We tasted products from around the country to find the best of the best from small-production food artisans. By Cindy Hatcher
With great joy we tasted the handiwork of food artisans from every corner of the country. Most of these products can be ordered online; a few require a trip to the producer but are so good we had to include them. Note: We tasted by region, not by category, looking for examples of local excellence. A winning Vermont cheddar was not compared to a Michigan raclette; both are equally excellent. We focused on five main categories: cheese, spirits and beer, meat, condiments, and sweets, with a few miscellaneous (and irresistible) picks.
Leelanau Cheese Company Raclette ($12.50/lb.) Ideal for melting in a sandwich or fondue, this mildly nutty Swiss-style cheese from Michigan’s “agricultural
destination” farm, inn, and winery has just the right level of fresh-from-the-farm cheesy funk.
Cellars at Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (from $20/lb.) From a partnership between artisan cheesemakers and Vermont’s giant Cabot, this cheddar is sharp and rich in the English style, nicely crumbly, with bits of those crunchy crystals also found in great cheeses like Parmesan.
Beecher’s 4-Year Aged Flagship Cheddar ($22/lb). Just as Oregon proved that fantastic French-style pinot noir could be made on the West Coast, Beecher’s produces amazing cheddar character far from (but near the same latitude as) the English source. Rich, deep, dense, and grassy.
Meadow Creek Dairy Appalachian Semi-Soft Raw Cow’s Milk (from $18/lb.) Don’t be fooled by its benign, butterlike appearance and aroma: This is a very milky cheese with a gently
pungent, sharp, lemony kick. Its smooth, creamy texture coats your mouth in the best way. Available June through March.
Sweetwoods Aged Goat Cheese (from $16/lb., 505-465-2608). Aging at least 3 months gives it a gouda-like texture, plus a clear, grassy goat flavor and a hint of sweetness. From a small raw-goat’s-milk creamery that’s been around since the early 1990s. Available only at certain farmers’ markets, restaurants, and Whole Foods in New Mexico.
Corsair Artisan Gin (from $22). From corn-whiskey country comes a dry, fragrant, peppery gin flavored with an unusual mix of traditional botanicals, sustainably harvested. Sold and served in the South and the West Coast.
Blue Corn Brewery Transcendental Tripel (from $10.50). The addition of a small amount of locally grown lavender—unusual for Belgian Tripels—lends perfume to this
rich, 8.5% alcohol beer, good for sipping with food. Available in winter months only at the brewery’s two Santa Fe locations.
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey (from $50). Small-batch distilling is undergoing a boom, and this is a leading example: Barley-based (like scotch) and new-oak-aged
(like bourbon), this Denver-distilled whiskey has a lemony, almost sherrylike nose and a vibrant flavor. Sold online and in 30 states.
Death’s Door Gin ($32). Only three herbs spice this gin: fennel, coriander, and wild juniper harvested from Lake Michigan’s Washington Island. This is like a good vodka with a subtle spicy kick—sweet and velvety. Perfect for slow sipping on the rocks.
Turner Ham House Country Ham (from $3/lb). You can order beautiful sugar-cured hams from this Shenandoah Valley company, which is more than 35 years old. When thinly sliced, the ham has a deliciously prosciutto-like texture and flavor—sweet, caramel notes balanced by just the right amount of salt.
Tall Grass Buffalo Jerky ($10). Most jerkies we tasted resembled salty leather. Not this one. It has a surprisingly supple yet gratifyingly substantial texture; the meaty flavor mingles with spices and smoke, leaning more to pepper than salt. From buffalo that roam an 18,000-acre ranch.
Pork on a Fork Cottage Shoulder Cut Bacon ($12/lb). Bacon from shoulder rather than belly is leaner and has just the right amount of marbling without being supergreasy. This is what turkey bacon aspires to be, but isn’t. The pork comes from a boutique farm that raises only 60 hogs at a time.
Boccalone Nduja ($24 for two). Remarkable salami paste from a San Fran venture that’s less than 10 years old. Nduja (pronounced en-doo-ya) is a true find: a spreadable chorizo-like ambassador of intense, cured porky flavor. Bitter orange underlines spicy smokiness and fermented tang. A little adds a punch to soups and sauces.
Salumeria Biellese Wild Boar Sopressata ($130 [includes shipping] for five 1-lb. pieces). Old-school artisanal Manhattan sausage maker, around since 1925, combines wild boar with wine, spices, and juniper to produce a beautifully rounded, balanced flavor in a dry-cured salami.
Lattin Farms Cantaloupe Jam (from $4). We were initially dubious about a melon jam, then completely won over by this preserve, which tastes so honestly
of sweet, locally grown Hearts of Gold cantaloupes. From a farm owned for generations by the Lattin family in Fallon, Nevada.
Available at the family’s farm stand and at northern Nevada farmers’ markets.
Sticky Fingers Bakeries Orange Curd ($6). Less sour than old-fashioned lemon curd, with an incredibly fresh, bright orange-peel flavor. Simply slather on a biscuit
or toast or elevate to sublime heights by spreading on, say, a creamy goat cheese tart. From a 23-year-old Spokane company.
Breezie Maples Farm Maple Syrup (from $4). This certified-organic family farm produces four grades of good syrup, plus a creamy maple spread. We sampled all four grades—from light, mild Grade A to molasses-like Extra Dark—and each offers great color, flavor, and an almost buttery mouthfeel. The Extra Dark is dazzling.
Farmer’s Daughter Hyderabadi Tomato Chutney ($8). This is one of the most luscious and perfectly spiced chutneys we’ve ever tasted. Superb on fish, potatoes, even a salmon burger. Available at the year-round Carrboro Farmers’ Market from a Slow Food–style artisanal producer of preserves, pickles, and pastries.
Salem Baking Co’s Ginger Spice Moravian Cookies (from $2). It’s hard to believe something this whisper-thin can pack so much flavor. Salem has 11 varieties, but the original
is our favorite. Twelve of these deliver the same calories as one ordinary chocolate-chip cookie. The company has been operating
Effie’s Homemade Corncakes ($36 for 6 bags). One of the finest biscuits in the world, we say: slightly sweet and seductively salty, with a masa-flour
corn flavor and cornmeal crunch, and a hint of anise. A one-year-old product with timeless character. Effie’s also offers
oatcakes and pecan nutcakes.
Sweet Margy Tofikomin ($12 for an 8-oz. sheet). Hey, who hid the afikomen in a rich toffee-and-chocolate coating? Margy Kaye did, after turning her candy-making hobby to business in 2006. Although we love the crunch of matzo any time, the marriage with buttery toffee is inspired.
Alma Chocolate Icons (from $15). Spectacular little gifts for lovers of chocolate: Portland confectioners pour single-origin chocolates into beautiful molds (of hearts, birds, devils, laughing Buddhas, Celtic crosses, and more), then brush on 23-karat edible gold. The results look ancient, and taste divine.
Chocolot Handmade Chocolates (from $12). We hadn’t heard of “Utah’s premier artisan chocolatier” (it’s only two years old) until we tasted these beauties, which deliver intense, smooth fillings and appealing flavors (Beehive Honey, Australian Ginger) in handsomely finished chocolates that are not exquisitely overpriced.
Brooklyn Brine Co. Fennel Beets ($20 for 2 [16-oz.] jars). Beets brined until sublime by a new-generation Big Apple pickling partnership. Firm-textured and complex, with flavors of garlic and mustard seed, along with licorice-like notes of tarragon and fennel seeds. And then a little unexpected kick courtesy of black peppercorns and chile flakes. Lord, they’re good.
McClure's Spicy Bloody Mary Mix (Online by the case only; $120 including shipping for 12 jars). This briny, spicy, pickle-flavored tomato juice simply makes the best Bloody Mary we've ever tasted—it will satisfy teetotalers, too. (Tip: As the jar wanes, top off with Clamato to extend its range.) Also available individually at select gourmet markets.
Freddy Guys Dry Roasted Hazelnuts (from $6). Twelve years ago, a family new to the nut-farm business bought a filbert orchard in Oregon; they now produce a superb example of the archetypal Pacific Northwest nut, perfectly roasted and unsalted, with deep, rich hazelnut flavor and glorious crunch.
Early Bird Aloha Recipe Granola ($8). Small-production granola is as common as birdseed and often not much more interesting—until you taste Early Bird’s perfection. It’s all about crunch, coco-nuttiness, sweetness, and a perky bit of salt. The Aloha blend features oats, sunflower seeds, brown sugar, maple syrup, coconut flakes, sweet cubes of dried mango, and buttery macadamia nuts.
Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil ($22). This vibrant oil from the seeds of organically raised pumpkins offers a lovely alternative to fine olive oil as a flavor finisher. Imagine this stirred into butternut squash soup or simply drizzled over toasted bread.
La Nogalera Walnut Oil (from $17). Essence of roasted walnuts in silky oil form, cold-pressed, with a pleasantly astringent quality that speaks of both skin and nutmeat. From a trio of nut growers in Santa Barbara County. Begs to be poured over a salad or hot pasta.
Chimayo Red Chile Powder ($20 per 4-oz. package). Unbelievably complex mix of smoky, sweet, and earthy flavors with modest heat, from a 400-year-old Native American chile variety grown in New Mexico. It's sold through the Native Hispanic Institute, which is devoted to preserving the region's culture. Read the story at their Web site, then order and sprinkle the vibrant powder into a tomato-based soup, on scrambled eggs, or on any food that would benefit from rich, warm spice.
Belle Chèvre Belle and The Bees Breakfast Cheese ($8.50). Almost all the flavored goat cheeses we tasted were less interesting than the plain option. Not Belle and The Bees. A wee tinge of Tupelo-honey sweetness mellows out the goaty tang. The light, fluffy texture is divine on toasted whole-grain bread or a bran muffin.
Jeni's Cherry Lambic Sorbet ($48 for 4 pints). It starts with a delicate, almost creamy structure and true cherry flavor (no phony cough drop taste here), then adds interest with faint fermented undertones courtesy of the distinct Belgian beer. This Columbus-based company offers a number of unique flavors; we also enjoyed Jeni's Meyer Lemon Yogurt and Riesling Poached Pear Sorbet and the dark chocolate ice cream is deadly delicious.
The Bamboo Ladies Bamboo Pickles ($15 for 2 [9-oz.] jars). What started as seven sprigs of bamboo behind Johnsie Walsh's Wilkes County home in 1970 is now a 3-acre grove tended by three generations of family. If you often find Southern pickles overly sweet, you'll be blown away by a tart vinegar balance and a texture that's crisp and yielding, similar to canned hearts of palm but without the metallic aftertaste. Charming, odd, and delicious, they're a perfect gift for the adventurous foodie.
Cajun Grain Brown Jasmine Rice ($35 for 4 [4-lb.] bags). Here is rice to convert a white-rice partisan to a brown-rice fanatic. From a third-generation farmer who turned 15 years ago to organic methods. This rice is dotted with bits of natural wild red rice, adding to the marvelous flavor and texture. Cooks up to a just-right al dente, ready for some red beans.
Massa Organics Crunchy Almond Butter ($13). A powerfully fresh roasted-almond flavor with depth that belies its ultrasimple ingredient list: roasted almonds. From a brown rice and nut farm near Chico that is blending mechanized harvest with sustainable, organic standards—an inspiring enterprise.