"Slow Food" For The Fast Lane

Connoisseurs are savoring eats made the hard way

When most people think of handmade holiday gifts, they think of sweaters and scarves. But if you're looking for something handcrafted that's a bit less obvious, why not give food? Handmade edibles have become increasingly popular in a fast-food-driven world. There's even an international movement, Slow Food (www.slowfood.com), founded in Italy in 1986 and dedicated to the preservation of hand-prepared, artisanal foods.

From milking to mixing, cheese is the quintessential handmade food. To taste some of the best, you can order from Cato Corner, a small dairy farm in Colchester, Conn. (table). There the mother-and-son team of Mark Gillman and Elizabeth MacAlister make fabulous full-flavored cheeses from the milk of their 30 cows. Myfanwy's Caerphilly is a delightfully tangy cheddar-like cheese that is made from a Welsh recipe from the 1830s. The Dutch Farmstead tastes like a complex aged Gouda.

Dry-aging prime meat by hand is an expensive, time-consuming process, but it results in a far more flavorful steak. Feast.com sells Gachot & Gachot steaks that have been dry-aging in a 100-year-old aging room in New York for a minimum of 21 days. If your experience with mail-order beef has been limited to the nationally advertised companies, such as Omaha Steaks, you're in for a delightful surprise. G&G's steaks, featured at Peter Luger in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the premier steakhouses, have so much more beefy character. At $18 for a 22-oz. piece, their thick boneless ribeyes are a relative bargain.

SLOW-COOK. In some ways, barbecue is the ultimate handcrafted food. At Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Ala., they still slow-cook pork shoulder over hickory for 18 to 21 hours. The result is a crispy, crunchy exterior and a tender, almost creamy, interior. Gibson was declared the grand champion this year at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking competition. An 8- to 10-pound shoulder that's almost all meat goes for about $100, including overnight shipping.

If your taste in pork runs to ham and bacon, Coursey's Hickory Smoke Meats in St. Joe, Ark., has been making its ham and bacon the same way since 1945. The family smokes all its meats over green hickory wood for up to 24 hours at 130F. I tried to order a boneless ham, but co-owner John Neal insisted the bone-in, fully cooked half-ham would have more flavor and be moister. Coursey's bacon is also very good. It's sliced thick, meaty, and plenty smoky. When I asked Neal if he used a flavor additive called liquid smoke to save time, he said: "Liquid smoke is a bad word around here."

The Grateful Palate is an online and mail-order food catalog that specializes in artisan-made food and wine. Try its granola from Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. It's just sweet enough, holds its crunch, and is filled with dried cherries, almonds, and cranberries.

I have been eating buttercrunch (also known as English toffee) since my grandmother started bringing it to our house every Sunday 40 years ago. But until I tasted the nut-covered logs at Littlejohn's, a small stand in Los Angeles' Fairfax Avenue Farmers Market, I never understood that buttercrunch should taste like butter. Butter is the first ingredient on the box, which you can order from Littlejohn's by phone.

Real frozen custard, made with egg yolks and fresh cream, has been fast disappearing from the American ice cream scene. But custard is making last stands in Milwaukee at Kopp's, in New York at Custard Beach, and in St. Louis at Ted Drewes. Kopp's and Custard Beach don't ship, but a couple of years ago Drewes went into the mail-order business. His classic vanilla is very good, though not strong on vanilla flavor, but the real winners are the strawberry and banana. I was skeptical as to whether the custard, which arrived rock-hard encased in dry ice, could be restored to its rightful creamy consistency. But after leaving it out for a half-hour and putting it in the microwave for 25 seconds, the satiny texture returned.

"OBSESSION." Confectioner Michael Recchiuti has had a lifelong dream of introducing taste sensations that are "an indulgence on the verge of an obsession." Although I often think chocolatiers who combine bizarre flavors are indulging their own fantasies at the expense of our taste buds, Recchiuti's concoctions almost always work. His burnt caramel is cooled and blended with a ganache that is made from extra-bitter chocolate, cream, and butter. Even the tarragon grapefruit, with fresh tarragon leaves, candied grapefruit zest, and bitter chocolate, makes sense when it hits your palate. His chocolates are astonishingly good, but his best creation just might be the lime-pear pate fruit (15 pieces for $16). The pear's sweetness mixes with the tangy lime for a jellied treat that puts Chuckles to shame.

After baking bread in a couple of well-known Bay Area restaurants, June Taylor struck out on her own in 1987 by making marmalades and jams out of locally grown fruit. I'm not a marmalade lover, but her blood orange marmalade has me rethinking my position. It's perfectly balanced between tart and sweet, and the bitterness that mars too many marmalades isn't there. She also makes the only fruitcake I'll ever eat. Called a Christmas Cake ($23 for one pound), it's filled with dried peaches, apricots, cherries, and almonds, and then steeped in brandy. It has none of those dastardly green citron chunks, so it's the fruitcake to send to avowed fruitcake haters.

The one June Taylor item I have been dreaming about is her poached pears in cassis vinegar ($24 a jar). They can be eaten over vanilla ice cream or straight from the old-fashioned canning jar they come in, the way I do. Taylor still cuts her fruit, and takes all the peel and inner membrane off, by hand. "It's the only way I know of to keep producing the best quality possible," she says. That, in a manually opened nutshell, is what handmade food is all about.

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