It wasn't so long ago that balsamic vinegar was something exotic, a treat to bring back from Italy tucked away in your shoulder bag. The taste was unfamiliar and exciting: You'd whisk it into a vinaigrette and tell your guests, "It's aged in wood casks. It's a little sweet. You'll like it." These days balsamic vinegar is about as hard to find as a Prada knockoff.
The scope and quality of food in America has improved dramatically in recent years. We don't think twice about buying truffles in Tucson, bottarga in Atlanta, or edamame anywhere there's a Whole Foods Market. But even in this age of frequent-flier ingredients, there are some things so rare they never appear on the shelves of the local gourmet store. It's not a question of expense—after all, you can find the best Champagne as easily in Sydney as in Reims and bird's-nest soup in cities around the globe. Instead it's that many of the most interesting foods in the world can only be made in small batches or are just too delicate to be put on the back of a delivery truck. Below, a list of ten extraordinary ingredients you should seek out, hunt down, and smuggle home in your carry-on.
WHITE STRAWBERRIES OF PURÉN
With their glossy white skin and reddish seeds, frutillas blancas look almost too beautiful to eat. Those who can bring themselves to take a bite are struck first by the familiar texture and then by an unusually light, almost floral flavor. Many people say that it is like eating strawberry perfume. This remarkable taste is the result of the fruit's color, or lack thereof. The pigment that turns strawberries red is slightly acidic; without it, the fruit does not have its familiar tang. One of the rarest cultivated berries in the world, frutillas blancas are the father of everyday strawberries. Nearly 300 years ago the fruit was crossbred with a smaller red berry from Virginia—now every grocery-store and produce-stand strawberry we see in the United States has Chilean DNA. Found only around Purén, in central Chile, frutillas blancas are grown on steep, terraced hillsides by fewer than 30 farmers. The brief harvest season runs from November to January, and they're not exported. In fact, there are many years when the fruit doesn't even make it to the markets in Santiago.
WHERE TO LOOK The only way to sample frutillas blancas is to travel to Chile during the Southern Hemisphere's summer. Expect to pay $3 a pound at markets near Purén.
Not long ago a wide variety of turkey breeds, such as the American Bronze and Bourbon Red, graced Thanksgiving tables around the nation. Today, however, 99 percent of the birds sold in the United States are the Broad-Breasted White variety. (Even if you buy free-range and organic turkey, chances are that what you're roasting is the same breed as a Butterball.) Heritage Foods, a Michigan and New York-based company that specializes in rare livestock, offers heirloom breeds, which closely resemble the game birds colonists first encountered in America. The meat of these fowl has a rich, full flavor (American Bronzes are a touch darker than the Bourbon Reds), not at all similar to that of the bland overgrown chickens we've come to call turkeys. Pedigree comes at a premium: The turkeys cost ten times as much a pound as supermarket varieties.
WHERE TO LOOK For fresh turkeys, orders should be placed by November 1 at 212-980-6603 or www.heritagefoodsusa.com; from $100 to $200 per bird.
The only legal way to enjoy a glass of Fragolino Bianco is to visit friends in the Veneto who happen to make their own: The delicate, gently sweet wine can have a dangerously high level of methanol, so the Italian government outlawed its sale. What unlikely contraband—Fragolino Bianco is like a lighter, softer Moscato and sipping a glass is as close as you'll come to tasting ambrosia on this earth. It's made from uva americana (sometimes called the uva fragola) and not, as some suppose, from strawberries. It should never be confused with heavier Fragolino Rosso or fizzy Fragolino Bianco Frizzante (both also banned). "I like it very much, but it's only for the man in the country who produces it for himself," says Stefano Capolla, the sommelier at Venice's Ristorante da Fiore. "But if you ask, maybe I will try to find it for you." A handful of Venetian restaurants and wine bars have been known to skirt the law andsell it by the glass or unlabeled bottle.
WHERE TO LOOK Try your luck at a well-established Veneto wine bar such as Cantinone Già Schiavai, 992 Dorsoduro, Venice. Expect to pay $4 a glass.
Many people think they've tasted red peppercorns, but in fact the red pellets peeking from inside the ubiquitous clear, acrylic pepper mills are actually the dried berries of a kind of rose plant that have nothing to do with pepper. Real peppercorns come from a vine native to India and Indonesia. They start off green and turn red as they ripen, and then blacken when they are dried. Only a small percentage—less than 1,000 pounds annually in all of India— are preserved when they're red. Out of that, just a tiny fraction makes it to these shores, most of which is snapped up by high-end restaurants. Lee Hefter, executive chef at Spago Beverly Hills, uses them to season delicate fish dishes like sashimi, tartare, and carpaccio. "It's aromatic, almost citrusy," Hefter says. "It resembles pepper, but it has a cleaner, fresher taste."
WHERE TO LOOK Le Sanctuaire—an exquisite Santa Monica, California, food shop—carries a limited supply; 310-581-8999; www.le-sanctuaire.com; $10 per ounce.
ALASKA BIRCH SYRUP
"Birch syrup is magical," says Paul Kahan, the adventurous chef of Blackbird, a restaurant in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. "It's deeper than maple syrup and more nuanced and complex than molasses." It's also nearly impossible to find. There are fewer than ten commercial producers of birch syrup in Alaska, and these family-owned businesses have to hustle to tap as many trees as possible during the three-week harvest season. It takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup (compared with 40 gallons of maple sap required to create one gallon of maple syrup); the entire state produces only 1,200 gallons a year. Of that just 800 are kept in syrup form; the rest is set aside for confections, marinades, and vinaigrettes. Birch syrup's layered flavors evoke everything from smoke to roasted nuts to orange peel. Kahan uses it in a dazzling variety of ways, from braising sweetbreads to flavoring ice cream. And yes, it's fantastic on pancakes.
WHERE TO LOOK Place orders with Kahiltna Birchworks, 800-380-7457; www.alaskabirchsyrup.com; $16 per bottle.
QUEBEC FOIE GRAS
Lately serious foie gras fans have been looking to Canada for the best examples of this delicacy—and not just because of the recent vote to ban its production in California and similar plans afoot in other states. Quebec foie gras, already the pride of Montreal restaurants, is winning praise from American chefs. Sam Hayward, of the much-lauded Fore Street in Portland, Maine, now gets his entire supply from Palmex, a small farm in Carignan, Quebec. "The flavor is more like French foie gras's than anything I've had in the United States," he says. "It has a clean, grassy, buttery taste—incredibly sweet." (At Fore Street, Hayward grills foie gras as he does steak. It holds its shape while becoming marvelously creamy inside.) An advocate of humane treatment of livestock, the chef visited Palmex when adding its foie gras to his menu and was impressed: "It's possibly the best operation I've seen anywhere."
WHERE TO LOOK D'Artagnan (mail-order food purveyor), 800-327-8246; www.dartagnan.com; $80 per pound.
J. LEBLANC NUT OILS
Most nut oils on the market consist of vegetable oil with a tiny bit of nut essence. In J. Leblanc's, there's only nuts. The difference is amazing. Real walnut oil, say, is the color of 21-year-old single-malt whiskey, with the dense, concentrated flavor of just-roasted nuts. Occasionally the product ends up on shelves in the States, but your best bet is the narrow storefront on Paris's Rue Jacob, where you will find a range of oils, including hazelnut, almond, and pine nut, the most expensive variety.
WHERE TO LOOK J. Leblanc, 6 Rue Jacob, Paris; 33-1/46-34-61-55; $25 per bottle.
ANIMAL FARM BUTTER
The only salted butter served at French Laundry and Per Se, Thomas Keller's temples to artisanal cuisine, comes from Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont. One taste and it's clear why: Diane St. Clair creates the butter herself, churning the cream and washing the finished product by hand. Traditional buttermaking is a lost art, even in Vermont—St. Clair learned her craft from 100-year-old books she tracked down on the Internet, then practiced with milk from her five Jersey cows. The result is amazingly creamy and rich. While supermarket butter is 80 percent butterfat and European imports are 84 percent, Animal Farm's is a luxurious 86 percent. St. Clair receives fan mail from Keller's happy diners who say they can taste the land in her butter: grass in April, clover in August, and the hay she harvests for the winter. Most of the 60 pounds of butter Animal Farm produces a week goes to Keller's restaurants. For those who want to try some without making dinner reservations two months in advance, Vermont's Middlebury food co-op receives a small allotment.
WHERE TO LOOK Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, 1 Washington St., Middlebury, VT, or e-mail Diane St. Clair at firstname.lastname@example.org; $60 a pound.
YUKON RIVER SALMON
Everyone calls it the same thing: Kobe salmon. For some reason, the fish caught at the head of the Yukon River are exceptionally marbled with fat. "It's the richest, butteriest, most fabulous salmon of all time," declares Paul Jambor of Wild Edibles seafood shop in Manhattan. The season runs for the month of June, and once the quota is reached (32,000 fish for 2005) the harvest is over. Though nearly all the fish are purchased by Japanese vendors, a small percentage makes it to restaurants like Manresa in Los Gatos, California, where chef David Kinch worships the pure texture. "The flavor is rich and has a great mouthfeel," Kinch says. "Especially when raw."
WHERE TO LOOK Wild Edibles in early June, 877-295-3474; www.wildedibles.com; $40 per pound.
Fresh-made tofu has as much to do with store-bought tofu as a still-warm boulangerie baguette has to do with Wonder Bread. Creamy, light, and nutty, it dissolves in your mouth like an impossibly refined savory custard. Kyoto tofu is celebrated throughout Japan in part because of the city's exceptional water supply from Lake Biwa—tofu is made from two ingredients, soy and water, and it is important that both be the very best. While tofu stands are scattered throughout Kyoto, those in the know indulge at the restaurant Arashiyama Kitcho, where fresh tofu will be one plate in what might be your finest dinner in Japan.
WHERE TO LOOK Arashiyama Kitcho, 58 Susukinobaba, Tenryu-ji, Saga, Ukyo, Kyoto; 81-75/881-1101; dinner, $700.