Bees, Bison, Bi-valves and more are in the region’s fascinating food chain
CHARLOTTE HARBOR & THE GULF ISLANDS, Fla. (Nov. 11, 2013) -- Culinary travel experiences continue to gain momentum along with an elevated level of importance among vacationing home chefs. For those with an inclination to head south to Florida this winter, take note: along with the great seafood and citrus one can indulge upon during a visit to sunny Florida, there are myriad foodie experiences to take in, that the uninformed might not be privy to.
Following are just a few tidbits of interest for food aficionados. Places to go and things to see, eat and do, along with some anecdotal food for thought, when next visiting Southwest Florida, and in particular, Charlotte County…
There’s lots of great fishing to be done along the warm Gulf waters. The superb eating fish caught on charter fishing expeditions will not only be filleted for you by the charter captain and crew, but you have the choice of bringing it home to prepare yourself, or indulge in a night out, as most seafood restaurants will cook up your catch for you. One such eatery is the Village Fish Market in Punta Gorda at Fishermen's Village, where they'll bake, broil or fry your cleaned catch.
Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands teems with more than 250 species of eating and game fish including, Snook, Redfish, Sea Trout, Yellowtail, Cobia, Snapper, Shark, Grouper, Barracuda, Kingfish, Mackerel and Tarpon. Finding the fish may pose a challenge if you’re new to the area. In that case experienced guides are indispensable, and there are dozens to choose from: http://charlotteharbortravel.com/cms/index.php?id=19
Though blue crabs are delicious year round, stone crab season is only mid-October through mid-May, so now is the time to enjoy stone crab claws as a delightful appetizer chilled or paired steaming hot with other local fare as a main course. Crabbers can be sighted with bushels of live blue crabs for sale along many well-traveled roads. Caught earlier in the day, the fresh catch just doesn’t get much fresher.
Love scallops? Here’s a little known factoid for you…Florida Sea Grant is working to replenish the scallop population in the waters of Charlotte County. The Sea Grant marine outreach program for Florida Bay Scallops includes the Great Bay Scallop Search every August when locals and visitors are invited to come out and participate in this citizen-based survey event. Better still, scallop cage gardening – a volunteer restoration/monitoring program is ongoing throughout the year. Due to the conservancy nature of these programs, local scallops are not for consumption.
For your information, you may be free as a bird, but did you know that the Charlotte County Jail, with assistance from Florida Sea Grant, runs an aquaculture program where the incarcerated are trained to raise catfish, which are harvested as a food source for the inmates. Fish aren't the only pet projects there. A vast hydroponic system is used to grow fresh vegetables at the jail.
The Babcock family, Pennsylvania lumber magnates have owned 90,000 acres in Florida, under preservation for the past 100 years, known as the Babcock Ranch. This ranch offers rides and tours through the swamp, spotting alligators, wild boar and native birds, and preserving the over 500 year-old brand of Cracker Cattle, unique to the state of Florida. These free-roaming Cracker Cattle were originally brought over by the Spanish, and earned their names from the men who used whips to “crack” and herd them on the open range. As a working cattle ranch, breeds other than the Cracker Cattle (not bred for food) are sold as calves for market. While touring the ranch, be sure to stop by the Gator Shack, a seasonal café, for their specialty—gator bites.
Babcock Ranch is also home to Headwaters Farm bee hives (whose stable includes nearly 20,000 hives) which produce great local saw palmetto honey that can be found in the Babcock Country Store and at area farmers markets and specialty shops.
Worden Farm (www.wordenfarm.com) is an 85-acre certified organic family farm in Punta Gorda, founded and actively run by Chris Worden, Ph.D. and Eva Worden, Ph.D. The farm's organic produce is available directly to the local community in season, Fall through Spring, at farmers markets and through a community supported agriculture farm membership program. The farm produces over 50 different varieties of certified organic vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers without conventional pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Sustainable, ecological techniques are used to conserve resources and protect soil and water resources, wildlife, and human health. Tours, special events, recipes and food prep tips are shared with visitors to the farm as well as on their website.
Three Suns Ranch, Bison Ranch (www.threesunsranch.com) in Punta Gorda is Florida’s only large-scale bison producer, raising natural, hormone free meats for discriminating consumers. The bison are 100 percent grass fed, and meat purchases of every cut imaginable can be made at the ranch. Visit their website or call 941-639-7070 for availability.
Farmers Markets abound throughout Florida and three popular destinations in the county include: the Punta Gorda Downtown Farmers Market every Saturday on Taylor Road. Ph: 941-391-4856. Then every Sunday there’s the History Park Farmer’s Market at 501 Shreve Street, Punta Gorda. Ph: 941-380-6814. Every Thursday from fall through spring is the Englewood Farmer’s Market on Dearborn St. in the Old Englewood Village. Ph: 941-548-7843.
Sustainable seafood is big here, as many chefs, restaurateurs and fishermen make their living and livelihood from the bountiful Gulf of Mexico. From the quintessential Florida cracker crab shack where blue crabs pile high atop newspaper covered picnic tables at Peace River Seafood year round, to contemporary dishes that top retro, stainless steel tables set amidst a wash of riotous color at acclaimed Trabue, the dining options in Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands are as abundant as the fresh catch.
An authentic Florida crab house opened by long-time local crabber Jimmy Beall and his wife Kelly just outside Punta Gorda, Peace River Seafood is where the fishermen, crabbers, and shrimpers land their catch. During Stone Crab season the huge crab claws are the number one draw on the locally sourced seafood-centric menu. Year-round, blue crabs arrive by the crate and are prepared and served up piping hot almost as fast as they come in. Spilling out of tin buckets – all you can eat for $20, 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday – the crabs are accompanied by the requisite wooden mallet, corn-on-the-cob, red potatoes and lemon. Novices take note: friendly expert instruction from the staff will have you crackin’ crab like a local in no time!
Chef Keith Meyer is one of the new breed of chefs planting roots in Punta Gorda. At Trabue Restaurant, he translates the classic techniques he learned in New York City into approachable rustic, southern dishes. Menu items range from escargot to a bone-in, brined pork chop, and the menu is always chock full of from-the-Gulf seafood such as mahi-mahi, snapper and shrimp. While he incorporates flavors from across the country, Chef Keith’s goal is to highlight locally-sourced ingredients, especially the different flavors that come with each season.
To wash down all this local farm (or sea) to table goodness, the county also features a winery and a new craft brew house with tap room. Catania’s Winery in Englewood offers free wine tastings Thursdays – Saturdays. While the new (opening Dec. 2013) Fat Point brewery in Punta Gorda is initially offering two craft beers in cans and on tap.
For visitors who want to plan their vacation around a specific food festival, there’s something for everyone each quarter. However during season, know that on Jan. 25 the 3rd Annual Charlotte Harbor Chili Challenge & Beer Festival will be in full swing in Laishley Park, Punta Gorda. In addition to chili, there are food vendors, live music, a beer tasting tent and a Kid’s Fun Zone. Ph: 941-637-5953 www.smugglersevents.com.
Then Feb. 22nd the 9th Annual Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival, also in Laishley Park, is a celebration of food, drink and entertainment in one of the most picturesque waterfront settings in Southwest Florida. Enjoy the sounds of jazz and tastes of Punta Gorda while sitting on the bank of the Peace River. Scheduled to perform are Mindi Abair, Richard Elliot, Norman Brown and Gerald Albright. Ph: 941-639-3720. www.puntagordachamber.com.
About Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands
Located halfway between Tampa and Naples on the Southwest Florida Gulf coast, Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands is a charming collection of nine coastal communities surrounding the state’s second largest harbor. Florida’s premier year-round eco-tourism destination, Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands offers a pristine unspoiled beauty that has served as the backdrop for seven major feature films as well as countless memorable vacations. A haven for outdoor enthusiasts, Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands has been named to SAIL magazine’s “10 Greatest Places to Sail in the United States,” ranked by Golf Digest as “Third Best Place to Live and Play Golf in America,” and rated by MONEY magazine as one of the “Best Places to Live in the South.” The city of Punta Gorda was named in one of “Top Ten Places to Retire Healthy” by U.S. News & World Report. Englewood was named as #2 of the Top Ten emerging travel destinations in the U.S. by TripAdvisor.com.
For information about area events, activities and attractions, contact the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau, 18500 Murdock Circle, Suite B104, Port Charlotte, FL 33948; 941-743-1900, or call toll free at 1-800-652-6090 for a free Visitor’s Guide; or visit the Web site at www.CharlotteHarborTravel.com.
Tourism Public Relations Manager
Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau
Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau
18500 Murdock Circle, Suite B104, Port Charlotte, FL 33948
941-743-1900, FAX: 941-764-4932