Imagine a convention center the size of about 10 football fields filled with endless rows of specialty food products. One booth is hawking Wagyu beef jerky; another wants to introduce you to gochujang cheese.
There are cauliflower snack puffs, pickle dip, plant-based shrimp, a plethora of nonalcoholic beverages and Snickers coffee. The Japan External Trade Organization has multiple rows of products from all over the country and a chef making chicken teriyaki during a live cooking demonstration.
This is the Winter Fancy Food show.
The annual trade show took place last month in Las Vegas. It’s put on by the Specialty Food Association, a nonprofit trade organization founded in 1952 whose members include artisans, importers, purveyors, retailers and distributors in the specialty food world. Thousands of people roam the convention center during the three-day show, but none so knowledgeable, or popular, as Whole Foods Market Ambassador of Food Culture 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 things in life are cheese,” she guided me down 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 yelled out with greetings and a warm smile. They all wanted her to come over.
“I’ve got to take you to get some butter,” she said as she walked purposefully down one aisle. “It’s the best butter in the world. Oh, 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, artisan chocolate and adult beverages. In her new role as ambassador of food culture, she focuses on educating the various market teams at the stores, and she’s one of more than 50 members of a Whole Foods Market trends council that includes foragers, buyers and various culinary experts.
“We get together and identify what we are seeing as not only flavor trends but product trends and also just being one step ahead,” she said, “trends not even hitting now but maybe a few years away.”
One of the trends she’s anticipating involves alcohol and cheese. “I’m seeing a lot of like Prosecco and other alcohols in terms of washed rinds,” she said.
Jasper Hill Farm Withersbrook blue cheese
Strange directed me to the Jasper Hill Farm booth to try a raw milk blue cheese from Vermont that’s been immersed in ice cider, a product made from the juice of frozen apples.
The cheese is a variant of the farm’s Bayley Hazen blue cheese. Strange, who has also been an international cheese judge for decades, points out that this particular cheese has won numerous accolades.
Mateo Kehler, who co-founded the farm 20 years ago, explained that the cheese is cave-aged for two months and then put in a pouch with about 3 ounces of Eden ice cider. The packages get turned over every couple of weeks to ensure that the cheese is properly coated.
The first thing you notice is a surprisingly fruity aroma. The cheese is mild, void of that harsh astringency sometimes present in other blues. All that residual sugar in the cider melds beautifully with the cheese, giving it a nice acidity and a fleeting fermented-apple flavor.
“People are often intimidated by blue,” Kehler said. “We consider these blue cheeses gateway blues.”
The new Withersbrook cider-immersed blue cheese will be priced between $32 and $36 a pound and is expected to be available at Whole Foods and other retailers in May.
Better Buckwheat Maine Crisp buckwheat crackers
“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 was like three different textures. It’s just making it big time in restaurants.”
The Maine Crisp company makes five varieties of crisps and three flavors of crackers all using buckwheat, the seed harvested from the flowering plant. It’s not a grain, and it’s naturally gluten-free.
The fig and thyme crisps are light and crunchy, generously studded with dried fruit and walnuts. I wish I had a box 10 minutes earlier when I tried the Withersbrook blue cheese. There’s also an olive and za’taar crisp, as well as a cranberry almond and a new line of crackers. You can find select flavors online and in stores around Southern California.
Funky Mello vanilla marshmallow creme
Next, Strange directed me to the Funky Mello booth in the Diversity Pavilion, an area of the show meant to celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion in the specialty food world. The Texas-based company produces a plant-based marshmallow creme made from a chickpea byproduct called aquafaba.
Married couple Delisa and Zach Harper are behind the brand, which makes flavored marshmallow cremes as well as Dippsterz, small packaged pretzels with marshmallow creme for dipping.
The Harpers suggest using the creme in coffee, as a pancake or waffle topping, and as a dip for fruit. I was just as happy eating it by itself on my wooden sample spoon. The texture is more reminiscent of marshmallow fluff than cream, and it’s flush with toasted sugar notes that conjure memories of campfire-roasted marshmallows.
The full line of cremes and Dippsterz are already available for purchase online; the vanilla and cookie-flavored cremes will launch in Los Angeles-area Whole Foods markets in March. According to the website’s store locator, you can find the products at three stores in California.
In addition to my walk around the show with Strange, I spent three days looking for new and innovative foods I can’t wait to see at my local market.
Art of Broth sipping broth
The Art of Broth is a brand that makes savory plant-based broths and packages them in single-serving tea bags. You steep the bags in hot water, and a few minutes later, you have a steaming cup of soup.
“We developed an innovative four-hour cooking process at a precise low temp,” said Sophie Helfend, the company’s 23-year-old CEO. “We dehydrate the broth to ensure no water activity, which allows for a two-year shelf life.”
Though plant-based, the Thai lemongrass, chicken, beef and vegetable broths all have the same rich mouthfeel and deep, developed flavors of a bone broth or slow-simmered vegetable stock, thanks to the use of culinary yeast.
Helfend said the plan is to tap into airlines, senior living, hotels and universities and to make this “a global brand.” Sipping the lemongrass broth while 30,000 feet in the air sounds like a great idea.
Prime Roots x Three Little Pigs vegan foie gras
I was skeptical when someone told me there was a plant-based foie gras at the show. I’d read about Nestle testing a vegan foie gras called Voie Gras in Spain and Switzerland last year, and a handful of other attempts. But how could anyone possibly replicate the ultra-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 partnered with the decades-old charcuterie brand to make a line of koji-based foie gras and pâté.
Koji (the mold used in the foundation of soy sauce, miso, sake and mirin) — along with coconut oil, pea protein and a host of other ingredients — gives the product the same essence as a good pâté. There’s that same meaty savoriness with a texture that’s smooth but just a touch grainy.
It’s the one fake meat that could make me change my mind about the entire genre. I mostly like it as a savory spread of no denomination for any bread or cracker, however. If you dropped the “foie gras” in the name and called it a vegetable spread, I’d like it just the same.
The foie gras and pâté are available for purchase online.
Super Mario Charapaki chocolate
It’s a chocolate-dipped biscuit. It’s also a game. The cookies feature Super Mario characters whom you attempt to break free without cracking. If you win, you get to eat your Super Mario-shaped cookie in one piece and gloat. If you lose, you still get to eat a cookie.
The chocolate biscuits will be available this spring at Japanese markets in the Los Angeles area.