SAN FRANCISCO -- Although sugar-free was a buzzword, and a fair share of predictable pestos, pastas and salsas made their debut at the 17th Winter Fancy Food and Confection Show here this week, candy and its cousins took the cake.
More crowds gathered at confection booths than anywhere else at the Moscone Convention Center show, and exhibitors, bent on sweet success in tough economic times, unveiled everything nice -- from a quartet of new Jelly Belly flavors to chocolate-covered potato chips. Nearly 800 exhibitors showed some 20,000 specialty foods and related products during the three-day show, which ended Tuesday.
Of the "rookie" Jelly Belly flavors -- Champagne punch, Heath toffee, juicy pear and Polynesian punch -- the pear was far and away the best. And Sheftl's chocolate potato chips were an unexpected deep-chocolate delight.
Also in the category of spud innovation, there was this uncommon combination: potato chips and cookies. Marrying two America's favorite snacks, Ana's Gourmet Fare of New York presented four varieties of Rebecca's Potato Chip Cookies. Samples of the original recipe were surprisingly good.
The ubiquitous biscotti were there; it seems there's no end in sight to the appeal of the hard, sweet, twice-baked cookies. Nonni's, still the flavor leader in spite of all the competition, offered retailers an affordable package of two, as did Biscotti Nucci, a new bakery in Napa, Calif.
A Connecticut company's packaging prowess heightened the appeal of 12 different manufacturers' sweets with both old-time and trendy tins. The American Specialty Confections Inc. has made a good marketing move with its "Made on the Farm" tin and other cow-related products for Hershey's chocolate.
Inspired by the trend toward more healthful snacks -- or at least snacks that sound as though they are -- Zelda's Devon Kitchen Inc. of New Jersey introduced Carrot Crunch Biscuits, a crunchy, cholesterol-free, cookie-wannabee that doesn't taste half-bad.
And in a flash of inspiration, Carr's Table Water Crackers have been reformulated to remove tropical oils, replacing them with pure vegetable oil.
In the shadow of dessert, some other products merit mention. They include:
* A spicy, all-natural salsa vinegar for use as a salad dressing or marinade -- easily flavorful enough to replace oil -- sold in a Southwest-styled bottle but manufactured in Vermont by Herb Patch Ltd.
* Pomodoro Fresca, a line of sauces made from fresh plum tomatoes in Long Island, N.Y. The three varieties are original (with olive oil, olives, basil, garlic, salt and pepper); solo (in natural juices only); and rosemary and balsamic vinegar.
* Dinners for two, from Souperior Bean & Spice Co., an Oregon company that sells dried beans and pastas complete with seasoning packets (and tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce, if a recipe calls for it).
The winners in the great-name (if not great-taste) category were Spaghetti Western, which introduced a spicy green chile catsup, and Cowboy Caviar, makers of vegetable pates and pasta sauces.