The biggest puzzler at Wednesday’s Virginia Food and Beverage Expo, held at the Convention Center in Richmond, was at the booth hawking Rodgers’ Banana Pudding Sauce.
“Do you use fresh bananas for this?” I asked the woman standing behind the table, presiding over sample cups of the vaguely yellowish concoction.
“No bananas in the product,” she replied, looking deadly serious.
Or as least as serious as one can look when wearing a giant banana suit.
Turns out you add your own banana slices to what’s essentially vanilla pudding. Who knew? I would have hung around to see if anyone else was similarly confused, but there was too much interesting food still to taste. I moved on.
The expo, a biennial event, is a showcase for specialty foods made or harvested in Virginia. Producers — more than 130 this year — attend in hopes of getting exposure and buyers for their wares. Buyers — the show’s sponsor, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, was expecting at least 800 of them — attend in hopes of finding new products they can use or sell in their stores, restaurants or catalogs.
The event also bestows three awards: for best new beverage product, best new food product and best overall new product. The winners:
Beverage: Clammy Mary Premium Bloody Mary Mix, from the Ashburn Sauce Co. of Virginia Beach.
Food: Virginia Bacon Steak, from S. Wallace Edwards & Sons in Surry.
Overall: Marsh Mud Cold-Brewed Coffee, from the Eastern Shore Coastal Roasting Co. of Willis Wharf.
More about them later.
Wandering the aisles, I was happy to see two new exhibitors I’d read about but never met. Joyce and Travis Miller own Wildwood’s Hickory Syrup in Berryville, in nearby Clarke County. They’d brought squeeze bottles of what they call “the other syrup” and were filling expo-goers’ white plastic spoons with sample tastes.
The flavor “is difficult to describe,” Travis said. It’s not as sweet as maple syrup. It has sharper flavor notes, and he said some people also detect a hint of smoke.
The Millers had been looking for a business idea, and hickory syrup seemed like a great fit for them. “We’re connected with nature and our surroundings, so we were naturally drawn to something that comes from the forest,” he said. Theirs is among only a handful of businesses nationwide that produce the syrup. “We don’t know why more people aren’t doing it,” he said.
Hickory syrup is processed from the bark of the trees — unlike maple syrup, which is made from sap that rises in the spring — so it can be produced year-round. The bark is shed naturally, so the trees aren’t harmed. The Millers won’t disclose their proprietary process, but basically the bark is collected, scrubbed, roasted and brewed. The resulting extract is aged, sweetened and bottled. They sell at farmers markets and at some retail stores. While I was there, a buyer for the Fresh Market grocery chain stopped by and told me the syrup was the top-selling new item at the Fresh Market store that opened recently in Rockville.
The Millers forage for the bark, and now many of their friends do, too. ”We’ll come home and find a pile of it sitting outside the garage,” Joyce said.
Last year, their syrup got a passing mention in a Smoke Signals column by the Food section’s Jim Shahin. After that, “everything exploded for us,” Joyce said. “Our Internet sales soared.” They’ve also won impressive new accounts; for example, they’ll be supplying Mount Vernon with bottles of their syrup, to be sold under a special label (designed, as was their regular label, by the Millers’ future daughter-in-law).
I asked Travis whether the company is making money yet. “We don’t want to set our expectations too high,” he said. “It’s to be seen. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Back to this year’s expo winners, as decided by a small panel of independent judges. Clammy Mary is the brainchild of Willard Ashburn, who told me that “I’ve been making sauces all my life.” He already had one bloody mary mix in his lineup of retail products but decided there was “a real need to do one with clam juice.” The only similar product on the market that he knew of was Clamato, made by Mott’s. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give old Clamato a run for their money.’ And I think the rest is gonna be history.” It’s made, of course, with Virginia clams.
The other two winners seemed to be more about packaging than anything else.
Take the Virginia Bacon Steak. This is the exact same bacon the company was already producing. But as owner Sam W. Edwards III told me, thicker bacon is popular these days, so “we said, ‘Let’s cut some really thick and see what happens.’ ” The Bacon Steak, sliced ¼-inch thick, debuted in October. “This on a BLT — it’s killer,” Edwards said.
The event’s big winner, Marsh Mud, is largely a product that owner Kristin Willis has been selling for years. What’s new is that the coffee has been packaged in a filter bag that you drop into a container of water and refrigerate overnight. “It’s super easy, all ready to go,” said Willis, who seemed thrilled and astonished to be the hero of the day: This was the first food show ever for her six-year-old business.