2011 Taste Test Awards: Artisanal Category Winners

We tasted products from around the country to find the best of the best from small-production food artisans. By Cindy Hatcher

Best Artisanal Foods 2011

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Support These Artisans!

The grass-roots growth of small producers turning out wonderful foods across this great land just keeps accelerating. We sampled everything from superb burrata (mozzarella taken to a higher, creamier level) to a gluten-free baking mix that yielded muffins every bit as delicious as their gluten-based counterparts.

Most items can be ordered online. Shipping can be expensive (and not exactly green), so we favored products that deliver great value, make special gifts, or are truly representative of their region.

We did not focus on low-fat foods for the simple reason that when the quality is high, the quantity can go down: A sliver of the pancetta pictured opposite is more satisfying than three pieces of regular bacon.

Thanks to our regional food experts: Belinda Ellis, Jenn Garbee, Jill Silverman Hough, Hanna Raskin, Robin Schempp, Marilou Suszko, and Laura Taxel

North Country Smokehouse Cottage Bacon 


Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Meat: New Hampshire

North Country Smokehouse Cottage Bacon ($30 for 4 [12-ounce] packages)

Taken from the center of the pork butt rather than the fatty belly, this bacon is sweet and perfectly smoky with just a slight hint of maple-y goodness. Produced by a family-owned smokehouse.

Bolzano Artisan Meats Pancetta

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Meat: Wisconsin

Bolzano Artisan Meats Pancetta (from $10.50, 414-426-6380)

Milwaukee-based producer Scott Buer uses traditional dry-curing methods, extending the process to 30 days for added depth of flavor. There's a silky sweetness here that makes it one of the finest pancettas we have ever been lucky enough to taste.

Johnston County Hams Curemaster's Reserve

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Meat: North Carolina

Johnston County Hams Curemaster's Reserve  ($30 for 3 [8-ounce] sampler packages)

Meat from Hungarian heritage breed Mangalitsa hogs is fatty, rich, and slightly gamey. Don't hide this ham in a sandwich—its creamy texture will remind you of better prosciutto.

Gerard & Dominique Smoked Scallops

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Meat: Washington

Gerard & Dominique Smoked Scallops ($46 for a 1-pound package)

These plump jewels are fished from Alaskan waters and smoked in small batches near Seattle; then they arrive ready to crown a salad or lend a sweet note to an antipasti plate. Their concentrated scallop flavor and firm texture reveal a perfect touch by the smoker.

Napa Valley Vodka

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Beer & Spirits: California

Napa Valley Vodka ($65 for 750 ml)

Now here is a gift to give the liquor nut in your life (perhaps one whom you owe a big favor—this is no cheap vodka). Sweetly sippable with hints of herbs and grass, it reveals its wine-country origins: This extraordinary vodka comes not from potatoes or grain, but from sauvignon blanc grapes harvested from a single vineyard.

Note: Local laws may mean liquor has to be sourced through distributors in some states.

Cardinal Gin

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Beer & Spirits: North Carolina

Cardinal Gin ($30 for 750 ml at multiple N.C. locations, online ordering coming soon)

This truly small-batch distillery—they produced only 5,000 cases last year—is located in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Thirty-year-old twin brothers, Charlie and Alex Mauney, have developed a Western-style gin (less juniper, more of other flavorings) that hits with a strong, clean nose of pine.

Note: Local laws may mean liquor has to be sourced through distributors in some states.

The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best in Beer & Spirits: California

The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel ($11 for 750 ml, available in 21 states)

Patrick Rue, the 31-year-old owner of The Bruery in Orange County, brings an experimental, Californian sensibility to his higher-alcohol, Belgian-style, bottle-conditioned beers: Trade Winds uses rice in the mash, which makes for an especially crisp and refreshing light-bodied beer. A touch of Thai basil and a lemony nose make it a gorgeous accompaniment for fish.

Note: Local laws may mean liquor has to be sourced through distributors in some states.

Gioia Cheese Burrata

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Cheese: California

Gioia Cheese Burrata ($7 for 1 pound)

Until Gioia opened, burrata—mozzarella stuffed with curd and heavy cream—was difficult to find domestically. Now it's a chef's darling—wonderful in a roasted beet salad or simply drizzled with olive oil on its own.

Looking Glass Creamery Ellington

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Cheese: North Carolina

Looking Glass Creamery Ellington ($15 minimum order)

A creamy, aged goat cheese with a bloomy rind and smoky ash that evokes a delicious hint of truffle and damp forest floor. Produced by Jennifer and Andy Perkins on their small farm in the North Carolina mountains.

Bellwether Farms Whole Jersey Ricotta

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Cheese: California

Bellwether Farms Whole Jersey Ricotta ($8 for 12-ounce basket)

Sweet, creamy proof that ricotta can be so much more than lasagna filler. Tastes of sweet milk with rich, creamy mouthfeel. Toss with hot pasta, or spread on toasted whole-grain bread.

Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery Cremont

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Cheese: Vermont

Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery Cremont ($10 for 5 ounces)

This double-cream chèvre is derived from a blend of cow's cream with cow's and goat's milk. Smooth and velvety with a wallop of cream in a positively unctuous package.

Crave Brothers Petit Frère

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Cheese: Wisconsin

Crave Brothers Petit Frère ($10.25 for 1/2 pound)

A subtle washed-rind cow's-milk cheese that quietly announces its presence with a hint of musty barnyard funk on the palate, not the nose. Smooth texture with a slightly bitter rind and a silky center.

Wood's Cider Mill Boiled Cider

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Condiments: Vermont

Wood's Cider Mill Boiled Cider ($7.50 for 16 ounces)

Wood's Cider Mill has produced this syrupy condiment (basically reduced apple cider) since 1882. It adds a sweetly tart tang to everything from pancakes to pork chops.

Grampa's Gourmet Tamarisk Honey

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Condiments: Colorado

Grampa's Gourmet Tamarisk Honey ($12 for 11½ ounces)

Brent Edelen, a sixth-generation beekeeper, produces this fantastic unpasteurized, unfiltered raw honey. More stout than sweet, it has notes of molasses and coffee and a glassy texture that's clean on the palate. Try a drop or two in hot tea.

Kerala Curry Curried Lemon

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Condiments: North Carolina

Kerala Curry Curried Lemon ($4.50 for 9 ounces)

South India native (now Pittsboro resident) Ann Varkey began bottling her line of chutneys and curries in 2002. The curried lemon is intense and earthy with an authentic kick. Instantly enlivens grilled meats.

Lucille's Kitchen Garden Minnesota Mead Jelly

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Condiments: Minnesota

Lucille's Kitchen Garden Minnesota Mead Jelly ($8 for 8 ounces)

Zoie and Amy Glass create jams and jellies to accompany savory foods like salty prosciutto or creamy chèvre. The Minnesota Mead features a blend of local honeys. Hints of sweet wine flavor shine through with just a bit of balancing acidity.

Volcano Island Honey Organic Silk Honey

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Condiments: Hawaii

Volcano Island Honey Organic Silk Honey ($23 for 8 ounces)

Harvested from a single grove of kiawe trees on the Big Island, this honey has a thick, creamy, milky texture with lovely sweet floral notes. Like the Tamarisk above, it's also unheated and unfiltered, but these two honeys are on opposite ends of the texture and sweetness spectrum.

We Take the Cake Key Lime Bundt Cake

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Sweets: Florida

We Take the Cake Key Lime Bundt Cake ($28 for 8-inch cake)

It can be difficult to produce a cake that stands up to shipping, but this one arrived moist, fresh, and tasty. The bakery offers a rotating lineup of flavors, but the burst of fresh citrus in the Key lime variety was like a delicious culinary postcard from sunny Florida.

Potter's Hazelnut Graham Crackers

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Sweets: Wisconsin

Potter's Hazelnut Graham Crackers ($5.50)

Mother-and-son duo Peter and Nancy Potter churn out these flatbread-like crackers in 10 varieties (plus seasonal specialties); we loved the hazelnut graham. A light coating of sugar adds a touch of sweetness and a pretty sparkle. Top with a sharply contrasting blue cheese or a sweet mascarpone.

Dufour Puff Pastry

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Sweets: New York

Dufour Puff Pastry ($10 for 1 pound at Whole Foods stores)

Here's a time- and effort-saver that will pass most any picky baker's muster. Quality, buttery dough rises to about eight times its original height, revealing hundreds of thin, puffy, flaky layers.

Rustic Bakery Chocolate Cacao Nib Shortbread

Photo: Travis Rathbone

Best in Sweets: California

Rustic Bakery Chocolate Cacao Nib Shortbread ($6 for 4 ounces)

Wow! A fantastically deep hit of chocolate lurks in these sophisticated shortbread cookies. Nice salty kick, too. Perfect on their own with a cup of coffee.

The Pecans! Pecan Butter

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: Alabama

The Pecans! Pecan Butter ($8 for 8 ounces)

As part of the YouthBuild program in the impoverished Black Belt region of Alabama, high school students produce brittle and butter. This is a staggeringly good, fairly loose paste of toasted nuts, honey, and cinnamon. Nice on a cracker or biscuit, but you won't be able to resist eating it straight from the spoon.

Urban Moonshine Maple Bitters

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: Vermont

Urban Moonshine Maple Bitters (from $15 for 2 ounces)

Bitters—tinctures of herbs and roots—were an integral part of early cocktail culture that have recently made a comeback in the fancy bar scene. These bitters are handcrafted from organic ingredients in Burlington with a touch of maple sweetness and a hint of orange.

Global Gardens Black Currant Champagne Vinegar

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: California

Global Gardens Black Currant Champagne Vinegar ($19 for 500 ml)

Theo Stephan makes a variety of oils and vinegars under her Global Gardens label. The black currant vinegar is a great balance of vinegar and fruit—such pure flavor that it needs just a dash of olive oil to make a dressing or marinade.

Blenheim Hot Ginger Ale

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: South Carolina

Blenheim Hot Ginger Ale ($24 for 24 [12-ounce] bottles)

Bottled since 1903 and available in regular, hot, and diet options. Our resident ginger ale expert liked the unique hit packed by the hot variety. It's hard to find a good ginger ale that's not too sweet, but this one has plenty of balance. It would take a classic cocktail, such as a Dark and Stormy, to a new place.

Kristen's Gluten-Free Food Cherry and Coffeecake Muffin Mix

Photo: Randy Mayor

Best of the Rest: Nebraska

Kristen's Gluten-Free Food Cherry and Coffeecake Muffin Mix ($8 for 13 1/4 ounces)

Despite the growth of the gluten-free market, we've found few items that offer the flavor and texture that baked goods should deliver. Not so for this mix from tiny Tekamah, Nebraska, which turns out moist and light muffins and coffee cake. Whole-grain sorghum flour is the first ingredient.

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