Food-themed gifts are always a hit, and it seems the global pandemic has us eating and drinking more — and better — than ever before. Gifts of food and wine always evoke the places they come from, and since travel has been so restricted this year, a thoughtful gift from a well-loved destination will be deeply appreciated. Sheltering in place has also helped me get to know my own Bay Area back yard a bit better — here are 10 gift suggestions from local makers, from surprising finds to perennial classics.
The Bay Area is fortunate to have an abundance of great Italian chefs, and a world-class example is Donato Scotti, whose local outposts include Donato Enoteca, Donato & Co., Cru and Cento Osteria. Restaurants have been among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic, and Scotti quickly pivoted, as we say, to online offerings of the special ingredients he uses in his restaurant kitchens. But even better, he’s now teaching you all his culinary secrets with online cooking classes. I took a class with Scotti and Gianluca Guglielmi (of Donato & Co.), and I can attest to the profound patience of these two men as virtual cooking teachers, a formidable job. Upcoming sessions include:
12/13: Cooking and Wine Tasting while making classic agnolotti del plin and enjoying Barbaresco and Barolo wines
12/18: La Cucina Romana, featuring carbonara and cacio e pepe recipes
12/20: Holiday dishes from Emilia-Romagna, including tortellini and flan di Parmigiano
12/24: La zuppa di pesce, a Christmas Eve tradition
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When you sign up, you’ll get a kit that includes everything you need for the class.
Oakland’s Mr. Espresso is a family-owned coffee company that has long been a local favorite for Italian-style oakwood-roasted coffees. And now, the brand’s signature style is available in a convenient portable format. These compostable pouches, filled with a blend of fair-trade, organic-certified coffees (called Seven Bridges, named for the seven main Bay Area bridges), are steeped in water (much like tea) for a quick and remarkably complex cup.
Bay Area chefs have gone from importing olive oil from Europe to largely sourcing it right here at home in a matter of only a decade or so. In that time, California olive growers have established their rightful place at the table with world-class oil pressed from many different varieties of olives that result in an entire flavor wheel of sensory experiences. Oakland’s Market Hall carries the best of both worlds, both local and European, that run the gamut from herbaceous and spicy to deep and buttery. The Séka Hills Arbequina is on the fruity, peppery end of the spectrum, while the Bondolio is rich and buttery. Bring Italy into the mix with Capezzana’s mild, floral organic oil.
Like Champagne, chocolate is festive, and like coffee and tea, it’s also a ritual — daily, for some of us. The holiday season is a perfect time to explore Bay Area-made chocolate bounty. Berkeley-based TCHO takes its chocolate so seriously that it has established flavor labs at cacao origins where it sources beans. It’s uncommon for farmers to be able to taste the literal fruits of their labor, and these labs allow for quality control that starts at the farm level. This is the chocolate that GOZU chef Ethel Koh chooses (find her chocolate chunk cookies with beef tallow here), so you know you’re on a good path. From bars for eating to bags for baking, as well as pretty gifts from classic to creative, TCHO has got your inner chocoholic covered.
Many Bay Area residents first tasted Laura Chenel goat cheese at Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse restaurant back in the day, and the company, founded in 1979 as a farmstead product, has grown into the poster child for all things goat milk. North Bay Creameries is offering a Holiday Host Basket with Laura Chenel’s greatest hits, as well as baskets that include delights from St. Benoit Creamery, Marin French Cheese, and the aforementioned TCHO chocolate.
Longtime Bay Area food writer John Birdsall, who recently relocated to Tucson, turned his attention to “the dean of cookery,” James Beard, one of the least understood and most beloved culinary figures of the 20th century. Beard was adored for his championing of American cooking and his television persona, and little-known beyond that image, largely because he was gay — and, therefore, on the receiving end of much vitriol, both conscious and unconscious, because of it. Birdsall has a precise and lyrical way with language, and when he describes Beard’s devouring of some spring peas he’d bought in a London market as “a map of cravings satisfied in private,” we have the metaphor of Beard’s life in fewer words than a haiku. Buy this book at your favorite local bookstore for everyone you know, and read it yourself, too.
Berkeley transplant Ayako Iino’s motto is, “Eat like a Japanese grandma,” and her homestyle products are locally sourced but made from the Japanese traditions she grew up in — slow, hands-on, meticulous and lovingly laborious. Yume Boshi offers a range of ume plum and shiso products, from sweet to savory, all of which make excellent gifts. I’m partial to the classic umeboshi — Japanese salted plums — which have become a daily staple at my house during the pandemic. Check out Iino’s jams and syrups, too.
I preserve my own backyard lemons every year, but Carla DeLuca and Nick Sansone of If & When take this umani-driven condiment to new heights with the addition of herbs and spices — cumin/garlic, bay leaf/black pepper, and “Moroccan” (with cassia bark, peppercorn, bay leaf and allspice). I love it on fish, shrimp, rice, and even in hummus.
Indoor dining has only been possible for a brief window of time in 2020, and patio dining (now temporarily suspended, once again) has saved us all — thank goodness for California’s mild climate. But restaurants have suffered mightily this year, and one way to help them is to give the gift of delayed gratification — always worth the wait — with a gift certificate to a favorite spot. One of my top choices this year is Farmhouse Restaurant, a Bay Area crown jewel hidden away in Forestville, a Sonoma County destination for food and wine, and also a terrific place to spend the night.
Buy a Few Bottles From an Indie Winemaker (links below)
My personal wine goal of the year has been to seek out wines right under my nose that weren’t on my radar before, and it has been a bonafide abbondanza of pleasure. My favorites have been both expressive of their terroir and true to their makers’ distinctive styles. Why indie? Because big winemakers stand a chance of weathering the storm that has been #2020, but smaller businesses need us now more than ever. And all these wines are lovingly crafted by hand. My favorites are Post & Vine by Rebekah Wineburg (of Quintessa fame) and Erica Kincaid — try the Old Vine Field Blend that is paradoxically fresh and deep; Theorem assistant winemaker Kathleen Ward’s elegant and floral Libelle Wines Rieslings from Colorado fruit; Smith Story’s evocative Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs by dynamic duo Eric Story and Alison Smith Story; Tyler and Kim Elwell’s variations on the theme of Cab Franc extravaganza, Halcyon Wines; and Bret and Kerrie Lenhar Hogan’s fun, ever-evolving portfolio at Côte West that’s a nod to Bret’s Burgundy training, from Dry Creek Valley Grenache to Pet-Nat made from Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak Sauvignon Blanc.