If an army travels on its stomach, so do travel writers. On any given press trip, we are the best-fed people on the planet.
Food gives more than bodily nourishment. It often is a gateway to place, time and culture. Also, food products make great gifts. Here are some tasty suggestions from some of my past explorations.
Fredericksburg, Texas, is one of my favorite destinations, and every trip there entails a visit to Chocolat, the retail store for Quintessential Chocolates.
Founder and chocolatier Lecia Duke mastered a centuries-old process of encasing liquid in a sugar-crystal crust then enrobing the contained liquid in rich, dark chocolate. Very few American chocolatiers, if any, use this technique. Each piece takes three to five days to create.
Choices of fillings are almost unlimited — liquids, with no thickening agents, include wines, distilled spirits, liqueurs, coffee and fruit nectars.
Each piece is a tiny treasure. Each chocolate should be eaten in one bite.
I was 10 years old, visiting cousins in California, when I first tasted povatica (poh-vah-TEET-sah). We’d been invited to a Catholic Croatian wedding — an hour-long service followed by a sumptuous buffet brunch.
Among the treats was this wonderful bread, rolled and filled with nuts and sweetness.
I never forgot it but never encountered it again until a few years ago at Oklahoma City’s Affair of the Heart. There it was again in the Strawberry Hill Bakery Company booth.
I bought some. Researching, I discovered the company was located very near my childhood home in Kansas City, Kansas. More research uncovered the Strawberry Hill area where, in the early part of the last century, many eastern European immigrants settled.
Nearby packing houses and stockyards in the Bottoms near the Kansas River offered jobs for immigrants with limited English skills. Today, a fascinating museum in an old mansion celebrates the multi-ethnic history of the area.
The Strawberry Hill Baking Company was founded in 1984 by Harley O’Leary, who used his Croatian mother’s recipe. Once situated on Strawberry Hill, the facility is now in Merriam, Kansas. You’ll have 14 flavors to choose from.
Another fruit-filled — and fruitful — destination is Door County, Wisconsin, a popular peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Known as Wisconsin’s Cherryland, the county is famous for its tart Montmorency cherries. Noted as a tourist paradise, a mecca for art lovers and a site of charming small towns, it’s also a foodie’s delight.
Cherry harvest happens between mid-July and mid-August. By the figures, Door County has more than 2,000 orchard acres, which produce 10 and 12 million pounds of cherries each year.
During this season, you’ll find lots of fresh cherries being consumed. I’ve had them in beverages (alcoholic and non), breakfast dishes like cherry-stuffed French toast, in desserts, salads, entrees including steak and salmon, even in vegetable dishes.
Cherries can be enjoyed year-round, frozen or dried. Montmorencys are touted for their health benefits. A number of major universities add cherry brews to their sports training tables.
For great information, or for ordering chocolate-covered cherries, check out countryovens.com.
On the east side of Lake Michigan, northwestern, lower Michigan makes similar cherry claims. My favorite retailer there is cherryrepublic.com. Their gift list includes over 200 cherry-based products.
New Mexican products will add spice to your list. The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces is the only international, nonprofit organization focused on research related to chile peppers and education.
Thanks to Mexican-American horticulturist Fabian Garcia who, in the late 1800s, worked to standardize pepper varieties, New Mexico gets credit as the foundation of the chile pepper industry.
The small gift shop at the Institute carries food products, seeds, books and merchandise. The sauces are fairly fiery, so I go for the candies, chile nut brittles.
The red chile brittles have medium heat while the green chile brittles are mild. According to the Institute’s Lisa Lopez, who likes the Green Chile/Pinon brittle best, “There’s still a bit of heat but it blends beautifully with the nuts and sugar.”
For recipients with a taste for adventure, limburger cheese may be the answer. Long the butt of jokes for its strong aroma, it sounds intimidating, but young limburger has a mild odor and mild flavor. As it ages, its unique nose becomes more evident.
There’s only one place in the whole United States where the choice cheese is made: Monroe, Wisconsin. and that’s where I gathered up my courage to try it, served on rye bread with sliced onion and brown mustard, it was yummy.
Chalet Cheese Coop. offers the Adventure Seekers Gift Box with half-a-pound of limburger, half-a-pound of Le Bec (a Chalet Cheese original — mild, buttery, slightly salty with a hint of smoke) and a pound of German-style brick cheese.
The current $15 price is so reasonable, I’m giving several for gifts — and getting one for myself. See this and other offerings at chaletcheesecoop.com.
The accordion of Christmas foods has to be fruitcake. Like limburger — and the accordion — it’s often the target of disparagement.
The joke goes that there’s only one fruitcake — it’s been passed around from person-to-person, year-after-year. There really are people who like fruitcake; I’m one. A perfect place to order one is College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri.
Known as Hard Work U, at this small, Christian college students pay no tuition but work in college enterprises to help pay their expenses. The remainder of the cost is paid through scholarships and donations. College of the Ozarks graduates are heavily recruited by companies that appreciate students’ work ethic.
While the fruitcake is their premier product, check cofo.edu for other student-made items.
I’ve shopped at each of these places and can attest to their products. They also represent destinations I’ve enjoyed.
If you want to keep you dollars closer to our community, look into madeinoklahoma.net, thegourmetgallery.com or bedrechocolates.com. All have online shops. For Oklahoma-themed gifts, go to shoptravelok.com.
As we approach the end of this unusual year, support small businesses, stay safe and have a great holiday season. Thanks for letting me reminisce about my travels and some of my favorite food finds.