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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Newest Discoveries: Bacon from Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams and Cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm

Two Out-of-the-Way Places Worth Going Out of Your Way For


Let's say you're driving down I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga and you are suddenly overtaken by a desire to have some of the best bacon on the planet. Boy, are you in luck! Just a few miles off Exit 60 you'll find Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams – and you will be ever so glad you did.

When you get off the Interstate, you'll travel a little ways through Sweetwater, Tennessee on Highway 68 and on into Madisonville, where you'll switch over to Highway 411. Right on the outskirts of town, you'll come to number 2603 – a long, rather non-descript-looking concrete block building – and you'll think, “This can't be it.” But trust me, you've arrived at hog heaven.

Displayed on the exterior of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, just to the right of a hand-lettered sign that announces the hours of operation, are the words, “We Cure 'Em.” And that's just what they do, using an old-fashioned method of slow dry-curing that employs salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper, and hickory smoke. Lots of hickory smoke. You can smell it as soon as you get out of your car. (You can buy unsmoked products, too. But why would you?)

Allan Benton
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
Entering the building on my first visit (and there have been several since), I saw the proprietor himself, Allan Benton, surrounded by cameras and a team of reporters from Asheville. You see, this little ol' country place, unseemly as it seems, has been discovered by the food elite. You'll find Benton's products on the menu in places like New York's famous Momofuku and Charleston's trendy McCrady's. At PDT (Please Don't Tell) in New York's East Village, CBS-New York has labeled the “Benton's Old Fashioned,” a drink made with bourbon, maple syrup, angostura bitters, orange peel, and, of course Benton's bacon, one of the city's best cocktails.





Benton's Bacon
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
When I got my first pound of Benton's bacon home, I was absolutely in love. It's easy to see why Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs are ga-ga about this stuff. The bacon is thick sliced in traditional country fashion, meaning not all the slices are exactly uniform. Not only are the slices thicker than “store-bought,” they're a good bit longer, too, meaning you get more bacony goodness per slice. Unlike the water-injected product in the grocery store, Benton's dry-curing process ensures minimal shrinkage. And the rich, unctuous, smoky flavor is simply indescribable. Now, I haven't purchased grocery store bacon in years. I get mine from a local butcher. But this stuff has made a convert of me. I've never tasted the like. Allan Benton has acquired still another dedicated customer. I've already returned to this bacon-lover's mecca and purchased a few pounds as gifts for my kids and for a neighbor. (Yes, I give bacon as a gift. So what?)

Blame it all on his roots. Allan Benton learned everything he knows about curing pork from his grandparents, residents of rural Scott County, Virginia – a place where they know a thing or two about bacon and ham. After a stint as a school teacher, Benton took up the meat business in a rented block smokehouse where a local dairy farmer had previously cured and sold country hams. Employing his grandparents' recipe and techniques, Benton's business took off like a greased pig and he soon bought the whole shootin' match.

Hearkening back to the way his grandpa harvested hogs that had been allowed to forage in the forests, feasting on acorns, roots, leaves, and tender grasses, Benton uses only pasture-raised heritage breed pigs for his porcine delicacies. And the superior quality of the meat shines through in every sumptuous bite.

Although country hams and hickory-smoked bacon are the mainstays of the business, there are a few other porky delights in store, like prosciutto, for instance. Yep. Succulent Italian-style ham. What more could you want?

If the middle of East Tennessee is a little bit out of your way, Benton's will ship anywhere in the United States from their website at http://bentonscountryhams2.com. Be forewarned, though; this place is extremely popular and crazy busy. In the shop, the line stays backed up to the door. On the web, the shipping time can be up to a month or more.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is at 2603 Highway 411 North, Madisonville, Tennessee 37354. They're open 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Saturday. Call (423) 442-5003, e-mail Allan.Benton@gmail.com or check out the website mentioned in the previous paragraph.

What goes better with bacon than cheese? Follow me. Back to I-75 and up (or down) the road to Exit 68. We're going to Philadelphia. No, not that Philadelphia. All they've got there is Independence Hall. Philadelphia, Tennessee has Sweetwater Valley Farm.

Now, you don't have to go nearly as far off the beaten path to get to Sweetwater Valley Farm. Turn off the exit, go 2 miles, make a left and you're there.
(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)

The International Dairy Foods Association recently named SVF its “Innovative Dairy Farm of the Year” and it's easy to see why. I grew up in “America's Dairyland,” and this place is impressive by anybody's standards.

It's neat and clean and pretty, but, make no mistake, this is a real working farm. A thousand cows, twenty million pounds of milk annually, three million pounds of which become some of the most delicious cheese I've ever had.

Sweetwater Valley Farm is one of the few remaining farms in the country still producing high quality farmstead cheese. Owner John Harrison brilliantly combines modern dairying with age-old artisanal methods and turns out a great variety of absolutely beautiful, all-natural cheddar cheeses. And I do mean variety! More than twenty of them.

The farm started turning milk into cheese about a decade ago. It was good, but they soon discovered that people's tastes were always changing and more flavors were always in demand. So Harrison set about meeting that demand and today he turns out a stunning product line that ranges from Adobo to Yellow Cheddar, offering mild cheeses, sharp cheeses, and everything in between. All fresh, all natural, and all delicious.
Yellow Cheddar
(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)
I sampled white cheddar, yellow cheddar, hickory-smoked gouda, hickory-smoked yellow and white, and even Italian pesto. My wife had her first ever taste of cheese curds and we both thoroughly enjoyed the award-winning Governor's Aged Cheddar. All were supremely creamy, smooth, tangy, sweet, rich, full-flavored.......I'm running out of adjectives. They were just plain good, darn it! That's why several blocks came home with us. There's a reason we travel with a cooler.

But the SVF experience doesn't stop in the cheese store/gift shop. There's “The Udder Story,” too, an exhibit that explores the dairy industry's past, present and future and presents answers to questions you probably didn't know you had. And there's also a walking tour that allows visitors to see many of the details of a modern, productive dairy operation.

As with Benton's, if you find that SVF is a bit of a commute, they have a website and they ship. And, to our great surprise, they're cheap. I've paid a lot more for a lot less in specialty shops and in the cheese sections of high-end grocers all over the country. But don't let that get around. We'll keep it our secret.


(Image courtesy
Sweetwater Valley Farm)
Cheese. Cows. Wow! So says the sunny yellow brochure produced by Sweetwater Valley Farm. And I completely agree.

Sweetwater Valley Farm is located at 17988 West Lee Highway, Philadelphia, Tennessee 37846. They're open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 6 and on Saturdays from 9 to 5. They also open from 1to 5 on Sundays during the summer and over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays. Call (877) 862-4332, email info@sweetwatervalley.com, or check out www.sweetwatervalley.com.

There are scores of places like Benton's and Sweetwater Valley Farm all across the length and breadth of America. Good quality food is still out there. All you have to do is look for it. Even if you don't have a Benton's or a Sweetwater Valley Farm nearby, chances are there's a local farmers market, butcher shop, fishmonger, produce market, or bakery near you. Sure, it's not as handy as one-stop shopping at the supercenter, but it can be so much better. And so much better for you. It's the way we used to shop before convenience became more important than quality. Whether you hop in your car or fire up your computer, visit Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams and Sweetwater Valley Farm and add some real food to your shopping list today.

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