the officially chosen products check out the Good Food Awards page. Well, my friend Alejandra and I went to the marketplace to see all the prized goodies and came away with a few purchased specialties after sampling from each of the winning selections (except for the Beer category which was not on display for the general public as the products were served out-of-doors on tables and in order to placate Puritanical laws against drinking alcohol in public, they could not showcase their award-winning items). We also gathered some much-appreciated knowledge of the intricacies and distinctiveness of these foods/drinks (like the true difference in taste between coffee beans grown in tropical climates at high altitudes versus more low-lying, savannah locations, for example); a greater appreciation for the ingenuity, dedication, and good taste of those who put so much love into producing good food; and best of all, a satisfied belly.
Since the Intro photo at the top highlights the CHEESE category, I might as well start there! I am glad we began with these samples because they substituted for our breakfast and the heavy salt and fat contents of these dairy products hit the spot! First off is "Cabot Clothbound" cow milk cheddar cheese made by Cabot Creamery and aged in the cellars of Jasper Hill (Greensburo, Vermont). I am very picky about cheddar so I was pleased to find this one so tangy and savory without being given the worn-out label of "sharp." Secondly there is this amazing, natural rind, raw cow and sheep blend cheese (photo below) called "Hannah Bridge" from Ancient Heritage Dairy (Scio, Oregon). I could not get enough of its smooth saltiness! It was also good to see my pick of Bay Area locals Cowgirl Creamery (Petaluma, CA) win for their "Red Hawk," triple-cream cheese, as well as Uplands Cheese's (Dodgeville, Wisconsin) double win for their "Pleasant Ridge Reserve" and "Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve" cheeses. Go to the video here to see how Uplands makes their magic!
As mentioned before, the winning selections in the BEER category were not permitted to give out samples at the Marketplace, but I am happy to report that my predictions came true and both The "Dry Wit" from The Pike Brewing Company (Seattle, WA) and the "Organic Gingerbread Ale" from Bison Brewing (Berkeley, CA) were among the winners!
An at-first surprising win to me in the PICKLES category was the Brine from McClure's Pickles (Detroit, Michigan). I mean, I know that brine of some kind is a necessary ingredient in creating fermented vegetables, but I never realized what an ingenious idea it was to bottle the left-over water/vinegar/cucumber juice/salt/garlic/dill/peppers mixture and sell it as a Bloody Mary or Dirty Martini base! It is also a great tonic on its own that will really clean out your liver and colon the next day after indulging in said cocktail drinks! It was also good to see that my other prediction of the "Savory Brussels Sprout Relish" by Ann's Raspberry Farm (Fredericktown, OH) from my home state was selected by the judges! When I first read about this jarred concoction I assumed it was savory, but I should have known better because Ohio loves their hot dogs, and sweet pickle relish is a favorite condiment topping there. I think after sampling it that I personally would have preferred it on the saltier side, but it was yummy nonetheless. Another company of note was Artinsanal Soy (Washington, DC) and their Edamame Kimchee, which is also available for sale at Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building.
Now on to CHARCUTERIE a.k.a. CURED & PREPARED MEAT. My first choice was the Green Label Organic "Prosciutto Americano" by La Quercia (pronounced La Kwair-cha with a slight roll of the r if you can do it and means "the Oak" in Italian) in Norwalk, Iowa. Yes, they successfully make an Italian food right here on American soil! They market pork products (prosciutto, spallacia, coppa, lonza, pancetta, guanciale, lardo, etc.) raised only in the most idealistic of conditions and from farmers they are actually friends with. La Quercia treats its meats as if it were delicate varietals of grapes, and consider the final creation to be equivalent to a fine wine. A neat little video was even filmed about the process they have perfected and the finesse of their company that has proven that pigs in the US can also give us fantastic, Italian-style, cured ham products.
Another contender in this category was Olympic Provisions (Portland, Oregon) for not just one, but THREE wins (shown in the photo to the right, from the top left to the bottom right: "Saucisson D' Alsace," pork liver mousse, and "Loukanika")! These folks are both a charcuterie-making deli and a restaurant, as well as Oregon’s first USDA certified meat-curing facility. A third contender that I had cheered for in my predictions, The Girl and the Fig restaurant (Sonoma, California), also won for their coppa (check out this swanky site for more info on coppa and all things meat)! I also really liked the Sweet Potato Liverwurst from the Weeping Radish Farm Brewery (Grady, North Carolina) whose homemade beers look tempting as well, and the Duck Mousse With Cognac from Alexian (Neptune, New Jersey)!
Then there is the COFFEE category, a particular favorite of mine. The first winning selection is "Los Lobos Costa Rica" by Madcap Coffee (Grand Rapids, Michigan). These guys helped my friend and I reach simultaneous epiphanies in terms of being able to finally distinguish the subtle "wet" nuances of coffee beans grown in the highland rainforests of Central America. This became even more evident as we compared this lovingly prepared, hot beverage to others of its kind grown in different regions of the world. For example, from Noble Coffee Roasting (Ashland, Oregon) we tried their "Kenyan Kiaora," which comes from lowland beans, shade-grown in a drier climate. They explained to us that the smoother flavor with a bit of a bite of the Kenyan coffee was due to the elevation of the coffee trees and the particular soil native to that area. For once I could actually taste the difference between the two choices.
Not only did Noble Coffee educate two female Foodies on the joys of a refined coffee palate, but according to their website their winning selection is also "the first organic Kenyan offered in the U.S. This coffee is grown under the shade of macadamia trees on an estate with some of the longest established and best tended coffee trees in Kenya." The organic status of this coffee apparently caused some controversy among the judges due to the fact that until this specific roast became available, Kenyan coffee growers has been resistant to go organic. Now I will not go into the economic and political reasons for this (that is for another time), but I am happy to see that there is an artisanal coffee producer in Oregon that has finally made organic production financially feasible for at least one group of growers to get a fair price for their beans. It was also nice that two of my coffee category predictions came true. Blue Bottle Coffee's (Oakland, California) "Kemgin" and Counter Culture Coffee's (Durham, North Carolina) "Finca Kilimanjaro" both got awards!
The next category is PRESERVES. One of my predictions, Sweet Deliverance NYC (New York, NY), won for their "Ground Cherry Jam," made from a unique little fruit that is technically not a cherry at all! Also known as "Husk Cherries" or "Cape Gooseberries" to name a few, these fruits grow on a vine in a tiny husk, vary in color from green to orange, and can only be gathered by hand. The Ground Cherries that Sweet Deliverance NYC uses are grown by an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania with whom they work on a one-on-one basis. Another winner is Deluxe Foods with their Gingered Rhubarb Jam. In the photo to the right, the winning selection is held by the lady jam-maker herself, Rebecca Staffel, whose product ethic is to make preserves that according to Deluxe's website are, "handmade from sustainably grown (mostly organic) Washington fruits and vegetables, along with lemon juice and organic evaporated cane juice sugar. Rather than use commercial pectin, we prefer to let natural flavors and textures of the fruit shine through each product." Also of note was the small batch, locally sourced Texas Fig Preserves from Confituras (Austin, TX).
For the final category, CHOCOLATE, we have some great contenders! I really enjoyed the "Salted Caramel" chocolate bar from Xocolatl de David (Portland, Oregon). I know that salt mixed into or sprinkled on top of sugary treats like caramel, chocolate, and/or ice cream is fashionable these days, but I have been skeptical. Actually, I normally like to combine seemingly contrasting tastes, but sharing large granules of salt with a delicacy that I eat to satisfy my sweet tooth, has not been appealing to me - until this chocolate bar!
Two other selections that impressed me (and the judges) were the "In-NIB-itable Bar" from Patric Chocolates (Columbia, Missouri) and the "Sambirano" single-origin chocolate bars from Rogue Chocolatier (Minneapolis, Minnesota). Both of these producers stress minimal, basic ingredients whose rich flavor does all the PR work, but each one puts a unique twist on bars that both utilize Madagascan cocoa. The nibs in the In-NIB-itable Bar really stand out but their bitterness does not overwhelm the simple mix of cocoa beans, cane sugar, and cocoa butter. The Sambirano line of chocolates completely threw my taste buds for a loop by tricking them into swearing that there was some sort of citrus fruit in the ingredient list. To my great shock, the only acidic flavor present in these bars come from the natural remnants of the fruit inside the cocoa pod itself. In fact, the only addition in its contents compared to the In-NIB-itable Bar is Tahitian vanilla. Clearly quality, as is evident in the other Good Food Award winners, is what makes the difference here. When I lived in Brazil, we sometimes found red-orange-yellow-colored cocoa pods growing wild in the forests and would crack them open to find dark-brown, nut-looking seeds encased in a sweet, whitish-yellow goo that tasted terrific but ironically more resembled the stuff that comes out of one's nose during a nasty head cold than the light citrusy, apple-pear flavor that it mimicked. The fresh juice bars that are everywhere in Brazil also often stocked the sweet flesh of the cocoa pods and would blend it together with water or milk.
So where does all of this experimenting and judging leave me? Do I feel like I learned something new? Did I have fun? Did I feel the camaraderie of being in the company of a good Foodie friend as much as I did with unfamiliar, yet like-minded, people? Will I try some of these products again? Will I suggest them to others? Do I really care about the recognition of the award over the passion, enthusiasm, and sweat that all of the contestants put in each and every day to make the food/drink product they have dedicated their lives to preserving? Except for the last question, all of my answers are a resounding YES. To me, the root of why anyone would make artisanal foods and beverages has nothing to do with becoming famous or getting rich; it is about the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from creating someone good with your own hands and with quality ingredients. However, it's nice to know that those same folks are getting attention for their work and if for nothing else, for putting a big-toothed grin on this gal's cheese/beer/pickle/meat/coffee/jam/chocolate-smeared face!