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Stepping into Revel Fulton Market for Good Food Awards’ first ever traveling mercantile felt a little like walking into a life-sized cheese plate: There were piles of cheeses to my left, mountains of charcuterie behind them, and chocolate, nuts, and sweeteners tucked to the right.
They call their mercantile the “the un-trade show for tasty, authentic, responsible food”—un-trade because the thousands of booths you might normally find at any other show are pared down to just 83. And instead of hundreds of categories, there are just 13—manageable enough for many laps, and better, many conversations. Each of the 83 booths was filled with members of the Good Food Guild (currently a collective of 700 businesses, repping 47 states); many of them were current or past winners of Good Food awards, the program that seeks to recognize the very best in socially and environmentally responsible food production. (Separate from this mercantile or "un-trade show," it's also the program that founded the organization, now in its sixth year.) Here are my observations as I sampled the foods and talked with the producers, a.k.a. what I learned as I lapped:
Whey is even more of an unsung hero than we thought.
It’s a byproduct we know to love for many reasons: for lacto-fermentation, for making our breads tangier and our soups and curries livelier, for tenderizing our meats, for making even more cheese. Here’s another: Whey left over from larger-scale cheese production is often shipped off to supplement pig farms’ feed—in fact, every cheese producer I spoke with at the Mercantile does this. (And some lucky pigs even eat botched batches of cheese from neighboring farms, too.) La Quercia, the charcuterie producers known for acorn-finishing some of their pigs (the practice of letting pigs graze predominantly on acorns in the last few months of their lives), is even experimenting with whey-finishing their animals. Our charcuterie and cheese plates don't just taste good together, they also support each other.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
On the mercantile floor, there was plenty of both. Ghost peppers were everywhere, most notably in maple syrup—is hot maple the new hot honey? I also found smoked maple syrup (with real hickory smoke, not liquid smoke), amongst a cast of the more common smoked cheeses and chocolates. Wood's Pure Vermont Syrup explained that maple syrup producers have the bourbon barrel version down, but hot and smoked syrups aren’t quite as pervasive yet. The latter tasted like eating pancakes and bacon together, without either one.
Yep, carbs are making a comeback.
The recent Google Food Trends report told us that pasta was making a big play: After slowed growth, search terms associated with pasta saw a 26% rise, year over year. Christine Schantz, Managing Director of Good Food Awards, told me that their organization is seeing the same thing: The people want pasta. The Good Food Awards are getting calls requesting that the pasta category be broken out on its own (currently, it’s nestled in “pantry”)—a sign that there are both enough sustainable purveyors to make up a standalone category, and that their numbers are growing.
The definition of “good food” is changing.
The Good Food Awards currently defines it as food made with real and local ingredients, good animal practices, and "without the use of artificial ingredients, hormones, synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer or genetically modified ingredients." And their criteria for award-winners reflect this definition. But as categories expand, so do the ingredients used in each: Snacks is a new addition, and Christine told me they’re seeing an increased number of producers wanting to use specialty international or global-inspired ingredients—some of which may not be produced locally. So the definition of “good food” is evolving—becoming “softer around the edges,” Christine said— to be more inclusive while still staying true to the organization's beliefs.
We can learn a lot about the trends of new food businesses from the new Good Food categories people are asking for—and it’s not just pasta. Cider was broken out from the larger drinks category this year and pantry was added, but the Good Food team has gotten repeated calls for soda, and ice cream—well-known San Francisco ice cream shop (and Piglet nominee) Humphrey Slocombe called just the other day to ask for the latter. The new category will be announced next month.