When I arrived at the Nashville Coliseum on a recent afternoon for the Pick Tennessee Products Food Odyssey, I brought my notebook, my pen, a photographer and plenty of preconceived notions. Presented by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the Tennessee Grocers Association and the Tennessee Restaurant Association, the Food Odyssey featured three dozen vendor booths displaying Tennessee products. So forgive me if my first thoughts were of sausage, biscuits, gravy, GooGoos, Purity ice cream and moonshine, all of whichsave the hoochwere represented at the coliseum. But who would have guessed there would also be Tennessee-distilled rum, Tennessee-grown freshwater prawns, Tennessee-produced caviar, Tennessee-baked biscotti and Tennessee-made merlot? Not me.
Photographer Eric England and I began our odyssey at the booth for Stonehaus Winery, in Crossville since 1990 and now the state’s largest winery. It is open to visitors seven days a week for guided tours, tastings, shopping in the gift store, and dining in the deli or the Halcyon Days gourmet restaurant.
The winery produces 10 types of wine, including chardonnay, merlot and the best-selling muscadine. A bottle of Orange Squeeze caught my eye, not surprisingly, given its rather alarming Vol-orange hue. According to winery rep Bob Ramsey, Orange Squeeze is made from grapes, to which an orange extract is added for color and flavor (and excruciating sweetness). “It’s very popular during football season,” Ramsey told us, absolutely deadpan. Nashville-based Vol fans will be happy to know that if they are so inclined to quaff a Tang-like wine during their pregame tailgate party, Stonehaus is at exit 320 off I-40, a quick stop on the road to K-ville. For information, call (931) 484-9463, or visit www.StonehausWinery.com.
Closer to home, but owned and operated by Italian immigrant Anna Lia Notardonato, is Tutto Bene. Though she makes several baked goods from the company kitchen, her signature items are the oversized tender biscotti, which as the name implies are softer, chewier and easier on tender tongues than the hard biscotti found in most Nashville coffee shops. With a density that still lends itself to dipping in a cup of hot coffee or cappuccino, Tutto Bene biscotti come in nearly 20 flavors. Sample Anna Lia’s family recipes at Caffeine, City Limits, Heavenly Grounds and McCabe Market. To contact Tutto Bene, call 243-0726 or visit www.tuttobenecentral.com.
A small crowd that included Latitude chef Jay Denhamwhose restaurant is seriously committed to local product and purveyorswas clustered around the Prichards’ Distillery display. Owners Connie and Philip Prichard were very personable, but I suspect it was the samples of Prichards’ Fine Rum that provided the irresistible lure to their booth. Handing us small cups of rum mixed with tonic, ice and fresh mint, they told us that Prichards’, located in Kelso, was the first licensed distillery to open in Tennessee in 50 years, and the only one that makes rum. They began operations in October 1999 and sold their first bottle in March 2001. Prichards’ Fine Rum is made with pure Tennessee spring water and sweet molasses from Louisiana, distilled in traditional copper-pot stills. The key to Prichards’ taste and finish, says Philip, is the aging process, done exclusively in new, charred oak, 15-gallon (as opposed to 30-gallon) barrels, similar to those used to age fine brandy. The smaller barrels provide a greater surface-to-volume ratio and thus a greater concentration of flavor. I may not understand the finer points of the distilling process, but I can attest to the smooth, dry, sophisticated flavor of Prichards’and the rum sample reminded me that mojito season is upon us. The distillery is open to visitors; call (931) 433-5454 or visit www.prichardsdistillery.com
“Our children think we’ve gone senile,” said youthful senior citizen Jane Corbin, who with husband Jimmy owns and operates Harris Aquafarm in Springfield, Tenn. Standing behind two large silver bowls of freshwater prawnsraised on their family propertyCorbin, a retired schoolteacher, explained how she and her tobacco-farmer husband came to be shrimpers. “My mother had a 19-acre farm next door to ours, and when her health began failing, we were trying to figure out what to do with her property. I started reading about raising shrimp, and it seemed like we could do that.” They dug two 1-acre ponds, and three years ago, the Corbins received their first shipment of thousands upon thousands of half-inch-long infant prawns from hatcheries in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Once the baby crustaceans are shot into the ponds, typically the last week of May or first week of June, they sink to the bottom and reside there for the summer. During the maturing season, the Corbins take a boat out twice a day to distribute feed to their little charges. Harvest time is Oct. 1, when a million-and-a-half gallons of water are drained from the ponds, and the full-grown prawns are transported to another area for the chill-kill (don’t tell PETA), cleaning and packing. It has become something of an event in Springfield.
“People who live around here were a little curious about what we were doing,” Jane Corbin explained with a laugh. “We were telling them about the harvest, and that first one, people started pulling up in their cars. We got quite a crowd, so Jimmy went into town and got some hot dogs. We built a bonfire and had a big weenie roast. The next year, it got even bigger, and we’re all looking forward to doing it again this fall.”
According to Jane, freshwater prawns have a lobster-like texture and a mild, sweet taste; they are fed a blend of grain and protein, and they’re grown with no chemicals in clean, fresh water with no pollutants. To find out more about Harris Aquafarm, contact Jane Corbin at 384-3793, 384-3185 or email@example.com. For recipes and information, visit www.freshwaterprawn.org.
Prawns are one thing, but caviar in Tennessee? Yet there it was, in a glass bowl nestled in an ice-filled silver bucket: glistening, slate-colored mounds of Kelley’s Katch Caviar, produced from the roe of paddlefish found in state rivers. The Kelleys have been in business for more than 20 years and are based in Savannah, Tenn. In a Wall Street Journal article about the growing popularity of American caviar, Kelley’s Katch won the blind taste test conducted by caviar connoisseurs and professional chefs, beating out six mail-order caviars and even a fine Russian caviar. Packaged in attractive tins in several sizes, this Tennessee treat can be ordered by calling (800) 681-8565 or (731) 925-7360, or by visiting www.kelleyskatch.com.
We made a short and sweet stop at Mama Turney’s Homemade Pies. Barbara “Mama” Turney was not on site, but Michael “Papa” Turney offered us samples of Mama’s scrumptious chess pie. Look for Mama Turney’s chess, chocolate, pecan, sweet potato, chocolate chess, lemon chess and coconut pies at Kroger, Scot Markets, Jack’s Bar-B-Que downtown, and at the Nashville Coliseum during football season.
At the “Captain’s table,” Rodney and Linda Simmons were showing off their product line of jellies, jams, hot sauces, salsas, dessert sauces, pepper glazes, salad dressings and sandwich spreads. Their company, Bell Buckle Country Store, located in Chapel Hill, began with a prodigious crop of peppers produced one summer on the Simmons farm. Linda began making pepper jelly to sell. Rodney, a.k.a. the Captain, started fiddling with some Caribbean-influenced recipes for grilling glazes, picked up while he was piloting planes in the islands; that was the genesis of the Captain Rodney line. Like a patch of kudzu, the business grew and grew. Under the Simplify label is their award-winning Burgundy Poppy Seed Salad Dressing, Champagne Honey Mustard Salad Dressing, White Zinfandel Jelly, Linda’s Lemon Curd and Mountain Blackberry Dessert Topping, among others. Some of Captain Rodney’s most popular items are the Boucan Glaze, Mango Pepper Glaze, the Lime-Ginger Pepper Glaze and Mango Pepper Jelly. Contact the Captain and his first mate at (931) 294-5906 or www.bellbuckle.com.