With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, what better time to contemplate delicious treats?
Many of the following delights were sampled at the Winter Fancy Food Show, the massive Specialty Food Association trade event at Moscone Center every Martin Luther King Day. This year, wares from 1,500 vendors — in 32 categories from antipasto to vinegar — didn’t disappoint. In 2016, dipping sauces seemed to be on the wane, sugar-free was standard, and plentiful gluten-free items sometimes were palatable.
It’s a wild, overwhelming, ridiculous and enticing scene, impossible to cover comprehensively — but this intrepid taster made an admirable attempt, popping cheese cubes at the risk of severe stomach discomfort.
With a predilection for the unhealthy and focus on the big Cs — caramel, cheese, chocolate and California purveyors — here’s a subjective list of noteworthy tastes.
Charles Chocolates: For Valentine’s Day, the San Francisco artisanal chocolatier offers heart and boxed assortments of numerous flavors, only beginning with fleur de sel caramel, mojito chocolate ganache, mocha meltaway, milk chocolate peanut or passion fruit. (www.charleschocolates.com)
Clairesquares: This San Francisco outfit makes melt-in-your mouth shortbread bites topped with dark and milk chocolate. (www.clairesquares.com)
Elaine’s Toffee Co.: Based in Clayton, this confectioner’s buttery blend is handcrafted in copper kettles and comes in almond, butter crunch, sea salt and pumpkin spice varieties. (www.elainestoffee.com)
Le Caramel: The San Diego County company makes kosher-certified, smooth cream toppings and candies “the way caramel should taste” in flavors including sea salt, maple, strawberry, coconut and chocolate mint. (www.le-caramel.com)
Kopper’s Chocolate: “Grab and go” bags are the latest from the confectioner, whose nine flavors include milk chocolate cherries, sea salt caramel mix, mini ultilmate malt balls, and Danish Nordic Minties. (www.kopperschocolate.com)
Philip Marks Chocolates: Founders of the Bay Area artisanal company took three years to find couverture from Switzerland on which to base their hand-crafted, small-batch confections of dark, milk and white chocolate bars, as well as gourmet recipes with cashews, raisins, walnuts or raspberry. (www.philipmarkschocolates.com)
Terry’s Toffee: Given in Oscars baskets, these confections come in 17 flavors, from “Asian Accent,” to “Hazelicious” to “Signature Light and Dark.” (www.terrystoffee.com)
Tcho: The San Francisco “new American chocolate” purveyor has won awards for its “Mokaccino” milk chocolate + Blue Bottle coffee bar and “TCHOPairings Strawberry Rhubarb Pie.” (www.tcho.com)
Beehive Cheese Co.: “Barely Buzzed” is the Utah company’s signature espresso and lavender hand-rubbed cheese, made from the milk of Jersey cows; “SeaHive,” rubbed with honey and rock salt, is another specialty. (www.beehivecheese.com)
Bellwether Farms: The family-owned, Sonoma County creamery’s offerings — Crescenza, fromage blanc, Carmody and more — can be found in fine restaurants and gourmet retail shops. (bellwetherfarms.com)
Laura Chenel’s Pure Goat Milk Cheese: The award-winning Sonoma cheesemaker offers 11 types, fresh and aged, including the jalapeno oil-infused “Spicy Cabecou” which has a real kick, and, for mellower tastes, the “Marinated Cabecou” with herbs and olive oil. (www.laurachenel.com)
Kitchen Table Bakers: Aged Parmesan cheese crisps are the original variety offered by the family-owned company, which began as the personal project of a hospital administrator on a quest for a crunchy, salty, delicious snack that’s gluten-, wheat-, sugar- and nut-free. (www.kitchentablebakers.com)
Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche: Atascadero-based Sadie Kendall calls her cultured cream, which has a 12-week shelf-life and is the perfect base of a delectable sauce, “revolutionary.” (www.kendallfarmscremefraiche.com)
Marin French Cheese: The 150-year-old California company (the website says it’s the “longest continually operating cheese company in America”) earned top honors in 2015 competitions for brie, triple crème brie, petite breakfast and “schloss” varieties. (www.marinfrenchcheese.com)
Redwood Hill Farm: The Sebastopol farm, which humanely produces goat milk, kefir and artisan cheese, also hosts popular tours in May, with demonstrations, games, and the chance to play with adorable baby goats. (www.redwoodhill.com)
Sierra Nevada Cheese Company: The Willows-based company offers a large line of natural and organic cow, goat and sheep artisan cheeses and dairy products, including kefir, yogurt, cream cheese and butter. (www.sierranevadacheese.com)
Sonoma Creamery: In business since 1931, the company’s familiar Sonoma Jack comes in flavors ranging from mellow traditional to spicy hot pepper and fiery habanero. (www.sonomacreamery.com)