Hudson Valley, NY Chocolate Trail
Long before this mountainous region north of New York City became a breeding ground for Chopped and Top Chef, there was chocolate. Along this trail are historic villages largely known for their magnates, presidents and artists in residence -- all of whom clearly needed sweets.
The valley's time-honored bonbon sellers have some new neighbors who are all about fair-trade chocolate Buddhas and vegan chocolate corn-on-the-cob. And between the old timey and the new-wave, the chocolate bar has been set ridiculous high. So don't hit this trail without lots of room for dessert.
Vasilow's Confectionery, Inc.
Chocolate is just plain fun where -- thanks to a grandson of one of the brothers who founded the shop in 1923 -- you'll find chocolate-covered goodies from fortune cookies to gummi bears. There's even a treat for Fido: carob-covered biscuit bones!
Chocolate-Dipped Fortune Cookies
Make your own Vasilow's-inspired cookie at home! Add some chocolate to your Chinese take-out with this recipe adapted from this popular confectionery.
Any chocolate you find here is organic and fair trade -- and while the Buddha's a big draw, he has all sorts of friends for sale, too, from hand-decorated chocolate terriers to vegan chocolate bulldogs.
Bryan Graham is one of a handful in the U.S. who roast, grind, and liquefy their own beans. To see how good the bean-to-bar movement can taste, try his chocolate-coated toasted almonds with smoked sea salt.
Oliver Kita Chocolates
You'll want to be hungry for this brand of house-hunting: Oliver Kita's Great Estates chocolates are an edible guide to the famous mansions that line the Hudson River. Each monogrammed ganache truffle corresponds to a historic home on the box's map.
Forget food politics; just bite into Lagusta's bonbons, barks or bars before you decide whether you like vegan chocolate. (FYI, you don't. You madly love it!) Extra-inventive creations include the smoky corn-on-the-cob chocolate and the Vandana Shivas, bittersweet chocolate with vanilla bean, Mexican cinnamon and a touch of ancho chile. You'll never miss the dairy.
Visit Lagusta's Luscious at 25 North Front St., New Paltz, NY (845-255-8834)
Alps Sweet Shop
The handmade chocolates here have stood the test of time since 1922, when Peter Charkalis began selling his dreamy wares. The chocolate-dipped buttercrunch, which takes two days to make, has been a favorite for locals for generations. So much so that his descendants sell 10,000 pounds of it per year.
Lucas Candies still makes its magic in the company's 1896 store, complete with original cash register. And while Nick Loucas uses the same chocolate recipe that left Greece with his great-great-uncle, the peanut butter, chocolate and potato chip PMS Bars are a thoroughly modern marvel.
Wisconsin Cheese Trail
Don't be fooled by those mellow cows in bucolic pastures. Wisconsin cheesemakers are keeping their French counterparts up at night. In fact, at this year's U.S. Cheese Championship (The Academy Awards for cheesemakers), the Dairy State nabbed almost 60 percent of the awards. From traditional producers to innovative artisans, there's a ton to see along this 202-mile trail.
You'll start out of curiosity, but be warned: Curds, squeaky, salty, peanut-size by-products of the cheese-making process, are a serious addition. The fresher they are, the louder they squeak when you bite into them, and some of the squeakiest are served at Henning's cheese factory, where they're made on weekdays. While there, be sure to taste the Colby cheese that took the gold in the 2012 World Championships.
Carr Valley Cheese
Owner and certified Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook has won more top national and international cheese competitions than any other North American cheesemaker. Check out his prizewinning Cocoa Cardona, a ripened goat cheese rubbed with cocoa. And book ahead for two-and-a-half-hour cooking demos and tastings in the Carr Valley cooking studio.
Dane County Farmers' Market
Visit the nation's largest producers-only farmers' market where you'll find 160 or so cheesemakers, bakers, and veggie and flower growers among other local vendors. As you make your way around, don't be surprised if you've got a little groove in your step: Street musicians have got the place surrounded.
The Old Fashioned
Time to go hardcore: Now that you've squeaked your way through all those fresh curds, try the deep-fried variety at this tavern to the food and drink of Wisconsin. Leave room for beer, brats, dilly beans and Wisconsin beer cheese soup -- the ultimate Madison mash up.
Visit The Old Fashioned at 23 North Pinckney St. #1, Madison, WI (608-310-4545)
Named Best Chef of the Midwest in 2012 by the James Beard Foundation, L'Etoile's Tory Miller is constantly flaunting the meat, produce and, of course, cheeses of more than 200 local producers.
Creamy Stovetop Mac 'n' Cheese
Adapted from a recipe from Tory Miller, executive chef/co-owner of L'Etoile and Graze restaurants in Madison, WI. Chef Miller, who serves this rich casserole at Graze, likes to use Widmer's aged brick cheese spread in the recipe.
Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern
You're now in the only county that still produces limaburger -- 145 years after the notoriously stinky cheese arrived from Switzerland. Go here for a superpowered sandwich of limburger and raw onion. And make sure everyone in your party has a bite -- you don't want to be odd man out.
The Alp and Dell Cheese Store
You've got to score some of the famed Grand Cru gruyere here, but let's be honest: The star attraction is the yodeling shopkeeper, Tony Zgraggen, whose smooth alpine stylings will leave you swooning.
California Olive Oil Trail
We love a wine tour through hilly, verdant Northern California as much as the next person. But there's gold in them thar hills, in the form of extra virgin olive oil that makes for great tasting and touring.
The CIA at Greystone
Head to the olive oil flavor bar here and a chef-instructor will guide you through a tasting of several tiny cups of the golden-green elixir. There's more technique to this than you'd imagine, but it's all fun.
Visit The CIA at Greystone at 2555 Main St., St. Helena, CA (707-967-1100)
Citrus Olive Oil Cake
Try this cake adapted from a recipe from the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant at the CIA in St. Helena, CA.
Dry Creek Olive Company
Dry Creek is home to 100-year-old olive groves that have recently been coaxed back into production. Tour the spread and taste every heritage and don't miss the award-winning lime-spiked olive oil.
While you're checking out the Tuscan EVOO that won Best of Show in its category at the prestigious Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, consider another award winner on the premises: The malbec was recently Granted a Double Gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Born more than 40 years ago as a burger-and-frosty stand, the Olive Pit now includes an olive-oil tasting room and shop. Head over after your picnic table lunch -- the chocolate EVOO hits just the right spot.
Lucero Olive Oil
The Luceros, who cultivate some of the state's oldest trees, have won multiple awards with a house specialty oil made from Ascolano olives.
Apollo Olive Oil
Tour the orchards and mill and, as you go, get a supercasual tasting of Apollo's much heralded oil selection -- award winners range from the intense Barouni to the all-purpose Sierra Organic.
The Olive Press
Among the resident gems at the Oxbow Public Market is the Olive Press store, whose impressive tasting bar and guided "olive experience" includes oils, olives, spreads, beauty and bath products and more.
Finish at the sprawling property of one of the pioneer producers of California EVOO, where you can also eat a fresh-from-the-organic-gardens lunch and take a cooking class.
Visit McEvoy Ranch at 5935 Red Hill Road, Petaluma, CA (707-769-4138)
Mississippi Tamale Trail
Sold from front doors, porches, carts, and the occasional restaurant, Delta hot tamales likely began with Mexican migrant workers and -- thanks to African-American and Italian influences -- morphed into a dish that's purely Delta. The resulting cigar-shaped treats are filled with intensely seasoned meat and boiled, not steamed.
Hicks' Famous Hot Tamales
Eugene Hicks' secret spicy blend has lured everyone from Dale Earnhardt to Bill Clinton. And with one bite of these babies, you'll be part of the fan club, too.
Visit Hicks' Famous Hot Tamales at 305 South State St. at Hwy. 61, Clarksdale, MS (662-624-9887)
Joe's Hot Tamale Place AKA White Front Cafe
Barbara Pope still grinds beef by hand for the 5,000 or so tamales that she makes each week, just the way her brother Joe did for more than 30 years before his ascent to hot tamale heaven.
Visit Joe's Hot Tamale Place AKA White Front Caf? at 902 Main St., Rosedale, MS (662-759-3842)
Doe's Eat Place
Once you taste your tamales here, you'll understand why locals call the place perfect -- and why the James Beard Foundation deemed it one of "America's Classics."
Visit Doe's Eat Place at 502 Nelson St., Greenville, MS (662-334-3315)
The Onward Store
There are two reasons to stop here: First, chef Nick Secoy -- who adds modern twists to traditional dishes -- simmers unseasoned beef and masa tamales in an amazing power-broth for five hours. Second, when Theodore Roosevelt spared a wounded bear here during a hunt, the press went wild and the first Teddy Bear was born -- albeit a faraway factory.
Solly's Hot Tamales
The fiery tamales here are deliciously greasy. Once owner Jewel McCain hand-rolls the meat with finely ground cornmeal, she simmers the blend in water that's flavored only with beef fat and cayenne. Should you fall deeply in love with Solly's, don't worry; she ships.
Spiced Pork Hot Tamales
Never thought you could make your own tamales? Try out this easy homemade recipe.
Michigan Cherry Trail
You're standing in a gorgeous grove, and all around you, juicy, red fruit is just waiting to be plucked and popped into your mouth. Have you apparated to Eden? Nope, this is Michigan, home to 75 percent of the tart cherries in the U.S.
Chateau De Leelanau
Though other wines at this shop have hints of cherry, pick up a bottle of straight-up cherry wine, a sweet-and-tart blend of the award-winning vineyard's own cherries. At nearby vineyards and distilleries you'll find cherry brandy, port, vodka, mead and cider.
If Disney did cherries, the result would look like Cherry Republic. In the Great Hall of the timber-framed building you'll find close to 200 cherry-themed products, from salsa to soap. And if you need some liquid courage to enter the twice-weekly competition in the pit-spitting arena, hit the Stomphouse Winery and Tasting Room for some cherry wine.
Moomer's Ice Cream
Cherries Moobilee -- a blend of fresh-from-the-dairy milk, chunks of sweet cherries and bits of chocolate brownie -- may very well be why ice cream was invented. Though you can find Moomers in local restaurants and shops, you can't beat eating it at this family dairy farm, where you'll want to thank those kind cows in person.
Known for its farm-focused fare, Trattoria Stella has served up everything from blood sausage with faro and tart cherry conserve to panna cotta with "dueling" tart cherry and dark cherry sauces.
At your next party make these bright and flavorful crisps adapted from a recipe from Myles Anton, chef at Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, MI. Chef Anton gets his cherries from Edmondson Farms on Old Mission Peninsula.
Grand Traverse Pie Company
There are seven cherry pies served here, but if you eat nothing else while you watch the bakers at work in the open-air kitchen, have the tart cherry-crammed, buttery crumb-smothered creation. Among the pie devotees? Mario Batali, who spends summers in the area with his family.
Flap Jack Shack
They might call the Stuffed Cherry French Toast breakfast, but you can call this sourdough, sweet cherry and vanilla cream cheese concoction -- with a cherry (compote) on top -- your new happy place.
McManus Southview Orchards
For visitors who want to pick their own cherries, you'll find both sweet and tart at McManus if you're there at just the right moment. (Check availability with the orchard before you go.)
Visit McManus Southview Orchards at 313 Garflied Road North, Traverse City, MI (231-946-5867)
Little Italy's Of America
Next up on your travel list? Experience true Italian culture in these lively Little Italy neighborhoods.