October 2, 2014

Grown on the Gulfshore

Yes, we know Southwest Florida has sunshine, water sports and miles of sandy beaches. But to the food-obsessed among us, just as important is our growing collection of specialty producers-men and women who are pouring their passion for perfection into handmade gourmet foodstuffs, from herbs to hazelnut truffles

Truffle Shuffle

It takes three days for John Phelps of Master Johne's Truffles to create his handmade gourmet chocolate truffles-but the result is worth the wait. The confections melt on the tongue, the rich taste of the chocolate followed by notes of various flavors like raspberry, hazelnut and espresso.

Phelps has been creating his gourmet treats for 15 years, since he learned the craft from a friend. But it's been only a few months since he's begun making them professionally, in a commercial kitchen in Lehigh. Now his truffles are offered at local restaurants like Bacchus and Ellington's in Fort Myers, as well as directly from Phelps by special order.

With no added sugar or preservatives and handcrafted essences and flavors, the truffles far surpass the traditional variety from Russell Stover or Godiva. Phelps uses fine imported Belgian chocolate and develops the essences he uses for flavoring hand-in-hand with the growers who produce the sources, like blackberries, coconuts and oranges.

Phelps likens his truffles to fine wine in the depth and complexity of their flavors-including such exotic tastes as ginger-wasabi and coconut curry. Right now it's a small operation, with only Phelps and his companion Susie Geisy producing the weekly output of 200 to more than 1,000 truffles. "But I see it getting a lot bigger locally," he says. He's always developing new flavors-currently he and Geisy are working on key lime, raspberry habañero and herbs de Provence variations, which they taste-test between themselves and among friends until they perfect the proportions of each ingredient.

"It's creative," Phelps says of the entire complex process. "It's like art. It's edible art."

Pickle Planet

"Once you buy a pickle here, you never stop coming back." So asserts longtime Champ Planet customer Joann Ippolito, as she and her husband make off with a grocery bag brimming with Planét's many products.

Planét, who calls his Matlacha-based company Planet's, without the accent, "because it's easier to remember," has been creating his own pickles, salsas, chutneys and more since he learned the skills as a child while spending summers with his French and Czech grandparents.

Four years ago, hawking his wares at craft shows and green markets, Planét produced about 600 jars of condiments a year. Now, with markets like the Blue Pepper in Fort Myers all the way up to Dean and DeLuca in New York carrying his goods, he fills about 10,000 orders per year. He'd like to expand even further, especially locally, but he's meticulous about how his products must be marketed. "I'm looking for retail outlets in this area," he says, "but they have to be gourmet stores-and spotless."

Planét also sells his treats out of a converted garage next to his waterfront home, just before the Matlacha Bridge on the way out to Pine Island. Customers who make the trip get to sample any and all of his products, each is made entirely from local ingredients. "That way I never have any dissatisfied customers," he explains.

Planét will scoop out a heaping spoonful of his award-winning mango chutney-made from eight different kinds of Pine Island mangoes-onto a cracker with cream cheese. He'll happily stab a bread-and-butter or tangy dill pickle with a toothpick and proffer it. He carefully explains the mellow, no-halitosis after effect of pickled garlic as he fishes out a clove for sampling (and he's right!).

"If I didn't really love this, I wouldn't do it," he says of the 80-hour-per-week endeavor. "It's my form of art, as well as therapy."

Berry Delicious

Here in Southwest Florida, blueberry lovers count the days until March, when Dick and Florence Nogaj of Immokalee's Harvest for Humanity start picking their sweet, tangy blueberries. .

A former civil engineer, Nogaj moved here with his wife in the late '90s, and the couple decided to start a nonprofit farming venture that would use sustainable environmental practices and provide a living wage for its workers..

Harvest for Humanity grows a variety of crops, including oranges, peaches, plums, peppers and eggplant, but it's their insecticide-free blueberries they're known for-sweet and tart and grown "with lots of tender loving care," according to Nogaj. Though he ships them all over the country-complete with labels reading "Grown in the U.S.A. by workers paid a living wage"-some of the harvest makes its way to local vendors like Oakes Farm Market and Wynn's Market in Naples.

"They're very good," says Lee Snyder of Oakes Market. "This last year they've really caught on."(It probably helps that blueberries have received good nutritional press lately for their antioxidant qualities.)

Come April, gourmets can take a field trip to Immokalee, where the organization operates its farm and a brand-new affordable-housing neighborhood. There, buyers can select their own sweet blueberries at the farm's blueberry u-pick, or simply purchase muffins, pies, jellies and jams made from the local harvest at an on-site store.

Crab Grab

Native Floridian Paul Moore goes through a lot of stone crabs-his family's Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant has been operating on Longboat Key for the last 35 years. So he jumped at the chance to purchase Everglades Fish Company, which had provided much of his stone crab supply for years, when the company went up for sale.

But the venture wasn't that big a stretch-Moore comes from a family of five generations of seafood vendors, and worked on his family's stone crab boat for 10 years out of high school. "It's in the blood," he says.

Everglades Fish Company processes about a quarter of a million pounds of stone crabs per year, all from local Gulf waters-more than enough for the Moores' restaurant, even with the two new ones the family is opening up, one at the market in Everglades City and one in Sarasota. The surplus is sold to wholesalers, as well as through their on-site retail market, where some loyal customers even fly into the small nearby airport on weekends for pickups.

The company consists of more than just its 14 stone crab boats, though. No self-respecting Gulf-coast fishing operation would exclude grouper from its offerings, and Everglades pulls in about 50,000 pounds a year.

Other local harvests include Florida lobster, seasonal fish such as pompano, mullet and mackerel, and even wild frog legs bought from hunters in local swamps and sold in the retail market. And there are also the popular blue crabs and soft-shell crabs in season.

Sweet Spot

Alan Walker was about 10 years old when an uncle gave him a beehive of his own. "I've been doing it ever since," says the North Fort Myers beekeeper and honey producer.

Now, along with his wife, Joyce, Walker produces, processes and bottles an array of honeys, including varieties made from saw palmetto and black mangrove. All are made locally, courtesy of industrious bees in three different counties. "We have a lot of bees," Walker says-upward of a thousand hives.

Most of Walker Farms' output is sold wholesale in barrels to various companies throughout the country, where it is repackaged and sold under other labels. ("My honey could be anywhere . I don't get any recognition at all," Walker jokes.) But some finds its way to area stores like the Oakes Market in Naples, Ada's Natural Foods in Fort Myers and For Goodness Sakes in Bonita. And at the Hyatt Regency in Bonita, the chefs use the sweetener as well.

Walker says his most popular flavor is orange-blossom honey, made from local groves, but that saw-palmetto honey is a close second-especially in this area. "It's a really nice, all-around honey," he says, milder than orange blossom, and without the citrus overtones.

What makes Walker's honey unusually good is his processing method. Larger processors heat the honey to a high temperature (about 160 degrees Fahrenheit ) and run it through microfilters-a process called polishing. The process kills most of the harmless enzymes in the honey that give it its flavor, resulting in a bland, homogenized product. Walker heats his honey only to about 120 degrees, and filters through nylon mesh using only gravity feeds-no pressure and no pump. "It cleans the honey minimally," he explains, and gives it more complexity of flavor.

Oprah Winfrey agrees-she recently featured on her show a New York businesswoman who markets gourmet honeys of the world, including Walker's orange blossom variety.

Grape Expectations

Florida boasts a number of outstanding local foodstuffs, like citrus and seafood. But while the climate and soil are wonderful for growing certain crops, the area was never known for is its wine grapes.

Until about 33 years ago, that is, when Earl Keiser and his wife, Mildred, began making wines at their Eden Vineyards winery from locally grown fruit. Keiser, a winemaker with 20 years' experience, worked with the University of Florida to create a hybrid grape well suited to Florida's climate and sandy soil. Now the vineyard produces six varieties of wine, all from local grapes. Recently the Keisers expanded their operation with a second winery north of Tampa and an interest in another one in Chile.

Eden Vineyards also produces the only wine in the country made from star fruit, otherwise known as carambola, a tropical fruit plentiful in Southwest Florida. Keiser began making the wine in 1991, after a Pine Island grower showed up in his back yard with 10,000 pounds of star fruit.

"He said, 'Earl, it's going to make a wonderful wine,'" Keiser relates, "and I said, 'Why do you say that?' And he said, 'Because I've got so damn much of it.'" And in fact, the wine was an immediate hit. "I thought it was going to be like the hula hoop," Keiser says, "but it remained popular-it's popular today."

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Come and Get It

Master Johne's Truffles are sold in both Bacchus restaurants in Fort Myers, as well as Ellington's and Shannon downtown. They are also available at Bountiful Baskets on Plaza de Leon in downtown Fort Myers. Or you can order directly from Phelps via phone or e-mail. Call 344-4428 or e-mail masterJdom@hotmail.com.

Planet's Gourmet Pickles are sold at Champ Planét's Matlacha home on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call 980-8002 or fax your request to 283-0336. You can also order by mail at 4311 Pine Island Road, P.O. Box 36, Matlacha, FL 33993.His products are sold locally at the Blue Pepper on College Parkway in Fort Myers, and at various green markets throughout Fort Myers and Cape Coral.

Harvest for Humanity provides Oakes Farm Market and Wynn's Market in Naples with their blueberries in season.. In April, they open the blueberry u-pick and store on their premises in Immokalee. Call 657-4888 for directions and details.

Everglades Fish Company is located in Everglades City, about 25 miles south of Naples. The retail market operates during stone crab season, roughly from mid-May to mid-October, every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The on-site restaurant is casual and open-air, concentrating on a lunch crowd. Call 695-3241.

Walker Farms honey is sold at Oakes Farm Market in Naples and Ada's Natural Foods in Fort Myers, as well as at around 20 other local shops, and at vegetable stands throughout Lee and Collier counties. Contact Walker Farms for local vendors, or to order direct, at 543-8071, or via e-mail at charmedbee@aol.com.

Eden Vineyard is located at 19709 Little Lane in Alva, and offers conducted tours and tastings. Contact the winery at 728-9463.

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