Peanuts, Pork, and Preserves: The VA Food & Beverage Expo

It’s a foodie’s fantasy: 130 specialty food producers in one place, eagerly offering samples of their products to chefs, restaurateurs, and retailers. That’s the Virginia Food & Beverage Expo, which showcases foods produced in the Commonwealth. The Expo is open to the trade only, which means consumers can’t sneak in. But the media can, so I trekked to Richmond, eager to see and taste what’s new in the Virginia’s specialty food scene. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Chefs from the Williamsburg Inn and other restaurants made the rounds, talking to the merchants and sampling, always looking for new flavors to add to their kitchen. A few national brands were there, but most of the exhibitors are small, family-owned businesses that bring passion and love to the table.

And as often as not, a lot of family history. Granatus Sugar Cookies started with the recipe from Hovhannes Gohar’s Armenian grandmother. Starting with the original, melt-in-your-mouth cookies, he and his mom, Karen Beaver, added almond sugar, apple cinnamon, chocolate sugar, Indian spiced, and mint chocolate chip mouthfuls of heaven to their product line.

Tom’s Mom’s Wild Blackberry, Apple Harvest, and Cinnamon Vanilla syrups beg to find a waffle or bowl of ice cream. Tom Humphries spent two years experimenting with his mom’s recipe so he could share his memories of Sunday morning breakfasts with the rest of the world.

Virginia lays claim as the Peanut Capital of the World, and many of the booths extolled their peanuts as “the world’s best.” The subjective, self-anointed title often replies on the size and quality of the nut, the freshness of the product, superior processing, and variety of flavorings: salted, seasoned, chocolate-coated, BBQ, honey roasted, and chipotle dusted treats.

The savory aroma of sizzling pork wafted through the exhibition hall as the purveyors of sausage, bacon, and country ham cooked up their breakfast links and BBQ. S. Wallace Edwards & Sons walked away with the “Best New Food” Award for its “Bacon Steak,” a thick cut of bacon slow, dry-cured in the traditional way, suitable for grilling.

Health food lovers stopped by the Flax Seasoning booth, where innovative cook Darren Baker mixes savory seasonings to finely ground flax, to trade the cardboard taste and consistency of flax for three subtle flavor blends — season salt; a melange of garlic, rosemary, thyme, and green onion;  and maple cinnamon — while still providing fiber and health benefits.

On the other end of the culinary scale, Whoopsies! Gourmet Whoopie Pies moves past the original flavor with new treats like Ditzy Brunette (chocolate cake and Bourbon cream filling), and Red Velvet.

Depending on the product, they’re available in gift shops, specialty retail outlets, supermarkets, or farmers’ markets. Any and all are on-line. The Expo is bi-annual, which means the next one is in 2014. That’s OK; it’ll take that long to order everything for an in-home evaluation!

Granatus Sugar Cookies:
Tom’s Mom’s Syrups:
S. Wallace Edwards “Bacon Steak”:
Flax Seasoning:
Whoopsies! Gourmet Whoopie Pies: