25 May 2016
FLORIDA KEYS — Scores of visitors envy Florida Keys "locals" who create satisfying lives full of authentic pleasures and natural ingredients. But visitors too can enjoy the indigenous flavors of the Keys, and even take home tasty "souvenirs" to help sustain them until their next vacation escape.

Nearly everyone who journeys to the island chain samples locally caught seafood and locally made Key lime pie. Both are excellent starting points for an exploration into the region's unique edibles — but much more is available to savor as well. The Keys are home to artisan food crafters, a master chocolatier, beekeepers and even a saltmaker whose wares can be relished during visits and later as treats at home.

At the head of the Keys in Key Largo, for example, the Florida Keys' premier chocolatier can be found at mile marker (MM) 100.5 bayside. Key Largo Chocolates is the brainchild of Kristie Thomas, who infuses local flavors into handmade chocolate confections. Standouts include luscious truffles, fudge and specialty chocolate bark with Key lime and pistachios.

Perhaps the quirkiest creations are Thomas's chocodiles — whimsical 9-inch-long crocodiles made of white or dark chocolate. Those with a sweet tooth will delight in visiting the shop, and treats can be ordered online for shipping.

Key lime pie, which originated in Key West in the late 1800s, was voted Florida's official pie in 2006 by the state legislature. But Bob's Bunz, a friendly Islamorada "comfort food" restaurant and bakery, features the tiny limes in other sweet temptations including Bundt cakes and yummy bite-size cookies.
No trip to the Upper Keys is complete without visiting the emporium, whose name comes from the legendary (and gigantic) cinnamon and sticky buns created by owner Robert "Bob" Spencer. While the "bunz" can be purchased only at the restaurant/bakery at MM 81.6, lime lovers can pick up Bundt cakes and cookies there or order them at bobsbunz.com.

Head down the Florida Keys Overseas Highway through Marathon and, shortly before the Seven Mile Bridge begins, make a sharp right onto Gulfview Avenue. Perched on the waterfront at the end of the short street is one of the best casual seafood restaurants in the Keys: Keys Fisheries. Try the fresh stone crab claws, peel-and-eat Key West shrimp and savory conch chowder. And the eatery's famed Lobster Reuben makes even stubborn New Yorkers abandon traditional corned-beef Reubens for their seafood "cousin."

As well as being a favorite spot for locals and visitors, Keys Fisheries ships seafood (including the famed Lobster Reuben) to those craving a taste of the island chain. Orders can be placed at keysfisheries.com.

Few things flavor a dish like artisanal salt, and Lower Keys residents Midge Jolly and Tom Weyant harvest 100 percent solar-evaporated sea salt on their Earth & Sea Farm. Their Florida Keys Sea Salt is described as an all-around cooking and finishing salt, and the natural rhythm of its hand-harvested production harks back to the Keys’ saltmaking tradition of the 1800s.

Jolly and Weyant's sustainable farm and products, visit earthandseafarm.com. Their salt can be purchased at SALT Island Provisions, located at 830 Fleming St. in Key West.

SALT Island Provisions also is the place to discover other intriguing products from Florida Keys artisans, including raw and unprocessed small-batch honey whose distinct flavors can't be found anywhere else in the world. The delicacy is produced by independent beekeepers who have hives around the Lower Keys, and change seasonally with favorites including red mangrove honey.

"It's a beautiful, rich honey that grows at the edge of the ocean," said SALT owner Jeffrey Cardenas, who also sells the honey. "It comes straight out of the hives."

As enticing as these items are, they're only a sampling of the foodstuffs produced by creative spirits in the Florida Keys. Additional offerings include mango wasabi and rum mustards, rich and creamy smoked fish dip, Key Largo's renowned Bees N The Keys honey and even Key lime dog treats.
Florida Keys visitor information: fla-keys.com or 1-800-FLA-KEYS 
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