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Cornmeal, chocolate and DIY whiskey


Corn with a past, called Bloody Butcher, may provide a future of possibilities for the Savage family of Painter, Va. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

Healthful snack options for kids, banana pudding on demand and a Cinderella story of sorts had folks buzzing at Wednesday’s Virginia Food and Beverage Expo, which was held at the downtown convention center in Richmond.

The state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has held some form of this biennial trade show (not open to the public) since 1989. This year, more than 130 products were on display, with 41 of them entered in competition for three New Product honors. I was part of a five-member judges’ panel that included Michael Birchenall of Food Service Monthly; Lorraine Eaton, food and spirits writer for the Virginian-Pilot; and chef Patrick Evans-Hylton, food editor of Hampton Roads magazine. We rated for taste, packaging, originality and presentation.

Before I tell you about the winners, allow me to introduce some other new product standouts:

  • Ayrshire Farm of Upperville has just rolled out its own pulled pork in barbecue sauce, mac and cheese, beef stew and more, packaged at the farm as Simply Delicious Frozen Meals. The samples looked like single-serving size, and may make me rethink my aversion to buying/microwaving foods in black plastic trays. Pricing wasn’t available; the meals should be at the Home Farm Store in Middleburg and soon in some D.C. area stores that carry the farm’s products.
  • Mrs. Bryant's Orchard Fresh Gourmet Cinnamon Apple Sauce (Williamsburg) beats any applesauce I’ve had from a jar. It’s thick, low in sugar and deeply flavored, just begging to be used as a sauce or glaze with roasted meats. A large jar costs $9. This joins the line of gourmet foods Joy Bryant sells in Williamsburg; it doesn’t appear to be listed in her online shop yet, so contact the company here.
  • Arlington resident and former lawyer Dan Gadra’s Popghum, which is air-popped sorghum: Think small popcorn minus any tough kernels. It’s healthful snacking, and the new company’s trying to keep its profile as green and local as possible. Several flavors, including Southwestern Chili and Cheddar, will be available in about three months, sold at Whole Foods Markets for 99 cents a bag.
  • Rodgers’ Banana Pudding Sauce comes from the Rodgers family of Chesapeake. Spread it on a vanilla wafer and you’ve got the essence of banana cream pie whenever the mood strikes (it has a mayo-like consistency; $6 for a 16-ounce jar). That, plus a dab of Nutella, could make some mean crepes. It keeps for about three months in the refrigerator; not sold anywhere close to D.C. yet, so contact Martha.
  • The four flavors of Fruit 66 Sparkling Fruit Juices contain 100 percent juice and two ounces of sparkling water and the equivalent of a serving of fruit in every slender eight-ounce can (99 cents each, available at Whole Foods Markets; six-packs are coming this summer). The Richmond-born drink is low-calorie and a big hit in the city’s public schools and in the school systems of 46 states. A portion of the 4U2U company’s sales goes to the nonprofit School Nutrition Association. Buy it online at Amazon.
  • Homestead Creamery of Wirtz’s whole-milk, pourable raspberry yogurt: smooth, creamy and decadent, comes in a glass bottle (price unavailable). Available at some Whole Foods Markets in the D.C. area.
Now for the winners:
  • Spice Rack Chocolates of Fredericksburg earned the best overall trophy for its Mexican Chiapas Coffee Infused Chocolate. The stuff had a nice snap and crunchy, fruity bits of fair trade coffee bean ($24.99 for a 15-piece collection). Mary Schellhammer’s chocolates are dairy-free, hand-painted and beautifully packaged. In D.C. you can find them at Chocolate Chocolate.
  • Best beverage went to Wasmund’s Barrel Kit from Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville. Master distiller Rick Wasmund was all-shucks surprised at the reaction to the tidy box that contains a two-liter charred American white oak barrel and two cask-strength (124 proof!) 750-ml bottles of his single-malt spirit or his rye spirit, with directions about how to do your own whisky aging. He says the kits are available at ABC stores ($99).
  • This is what I liked best: Eastern Shore residents Bill and Laurel Savage, who make Pungo Creek Mills' Pure Indian Cornmeal, had a storybook day. Their cornmeal won best food product, presented by way of moist cornbread samples. You can buy the bags online ($7.99) through Blue Crab Bay Co.

Bill Savage, producer of Pungo Creek Mills Pure Indian Cornmeal. (Bonnie Benwick/The Washington Post)

By day, Savage, 38, works as a ditch maintenance supervisor for Accomack County, with an eye toward broadening his horizons. He had admired the 12-foot-tall stalks with colorful foot-long ears corn grown near his dad’s 100-acre farm. He asked the neighbor for seed and learned it was an American heirloom variety known as Bloody Butcher, perhaps named for its deep red kernels. He sent it off for DNA testing and planted eight acres on his dad’s property, thinking maybe he could sell dried ears for decorative purposes.

That didn’t prove profitable. He bought a small mill to grind the corn for chicken feed. The cornmeal looked beautiful. One day, faced with a glut of it, he brought some in for his wife to use in the kitchen. The cornbread she baked was textured, sweet-smelling and nutty-tasting. Savage put up a corn crib (for drying) and put together a larger mill operation of his own, restoring a 1935 belt-driven machine and a 1909 two-hole corn sheller. The first harvest yielded about a thousand 25-pound sacks of cornmeal, which the couple packaged in one- and two-pound bags and sold out – quickly – at Eastern Shore fairs and such.

As it happens, the Savage family has corn and milling in its history. Their first relative in the Colonies was Ensign Thomas Savage, who came from England to Jamestown around 1608 and would become a major distributor of corn grown on the Eastern Shore. Bill Savage’s great-grandfather ran a mill in Painter (the Savages’ home town).

The DNA testing showed the corn dated back to the 1840s which is when the neighbor had said his family started growing it. The Savages and Bill’s parents packaged their second harvest and brought some to the expo this year.

Bill Savage hopes he’ll be able to place his cornmeal in shops and restaurants that value old foodways. (I could see that corn being used to manufacture some great tortillas.) Post-win, the Savages were inundated with queries and what sounded like opportunities to do more business in the state. Their victory had the air of an upset – no marketing, no fancy booth -- and they were obviously pleased.

“I wanted to wait till we saw how we did at this expo,” he said. “I guess this means we’ll be planting 16 acres in May, at least.”

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  March 25, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Shopping , Sustainable Food  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, cornmeal, new products, shopping  
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