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Florida flavors beyond the beaten path

Ignore the chicken-breast Caesar salad, coconut crusted shrimp and blueberry bagels; the taste of Florida slowly gets better every year.

Honest. Well, not so you'd know it without major detours off the name-brand highways, but Florida is handcrafting food with the fresh taste of local farms and the spice of immigrant energy and imagination.

You doubt me? Try the grand cru orange juice from Sarasota, made with the care given a fine French wine. Have it with a world of ancient flat breads made by hand and old-world skills in a Tampa bakery. Or goat cheese that's not from a herd in the fields of Sonoma but from goats grazing on Citrus County grass.

Such homegrown, handcrafted delicacies are worth the hunt, which takes far less than the effort that makes them. Adventurous shoppers who already prowl ethnic groceries and independent butcher shops and delis can find still more by cruising health food stores, too. There's plenty of overpackaged cookies 'n' cream protein bars and veggie macaroni and cheese, but look carefully and you'll also find food made by farmers and bakers who have succeeded with old-fashioned ways.

Consider these providers:

GARDINIER ESTATES, SARASOTA: The Champagne of Florida OJ, made by a French family that owns vineyards in Bordeaux and groves in Ruskin, is as silky smooth as a good Burgundy and ripe to bursting with sweetness. It's as close to backyard-fresh as you can buy.

That's because the Gardinier family decided to take some of its very best oranges and treat the juice-making process the same as the one for fine wine. The bottle gets a back label with a note from patriarch Xavier Gardinier, who is as proud of the juice as he is the family's Ch. Phelan-Segur Bordeaux and its Hotel Les Crayeres in Reims, ranked by one critic as the best in the world.

To make the juice, the Gardiniers follow finicky wine principles: The fruit is all Valencia, handpicked from select trees (and only from the outside of the tree, where, Gardinier says, fruit is ripest and sweetest). The fruit is squeezed and the juice bottled in a mobile processing plant parked in the grove. It gets low-temperature pasteurization and is shipped in refrigerated Gardinier trucks within 24 hours.

The juice initially was sold only in South Florida and Ritz-Carlton Hotel gift shops. But the Gardiniers are weighing major expansion. For now, it is offered experimentally in Sarasota health food stores and two Pinellas locations: Nature's Finest Foods, 6651 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, (727) 347-5682; and Palm Harbor Natural Foods, 30555 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor, (727) 786-1231). For other locations and ordering information, contact (941) 378-1794 or visit the Web site at www.gardinier.com. At $4 to $5 per liter, it's an expensive juice, but a bargain luxury.

SAMI'S BAKERY, TAMPA: This bakery started out making pita bread for the Middle Eastern community 25 years ago. Today it's still a tiny spot _ with the Sahara market on one side and Taj Mahal on the other in a forgotten shopping center _ but its ovens bake an ever-widening world of flat breads.

Beyond the now familiar pita, there are millet and flax seed breads, lavash large and small (and millet-flax-spinach versions) and often fresh nan on weekends.

Sami's also translates these rustic primal grains into modern snack foods, such as pita chips in a half-dozen salty flavors and fuel for the latest diets: high-fiber tortillas and pizza crusts. Tortillas, for instance, are made with whole wheat flour, wheat bran and oats, so 8 of the 10 grams of carbohydrates are dietary fiber.

And a long line of gluten-free products includes fruit and nut breads and Middle Eastern pies, sweets and hummus.

Products from Sami's Bakery, 4914 E Busch Blvd., Tampa, (813) 989-2722, samisbakery.com, are widely distributed through health food stores and Middle Eastern markets.

GOLDEN FLEECE DAIRY, LECANTO: For more than two decades, a herd of goats in the middle of Citrus County has made fresh milk, yogurt and kumiss drinks, but not cheese. So Golden Fleece got its goat cheese from dairies in other states.

Last year, however, Golden Fleece was able to expand, set up a cheese factory and make artisan feta and soft fromage of the sort favored by gourmets: logs of chevre, chevrotine and chabis, dusted with herbs, nuts, fruits and pepper. They sell for $4 to $8 and are as creamy as many French and California varieties.

How fresh and close to the farm is it? So fresh that you may find some cheeses scarce this time of year because it has been a tough kidding season for the Lecanto herd (230 head); that has disrupted milk production schedules a bit.

Nonetheless, Golden Fleece has become large enough to distribute a wide variety of products in this area, including eggs, ghee, soy cheeses and such dairy brands as Cabot Creamery, McCadam and Organic Valley cheeses. Golden Fleece products are available in 25 states.

The company also sells to a few customers from the farm (order by noon Wednesday and pick up on Thursday) at 1500 W Sunturf St., Lecanto. Call (352) 628-2688 in Citrus or toll-free 1-888-628-2688; goldenfleece.net. Golden Fleece eventually may have a retail store at the farm and a few goats to pet.

For now, shoppers, cooks and chefs who make an effort will find Florida can still taste fresh from the farm, the grove and the oven.

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