There is danger in declaring one’s passions too noisily. At certain times of the year friends and family will be carefully taking note of any subtle clues you may unwittingly drop about your likes and dislikes. This is a very dangerous time, because if you’re not careful you may end up trapped in the festive ground-hog day that is the unwanted gift loop. Every Christmas and birthday forevermore you will be kindly inflicted with well-meaning op-shop fodder. The trick I have learned is to be quite specific. Children send lists to Claus of the Arctic, so how come we lose that right as adults? The injustice of it…
Gift buying is a ghastly business at the best of times, so people are bound to work with what little information they have on your personal predilections. You can’t blame them if they pick a theme and stick with it. My best beloved has a very public penchant for the colour green, which for many years was interpreted by family as “give me green frog ornaments”. This eventually got quite out of hand, and frankly irritating. I know, Christmas is about giving not receiving, or something, but there’s no point giving or receiving unwanted amphibians for all of eternity.
In my case, people know I’m interested in food, and most gifts are themed along those lines. A select few, my inner sanctum if you will, know my la-de-da tastes inside out and rarely fail to dazzle. But a number of other kindly souls swamp me in ‘clever’ gadgets and jars of not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are pickles (quince, horseradish and 2005 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc relish etc). All I can say is that egg-masher industry is clearly in a state of wild and unchecked growth, and the home-spun condiment trade is (as ever) swooning under the influence of its own misguided sense of usefulness.
So I offer up the following list, for the sake of anyone who knows me and was planning on “surprising” me with any of the above redundant nonsense, or for those of you who are shopping for the food- fixated (and I don’t mean people with eating disorders – these items might not be the best choices for them), and don’t quite know where to begin. Of course, if you’re bothering to read this drivel (take note person who accused me of writing ‘dribble’ recently), you are probably a well-informed Foodlover who needs no steerage from me. In which case either skip to the bottom and add your own list, or follow this link to Heston Blumenthal’s wonderful Christmas special (hosted by Google videos) of a couple of years ago . Truly delightful.
Not to everyone’s tastes, but to fans of festive baking (like me!), a good-quality Italian panettone or pandoro will be very gratefully received indeed. Price does to tend equate to quality with these generally artisanal products- expect to spend no less than $20 if you really like the person, and upwards of $50 if they seem like a keeper. Brands to lookout for are Flamigni and Fiasconara.
No written description really does justice to the charms of a well made panettone. By definition it might just be a big old fruit-studded brioche sort of thing, but by taste, aroma, texture and provenance it’s so much more. There is a sublime sophistication to this bread. I make quite a ritual of eating the stuff and find it a strangely hypnotic and personal thing. My whole body relaxes and a smile spreads across my lips. When I’m eating panettone the rest of the world just isn’t important.
Apart their possible psychotropic properties (which might be more to do with my lack of perspective around food), they also make a beautiful focal point on the Christmas table. In the following days when the bread starts to lose its supple spring, panettone is still fabulous toasted and spread thickly with butter. As I’ve said elsewhere recently, those of us who spend a lot of time in the kitchen just love it when others cook for us, so if you fancy baking you own panettone to give away or just for the hell of it, here’s an article (with recipe) I wrote on the subject last year.
Meat might not be the most obvious choice for a gift, but personally I’d be thrilled to receive a nice piece of eye fillet or a great slab of sirloin on Christmas morning. Good-quality red meat has become quite the luxury item, and for the most part is outside of the realms of my normal weekly budget (and I suspect many others’). Go to a butcher you trust (I’m currently wildly in love with Westemere Butchery in Auckland), tell them your budget and go crazy.
If you really shop around its possible to find fabulously marbled wagyu and ethereally tender South American grain-fed beef, but keep in mind these come at something of an ethical (not to mention crippling fiscal) price, as both are usually raised in intensive feed-lot or barn-based systems.
Personally I’m more than happy – often quite ecstatic, if truth be known – with local, pasture-run Angus or similar. Also worthy of consideration is the new and ethically permissible Rose veal from Gourmet Direct . The result of careful, selective breeding, Rose veal is produced from fully weaned calves, unlike its’ traditional counterpart, white veal, where the calves are dragged to slaughter, kicking and bawling from the udder. The result here is a pink-blushed, sweetly flavoured and butter-tender meat of a calibre (both ethically and gastronomically) previously unseen in New Zealand.
For some reason I can’t quite imagine giving pork for Christmas. It just doesn’t seem appropriate. Merry Christmas, here’s some pig I picked out for you.
I can think of very few people who wouldn’t appreciate a decent bit of chocolate under the tree. But Jesus H, we’re fed a lot of subjective puritanism about chocolate these days! Apparently the only chocolate worth eating is 85 % (minimum) bitter-sweet, preferably single estate and Fair Trade (ok, so I agree with that last one). While some of my favourite renderings of the bean fall into this category, I angrily reserve the right to eat milk chocolate, and dare I say it white chocolate, if and when I bloody well want to In fact, I think it would be in the interests of furthering a nay-saying loved one’s theobromic education to give them some very good examples of either of the above.
There are myriad premium chocolate brands to choose from these days and each has their own special quirks and nuances, so it might a prudent – and so very torturous, I’m sure – to try before you buy. For the record my favourite imported chocolates brands are Caffarel , Valrhona and Lindt – and I certainly wouldn’t kick Green and Black out of bed either. On the home front my favourite chocolatiers (bad pun alert), bar-none are Greytown based Schoc. These guys take a unique and most agreeable approach to chocolate – as a legitimate form of therapy- and produce some of the smartest flavour combinations around, such the very opulent Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold Christmas block. Magical stuff.
Cheese is among my greatest pleasures in life. Be it gooey and fungoid, mouldering and piquant or dense and crystalline, I’m anyone’s for a decent wedge. And who isn’t? Just quietly, this is probably the best item on my list. It’s something we don’t tend to splash out on for ourselves very often (usually only for dinner parties and specific recipes), and a carefully selected wedge or two of something special can make for a touchingly thoughtful gesture. The possibilities are endless here, so go somewhere that allows you to taste the cheeses, be sure to ask about country and region of origin, style of production, age and wine matches. All of this adds to ambiance of the gift. If you’re shopping for me, you’ll be well on track to my good books with Gorgonzola Piccante, Roquefort, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano , Taleggio, Meyer vintage Gouda… go on, surprise me.
Fruit can either be insultingly dull as a gift (think hospital lobby fruit baskets), or breathlessly good (think Otago cherries). So with a little thought and sadly no lack of dosh, fruit can make you very popular indeed under the mistletoe.
Cherries are probably the best choice for a Christmas gift. The season peaks right around Christmas, and you can buy handsome 1-kilo cases from you local fruiter (watch the price double on Christmas eve), or better still, order directly from the grower and have them posted to your dear one. Cherries are a very sexy fruit and could be seen as a somewhat suggestive gift, so you might want to think carefully about who you give them to. I’m sure whole books have been written about flirting with fruit. Another good choice for the fruit lover who has everything is a case of fresh lychees, mangosteen or brazen Thai mangoes. You might have to hunt around a few Asian fruiters for these, but you can be assured they will not disappoint.
Last year a friend gave me a couple of geoducks for Christmas. They looked like penises in the half shell and scared me silly (no, the Freudian implications haven’t escaped me either). Although I can’t say I enjoyed eating them, they were nowhere near as awful as I expected and, more importantly, represented that very rare thing for the well versed consumer – a genuinely new experience. So, judging from my own reactions here (not that I’m the most reliable compass of normality), a well-thought-out novelty food gift got can be just the ticket.
A whole Durian (available frozen and fresh from Asian supermarkets and fruiterers) would test the mettle of many, and at the very least will clear the room of noxious in-laws. For a less intimidating and odiferous choice you could track down a fresh bread fruit (try Otara market in Auckland), or perhaps a mutton bird (carried by some fish shops), and a whole pig’s heads wrapped in pretty paper would definitely cause a stir. I, for one, am hoping for something freaky and fetid under the tree again this year.
Restaurant gift vouchers
Ok, so vouchers, like cash can make for a rather crass and unimaginative gift. They have that whole ‘here is how much I like you in money-form’ vibe about them. However, I don’t think this applies to restaurant vouchers. Issued by the Restaurant Association of New Zealand these are available in $20, $50 and $100 denominations and can be used pretty much anywhere of note.
Splashing out on a really special night is something most of us reserve for only the most important of occasions – if at all. These vouchers not only subsidise (or if you’re really lucky, cover) the sometimes staggering bill, but they also give us permission to treat ourselves, just because. You know what I mean?
So where would I redeem a restaurant voucher or two?
Well, I’m pretty staid in my tastes, mostly because very few places meet my terribly unreasonable expectations of exceptional service, intelligent, well executed food and consistency throughout (the last one is a real bug-bear of mine). Likely suspects in Auckland right now are The Engine Room, The French Café, O’Connell Street Bistro and Antoine’s.
So, what’s on your Christmas list this year? Share your tips, list and advice on shopping for the fickle-Foodlover below.