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Exotic Food Finds...

My mother (yours, too, probably) had handy sayings to impart life’s key wisdoms. She particularly liked the one about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. Who makes up this stuff? Who wants to catch flies, even metaphorical ones? And why waste perfectly good honey?

Which is what I was thinking Friday morning when Marie Heiland, owner of Naples Olive Oil Company, suggested I enthrall my dinner guests by drizzling vinegar over their ice cream. Was she saying my mother was wrong? Or worse, that my guests are flies, metaphorically speaking?  

Certainly Marie’s richly aged, strawberry-infused balsamic vinegar in the classy, private-label $17 bottle is several cuts above that 50-cent white stuff we used on our salads back in Mama’s day. But still—ice cream topping?

No need to demand proof on this, because Marie’s shop at Greentree Center is all about tasting. Customers are invited to sample a dozen varieties of first cold press extra virgin olive oil straight from growers around the world, and another dozen varieties of gourmet balsamic vinegars. To enhance the experience, there’s a basket of crusty olive bread and platters of custom-blended oils and vinegars paired with spices and seasonings.

Marie’s pairing du jour is “Persian Lime Explosion”—White Jalapeno Balsamic Vinegar, Persian Lime EVOO and Back to the Basiks Key West Citrus Blend seasoning. Game on!  

The real pros taste fine olive oils the same way they taste wine. They breathe it in and swirl it around on the tongue. So when I’m finished with the bread dipping, I pick up a thimble-size plastic cup and start on the breathing and swirling.

Among the flavored oils are citrus lemon, mushroom, blood orange, basil and chipotle. My favorite is a subtle Tuscan herb flavor. That settled, it’s time to take on the vinegars. Besides strawberry, the premium balsamics come in blueberry, peach and other fruit flavors.

I admit, the strawberry is as smooth and fine as an aged liqueur. Besides that, it may have serious medicinal powers. Miriam and Jayne, Marie’s associates in the shop, say they’re dropping dress sizes like crazy by sipping a tablespoon of it daily. Something about appetite suppression, improved metabolism and reduced cholesterol. It’s true: I Googled it under “health benefits balsamic vinegar.”

[Note to my accountant: If you have questions about the case of strawberry balsamic vinegar and the three gallons of French vanilla bean ice cream that I coded “medical expenses” on my tax worksheet, call Miriam and Jayne, Naples Olive Oil Company, (239) 596-3000.]

On saturday morning, I’m off to some neighborhood farm markets. Maybe you remember when one had to go all the way to Immokalee for a really flavorful red pepper, or to Fort Myers Beach for last night’s shrimp catch? No more! Now, several days a week, we can meet the growers, fishers, chefs and bakers, at no fewer than 10 local outdoor markets in shopping centers, grassy parks, even a church parking lot. They start as early as 7 a.m., and most are over before 2 p.m.

Visiting the markets forces taste-bud choices with no down side I can think of. Should you follow the aroma to Artisan Bread Company or give in to a heady lemon-garlic-and-cilantro scent, where two ladies are whipping up a to-die-for guacamole? And, in between, so many distractions!

The Soup Lady, Terry Banks, passes out tastes of her carrot, ginger and orange bisque. And cute young Jordan, helping out at his family’s Gallegos Farm Fresh table, hoists up a beautiful watermelon for inspection.

Do you need organic doggie treats? Goat cheese? Oven-warm German strudel? Homemade salsa? For bok choy right out of the garden, the owners of Tokyo Sushi Japanese Restaurant (Naples Town Center) grow enough Asian veggies for their kitchen and mine, too.

Helen Basik, the Fort Myers chef whose herbs Marie pairs with her olive oils, sells tins of seasonings. Debbie Boucherle, chef-partner of Ela Vivonetto, The Sauce Lady, is boxing up homemade Italian sauces, lasagnas, meatballs and soups for a line of customers. Pasta guru Rebecca Maddox displays some of her 31 flavors of pasta, ravioli and gnocchi, and a fine tomato vodka sauce.

Professional cellist Tom May, who relaxes between performances with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra by tending his beehives, sends his wife, Kirsten, with golden bottles of Naples Finest honey. Jacquie Hoare-Ward, who came to Naples from St. Croix because of the fine mangoes that grow here, sells her chutneys and jams in pretty fabric-topped jars. Ralph’s Seafood partner Sam Rawlings has a cooler full of tasty scamp (yellowmouth grouper).

And there’s more: homegrown herbal teas and potpourri, party-size boxes of stone crab claws, organic glycerin soaps, flowers and bromeliads. Some markets also allow art and antiques booths, and local musicians play for exposure and tips. On a Saturday not long ago at The Collection at Vanderbilt, I found the soulful voice of Robyn Schoessel as rich as Tom May’s honey.

If all this offers any clue, 2010 is going to be a delicious year. Do drop into Marie Heiland’s shop of wondrous elixirs, where the hospitality is as authentic as the products. Get to the farm markets early before the best goodies sell out. Forget the flies, and enjoy copious amounts of honey and vinegar yourself. Support the vendors of local-label products, which also can be found at fine gift shops, boutiques and gourmet grocers all along the Gulfshore.

Above all, savor every moment.  

Gulfshore Farm Markets Fort Myers: Centennial Park, Thursday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Fort Myers Beach: Under the Sky Bridge, Friday 7:30–11:30 a.m.

Naples: Market in the Park, North Collier Regional Park, Friday 4 to 7 p.m.; Old Naples Farm Market, Third Street South, Saturday 7:30–11:30 a.m.; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Davis Boulevard, Saturday 8 to noon; North Naples Green Market, The Collection at Vanderbilt, Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Cape Coral: Club Square, Saturday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sanibel Island: Tahitian Gardens Farm Market, Sunday 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Bonita Springs: Riverside Park, Wednesday 8 to noon; Lion’s Club Farm Fresh Market, Promenade Shops, Saturday 7 a.m. to noon

Marco Island: Veterans Park, Wednesday 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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