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Treasure Hunt

A pair of culinary adventurers go to extremes to track down four extraordinary mail-order foods.

"Good things come to those who wait" is the unofficial motto at many California boutique wineries. For rare bottlings like those from Hargrave and Screaming Eagle, fans are willing to bow, scrape and mortgage their homes--and that's just to get their names on the list for the 2020 vintage. But elite wines aren't the only elusive objects of desire. Many exceptional foods are in such high demand and short supply that their producers simply unplug the phone when the inventory runs out. While some would-be buyers rattle around the Web or give up in frustration, connoisseurs persist, knowing that the thrill of the hunt makes the victory even sweeter.

We know from experience. We run a small mail-order catalog of foods that are hard to find if you live outside the South. Once, our best pickler, Mrs. Sassard, put up a few cases of pickled peaches, a heavenly sweet-and-sour creation that our customers snapped up immediately. When we tried to reorder--Double, and rush it!--she told us we'd have to wait until next year. She explained: the local peach season had just ended and she refuses to use anything but South Carolina clingstone peaches, which are sweet and dense enough to hold up through the pickling process. Would she consider using Georgia peaches? We were stupid to even ask.

And though we felt frustrated, we did agree with Mrs. Sassard--flavor should not be compromised for expediency. Most of our customers lined up willingly. "I've waited 25 years to taste a pickled peach like my grandma made," one said, "what's another year?"

If you can muster this kind of heroic patience and endure a few quaint inconveniences, you've opened yourself up to the world of super-premium, hand-crafted foods available by mail-order. In this era of global food transport, when the fugu dealer in Kobe has a cell phone and speaks the Queen's English, a supplier's busy signal may encourage you to hang up the phone. Don't. It takes forbearance, a sense of humor and some gentle follow-up. If your catch was worth the effort, send a thank-you note. Our office has a corkboard covered with letters from happy customers. And when it's time to send out pickled peaches, you can be sure the names on the board are at the top of the mailing list.

Wild Rice

In our research--completed over the phone and by snail mail--we never expected the Internet to be of much use. So in our quest for the wildest of wild rices, we were surprised to find the Southfork Rice Web site. Southfork harvests by hand, from naturally occurring beds in northern Minnesota lakes, collecting about 800 pounds each fall (depending on the weather and the competition from trumpeter swans). Southfork sells out shortly after the late August harvest, so don't dally, and don't plan to order on-line with a credit card: they only take personal checks. When you call, take note of the message on Southfork's answering machine. We'd already learned to be humored by messages doing double-duty, taking calls for other businesses (in Southfork's case, charter piloting), hobbyist clubs (sorghum-making bat fanciers) and household exigencies ("If this is Regina, the carpool this week will be...").

We dutifully mailed off our check, and eventually, our prize arrived--two unmarked bags that unleashed a heavenly aroma of jasmine tea, grass and cold air, an instant teleport to the serene forests and lakes of the Northland. The superlong grains of real wild rice vary in size, unlike those of cultivated wild rice (which are uniformly about half an inch long), and their flavor is boldly nutty, with a hint of sweetness that made us think of fine shortbread. We served a sensational entrée of wild rice with sautéed morels and sun-dried cranberries to vegetarian friends. This is a rice to savor, worthy of being a main course; don't even think of stuffing it into a turkey!

Southfork Wild Rice Co., P.O. Box 187, Backus, MN 56435; 800-920-2473.

Seaweed

If you've exhausted the taste spectrum of land-bound vegetables, you may be tantalized by seaweeds from the shallows of the craggy north Atlantic coastline. There's supple red dulse, which has a smoky, clovelike taste that suggests a marriage of kale with fine pipe tobacco. Jet-black nori is familiar to most of us as the "paper" used to wrap sushi; it has the delicate, musky flavor of a wild mushroom, but with the flintiness of dried cod. Hardy kelp tastes and crunches like steamed snow peas with a touch of algae.

Larch Hanson hand-harvests all these foods for his Maine Seaweed Co. in Steuben. He calls his boat a "floating salad bowl," treating its wood hull with vegetable oil instead of varnish and using oar-power instead of gasoline so as not to contaminate his sea vegetables. He can be difficult to reach (there's no radio aboard), but if you're willing to play phone tag or write, and to wait a few weeks for shipment, the world of undersea vegetables is yours--weather permitting, of course. If the wind is calm during full-moon tides in the last two weeks of May, and if the snails haven't gotten to it first, Hanson will land the rare Alaria seaweed. This year the heavens and the snails were in alignment. We snagged some and were impressed by the briny, oceanic gusto it added to an otherwise mundane clam chowder. We also ordered nori, which added a subtly shrimpy flavor and silky body to our favorite lentil stew.

The seaweeds are shipped air-dried in white plastic tubs. Recipes and instructions for soaking the vegetables are included. Hanson even makes Alaria seaweed pickles!

Maine Seaweed Co., P.O. Box 57, Steuben, ME 04680; 207-546-2875.

Sorghum

Lovers of sweet, ruddy sorghum syrup are an unusually passionate and partisan bunch. Consider the ardor of Tennessee native Bryan Simmons, who's been stranded in Somerville, Massachusetts, for the past 20 years. Simmons compares sorghum molasses to the most refined French Sauternes: "It has a sweetness so complex it leaves honey and cane syrup in the dust." Sorghum farmers in rural Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky press the stalks of this tall, reedy grain for their juice. This liquid is then boiled slowly in copper troughs until it reduces to a thick, dark-amber syrup.

Historically, sorghum was used in Southern kitchens as a potent substitute for refined white sugar, which was especially costly during times of scarcity, such as the Civil War and the Great Depression. Nowadays, sorghum is the more expensive sweetener; the vagaries of harvest weather restrict its accessibility. Simmons finds sources by scouting grocery shelves and jotting down information from bottles with homespun labels. Acting on his tip, we made 22 phone calls to Furrs of Benton County, Tennessee, only to be told on the 23rd try that the family had sold out its entire production. Another supplier wrote us a lovely note in flowery script, saying she was "no longer in the business, but I appreciated your inquiry."

We finally got lucky with the folks at Deaton's Bee Farm in Mississippi, who travel north each October to purchase sorghum syrup from a Mennonite family in Tennessee. Theirs was rich red, 100 percent pure sorghum with a minerally barley-malt flavor and a candy-apple tang. We enjoyed it straight--sopped up with biscuits and drizzled onto vanilla ice cream--but it's a versatile ingredient. Your best gingerbread recipe deserves sorghum's rich, malty kick. And try this: substitute sorghum in any meat marinade that calls for brown sugar or honey.

Deaton's Bee Farm, Walls, MS, 38680; 601-781-1286.

Country Ham

A sliver of country ham between piping-hot biscuit halves is the quickest route we know to Southern food nirvana. A proper country ham is cut from a hog butchered after the first frost, rubbed with salt and sugar, smoked for five weeks, then hung to cure in the smokehouse for more than eight months, by which time it has acquired a russet color and wisps of mold. For those who grew up in the South, no water-injected, ready-to-eat ham can measure up to a country ham's rich, intense pork flavor. Though we've known devotees to drive more than a thousand miles to fetch a ham, we've found several superior firms that will ship theirs nationwide.

But make sure you get your hankering at the right time. We called one producer, Doug Freeman's Country Hams, in the spring, and received a kind, sugary-accented rebuff: "I'm sorry, sir. We sold out last November." (Here's a hint: begin phoning August 1.) We were crestfallen, but the following year we got our timing right and landed a 13-month-old beauty straight from Freeman's farm in Cadiz, Kentucky.

As hams age, their proteins and salts concentrate and produce a complex taste and a mottled color that ranges from ash to umber to crimson. Bringing a country ham back to palatability from this state of preservation requires some simple preparations: first, we cut off the hock end with a hacksaw, so the ham could fit in our 33-quart stockpot. Then we soaked it for a day, boiled it for four hours, glazed it with brown sugar and honey and baked it. Yes, more work, but what's a couple days' prep after 13 months' pure love?

And this old ham delivered a thrilling, earthy flavor, with the bracing salinity we had been warned about. We tossed cubes of it into what became our silkiest, smokiest pot of cooked collard greens. Its pastrami-like texture made it a perfect condiment for soups and scrambled eggs. As the ham lingered in the fridge, we began pulling strips of meat from the bone and eating them gloriously unadorned.

Doug Freeman's Country Hams, 605 New Hope Rd., Cadiz, KY 42211; 502-522-8900.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are the owners of The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue (P. O. Box 315, Charleston, SC 29402)

Published November 1999
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