News & Politics

From Benton’s Ham to Valrhona Chocolate: Ingredients Worth the Splurge

Gourmet stores are packed with high-priced ingredients. Here are some that are worth the splurge.

From left: Valrhona chocolate, sottocenere cheese with black truffles, Plugrá butter. All photos by Scott Suchman

Benton’s ham and bacon
This Tennessee producer makes some of the best bacon ($24 for four one-pound packages) and smoked country ham ($60) to be found. Whole hams are aged a year to a year and a half and are around 15 pounds. Available at

Minus 8 Wine Vinegar
This restaurant-kitchen favorite is made from ice wine at a Canadian vineyard. You need only a few drops of the sweet, tangy vinegar to brighten up a dish. It’s $29 for 100 milliliters at

Manni oils
This Italian company’s olive oil is used at such restaurants as the French Laundry in Napa and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. R.J. Cooper, chef/owner of the soon-to-open Rogue 24 in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, loves both it and the white-truffle oil, which he calls “beautiful and aromatic.” The rub: It’s available only at with a minimum order of five gift boxes ($65 per box), or ten bottles total.

These fibrous mushrooms come into season in early spring and are prized for their intensely earthy, nutty flavor. The sooner you get them, the firmer—and better—they’ll be. When buying, avoid those with soft spots. They’re $24 to $29.99 a pound at Whole Foods.

Nantucket bay scallops
One of the bright spots of winter is the November arrival of these small, ultra-sweet scallops, which are usually available through March. They don’t need much—just a quick sauté with butter and lemon or shallots and white wine. Available at area seafood markets, they’re $43 a pound at BlackSalt.

Plugrá butter
“It’s the Cadillac in our garage,” says Northside Social pastry chef Rob Valencia of this richer, higher-fat, European-style butter. Though it’s double the price of conventional versions, most pastry chefs agree Plugrá is the best baking butter out there. It’s $5.99 a pound at most supermarkets.

Sottocenere cheese with black truffles
This ash-covered cow’s-milk cheese from Italy is smooth and mild but is punched up with slivers of truffle and a rub of aromatic spices. Sliced and served on crackers, it makes a quietly luxurious snack. It’s $22 a pound at most cheese shops.

Valrhona chocolate
There’s lots of high-end chocolate on the market, but this French brand is the granddaddy—and a favorite of pastry chefs. Ashley Hubbard of the area chocolatier Fleurir likes the Orizaba bar, a milk-chocolate blend, and partner Robert Ludlow prefers Guanaja, which is 70 percent dark chocolate. For bittersweet chocolate, look for Manjari; all are $7. Valrhona is sold at Biagio Fine Chocolates and the Curious Grape.

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Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.