Some sauces, some bacon sausage, some better-balanced coffee, and some treats.
Every other year, The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS if you’re nasty) hosts the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo–a trade show that puts Virginia-based food and beverage businesses in front of food buyers and the media. It is, as you might imagine, a sample-lover’s dream come true.
Last week, over 150 such businesses–bakeries, distilleries, candy-makers, co-packers, and sauce slingers–gathered at the Richmond Convention Center to dance the dance again. For some this was the first time sharing their products with the world, while others have been coming for years. Here are five that moved the dial for me–a coffee tea hybrid, a James Beard Award nominee’s secret sauce, a vastly improved classic sweet treat, Ernest Hemingway’s cocktail sauce, and a sustainably-sourced sausage.
1. JAVAZEN’S BALANCE BLEND
I have to admit I was skeptical. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with coffee, other than the fact that sometimes it makes my sweat smell weird. Coffee helps me wake up, nay, function each day; and for that, I love it. I see very little need for improvement.
But the charismatic fellows behind the Maryland-based start-up Javazen surprised even Jaded Old Steph with a sip of their Balance blend, which combines ground coffee with matcha green tea and cacao nibs. According to CEO Eric Golman, the result is a beverage that’s better for the drinker–perfectly balanced, as it were, to result in zero jittery after-feels and packed with powerful antioxidants. But what struck me was the pure drinkability of the blend as-brewed. The floral notes of the tea, combined with the chocolaty cacao, plus hints of vanilla and cinnamon made for easy, tasty drinkin’. My cup required no additional sweeteners, which is impressive for someone who prefers to add whole milk and two Splendas to pretty much everything I drink.
2. COWBOY SYD’S D’LISH SAUCE
When I was living in Williamsburg, going to school and working as a line cook at Fat Canary, my boyfriend (who was also a cook) and I spent our collective paychecks primarily on one thing (well two, if you count drugs): fine dining. We were insatiable budding gourmands, living beyond our means and with the help of our parents, and we, in retrospect, ate and drink better than many of the “grown-ups” I knew at the time.
One of our spots was Cowboy Syd’s in Newport News, the brainchild of a madman, chef Sydney Meers. The menu at Cowboy Syd’s read more like a Mark Twain short story than what I thought a fine dining menu should be. Words were intentionally misspelled. There was a tone. There was a familiarity. It was as though Syd were looking at you with those wild eyes and telling you what to order.
Twelve years later, Syd’s restaurant is Stove in Portsmouth, and this year the chef was nominated for James Beard’s Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, alongside our own David Shannon, with whom Syd seems to have plenty in common. Both chefs have a strong voice, on the plate, on the menu, and in the decor of their restaurants. Meers has also come up with two sauces–D’Lish Sauce and The “Not-Hot” Sauce–which are available online and in stores like Taste Unlimited. The D’lish Sauce, which Meers makes by hand in small batches at his Virginia Beach co-packing facility, is a blend of smoked tomatoes and fermented peppers. It’s just like the chef himself–bright, bold, and beguiling.
3. THE CRISPERY’S COCOA CONCOCTION CRISPYCAKE
Whatever feelings you have about Rice Krispies Treats, get over them right now. The Crispery does something otherworldly with the combination of puffed rice and marshmallow fluff that gives the treats that inspired them a run for their money.
A Crispery Crispycake is a puffy pillow that combines a perfectly homogenous layer of crispy puffed rice with sweet, fluffy marshmallow, and then AND THEN! there are the frills. The topping and filling combos are a myriad of what’s good in life–pretzels, popcorn, nonpareils! Rainbow sprinkles top the birthday Crispycake; the Banana Pudding Crispycake combines banana flavor and pieces of vanilla wafers; and my personal favorite, the Cocoa Concoction, sandwiches an ethereal chocolate mousse between two crispy, marshmallow clouds, flecked with chocolate chips.
The Crispery’s been around since 1995, but current owner Judy Soldinger is growing the company with new flavors and new retail outlets. But until The Crispery finds its way into Richmond stores, you can find these sweet treats in their online store.
4. THE FLAVORS OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S “ISLANDS” COCKTAIL SAUCE
It’s just such a relief to know that I’m not the only one who’s wondered what my favorite authors would taste like if their essences and experiences were somehow captured, bottled, and sold as a line of condiments. The Flavors of Ernest Hemingway, located in Virginia Beach, legitimizes my most sincere yearnings.
The line-up, including a sea salt blend, a grilling sauce, hot sauce, bloody mary mix, and cocktail sauce, takes a culinary trip around the world through the life and travels of Ernest Hemingway, from Havana to France to Africa. The “Islands” Cocktail Sauce reflects Hemingway’s time in Key West with a zippy addition of lemon and key lime zest, plus a playful hint of olive juice. It’s like a dirty martini and shrimp cocktail had a baby, and I’m no matchmaker, but maybe they totally should.
5. MILTON’S LOCAL’S BACON SAUSAGE
Sausage is great, but it’s always had to deal with the fact that it’s not bacon, and, especially in recent years, with bacon getting all the acclaim, I can only image that it’s been tough for poor old sausage.
James Faison broke onto the scene in 2012 with Milton’s Local, a company with a big, important mission–to connect food buyers and chefs with small-scale livestock farmers in order to make their endangered lifestyle more economically viable. Milton’s Local’s first private-label product, a thick-cut, hickory-smoked bacon, has become favored by chefs and bacon-lovers all over the state and in DC.
Milton’s Local takes the ends of that same beloved bacon and blends it with either a combination of chipotle and cilantro or bell pepper and onion and then smokes it again for another eight hours over the hickory chips. The result is a perfectly smoky, juicy, well-flavored sausage that would make any breakfast plate (not to mention the farmers who humanely raised those antibiotic- and steroid-free hogs) proud.
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Sad you missed the Expo? You should be! Now you have to wait two more years! In the meantime, satiate yourself with these products and be proud to call Virginia your culinary home.