"I hope that cute cheese guy is here" isn't the sort of comment you ordinarily overhear as you join the crowd entering Arco Arena. "Cute power forward" maybe, but not "cute cheese guy."
Food, however, was the focus at Arco Arena today. Tony's Fine Foods, the 73-year-old West Sacramento distributorship, was having its annual Food Show to introduce buyers for supermarket chains, independent grocery stores, specialty markets and the like to its inventory of goods, and Arco Arena is about the only venue around big enough to accommodate the crowd.
More than 1,000 buyers from California, Hawaii, Oregon and Nevada circulated among the 317 vendors who had set up booths to show off 5,165 of their products, spread not only on the basketball court but throughout the concession concourse. This year's show drew 40 more vendors than last year's.
At least 20 of them were cheese vendors. Whether any of them were cute, I'm not sure, but cheese definitely was generating buzz. "There's real interest in high-end specialty cheeses," said Steve Dietz, director of marketing for Tony's Fine Foods. "They've been popular in the Bay Area for a while, but now they're spreding into the valley."
One cheese drawing attention was a valley product, the organic cream cheese made by Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. of Willows. Packaged logs of the sweet and smooth cheese were set up in front of a golden statue of a bear, which the company just received on behalf of the product, declared best of show in the commercial cheese competition of the 2007 California State Fair.
Other cheeses sure to help stir up conversation at dinner parties this holiday season include a thick, sweet and creamy soft-ripened sheep's-milk cheese called Miticana de Oveja from Spain; a feta marinated with canola oil, garlic, thyme, basil, oregano, paprika and chile-pepper flakes from Red Rock Specialty Cheese in Utah; and "Roaring Forties Blue," an intense blue-veined cheese from King Island Dairy on King Island, which is between Tasmania and the coast of Australia.
But the most unusual cheese was an aged cheddar infused not only with habanero, cayenne and jalapeno chile peppers but Buffalo-wing hot sauce from the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., where chicken wings originated, boasted Joe DiMattina, sales manager for Yancey's Fancy of Corfu, N.Y., which makes the cheese. I had to laugh at the promotional material he was handing out for the cheese. It recommends that the Buffalo-wing cheddar be paired with a glass of cabernet franc or riesling. This cheese, however, is far too fiery to be paired with any wine. Please, make it a black-and-tan or a stout, which the literature also more sensibly suggested.
Though Tony's show isn't open to the public, the company enthusiastically makes it entertaining for buyers. This year's show had a Hollywood theme, complete with a Joan Rivers impersonator to greet buyers on the red carpet leading into the arena, and paparazzi running around shooting candid photos of attendees. They were last seen dashing down the cheese aisles.