Truth be told, we’re often not impressed with traditional holiday gift guides. They’re either littered with undisclosed affiliate links or seemingly endless lists (much like our holiday to-dos) that make us want to turn off the computer and hibernate until the end of January.
So, what makes our gift guide different? It’s a highly-selective (and relatively short) list of products that our correspondents and guides eat and use, made by people they know. Many of them are featured in stories that we’ve published, and we worked our hardest to connect you directly with producers – while we weren’t always successful, we did manage to avoid Amazon entirely (and no affiliate links in sight).
In an ideal world, we would see you and your loved ones on one of our culinary walks (which can be purchased as gifts). If you can’t join one of our walks but are traveling to one of the 11 cities we operate in, then you can always buy an Eatinerary, the seasonal food guide that tells you where to eat right now – perfect for the solo traveler or student in your life. You can also peruse our shop to see items we have produced ourselves – our “Usta All-Stars” cards, for example – and others that we just really enjoy using or giving as gifts.
Now, without further ado, CB’s 2017 gift guide:
Pottery from the Cycladic island of Sifnos is renowned throughout Greece. The clay on the island contains certain minerals that make it heat resistant, and the baking pots depicted here lend themselves to recipes that benefit from extra slow cooking. In the days before electric stoves, cooks would take their covered pots to the local baker on Saturday evening, where they would be loaded into his wood-fired oven, still warm from the day’s bread making, and left to simmer all night long, producing the most succulent dishes one can imagine.
Different shapes exist for different dishes. The shallower, wider pot would be used for baked meat casseroles, while the roundish one shown above, called skepastaria, is intended for chickpea soup, revithada, the island’s most famous food, traditionally eaten for Sunday lunch. The whole process takes two days, one night for soaking the pulses, then preparing them – very simply, seasoned solely with chopped onions, baking soda, salt and pepper, olive oil and a bay leaf. – Diana Farr Louis
Pickled Edible Bulbs
Founded in 2014 by architect and mother of three Ersi Xenaki, Icaria Pure has long been a favorite of mine. Xenaki, whose father is from Icaria, grew up spending her summers on the mountainous, remote island in the eastern Aegean, which is known for its unique flora and residents with a laid-back attitude. She wanted to make the island’s delicacies known to the world and consequently teamed up with local artisans in Icaria to create small-batch food products that are handmade and free from artificial colors and preservatives.
One of my favorite products is this jar of pickled bulbs. Bulbs have been eaten in many parts of Greece since ancient times and, health benefits aside, they are a great meze to enjoy, especially if you love earthy flavors. The ones from Icaria Pure are wild and harvested by hand – a laborious task, as they are buried quite deep in the ground. They are then pickled with a strong, aromatic vinegar made from local wine, which adds a bit of tartness to the bulbs. – Johanna Dimopoulos
You may need some practice to use the porrón, a glass jug originally intended to hold bulk wine, but after a few tries I reckon you’ll become addicted. To drink, just take the porrón with one hand and pour the wine directly into your mouth while holding the spout some distance away – it is very important not to touch the spout to your mouth so that the porrón can be shared with other guests. This charming pitcher has a long history in Spain but today is mostly used in the northeast: in Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. I like to bring one out at dinner parties because it breaks the ice and starts the meal off with a bit of fun! – Paula Mourenza
Pure Spanish Saffron
Saffron has a long history in Spain. Today it’s generally produced in small quantities by artisanal producers, who focus on putting out a higher quality spice with a strong color, subtle aroma and connected stigmas. Spanish saffron mostly comes from Castilla y León, but other areas like Aragon and Catalonia are starting to revive their historic tradition of saffron cultivation. This particular producer from Aragon offers organic mountain saffron that is hand collected. I use saffron in rices, teas, drinks, soups and desserts because it adds a sophisticated touch of color and flavor. – Paula Mourenza
Copper Cookware from Soy Türkiye
When we spoke to Emir Ali Enç, the gregarious founder, owner and CEO of Soy Türkiye, in 2014, he was already earning accolades for his cooper cookware. Made by hand in a 15th-century han near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, his gorgeous pots are used around the world in Michelin-starred kitchens and in discerning households. For those looking to bring a taste of Turkey into their home, Soy’s elegant cezves, traditional Turkish coffee pots, make an especially good gift. – Culinary Backstreets
Kuru Fasulye Kit
One of the things we miss most about Istanbul is the city’s shrines to the baked bean (kuru fasulye). So when we thought of the ideal Istanbul gift, the first thing that came to mind was a kuru fasulye kit. If you, too, have a bean lover in your life, we recommend purchasing Robyn Eckhardt’s new cookbook, Istanbul & Beyond, which contains a recipe for the buttery tomato and white bean stew (accompanied by enticing images taken by her photographer husband, David Hagerman). As for ingredients that are hard-to-find outside of Turkey, Tulumba.com is your best bet. There you can purchase the all-important köy domates salçası (village tomato paste), the deliciously sweet şeker fasulye (sugar beans), our preferred legume for this humble dish, and even a handmade clay pot, the ideal vessel in which to prepare it. – Culinary Backstreets
Cataplana is the name of both the clam-shaped pan and the dish cooked in it. Both are traditionally found in the Algarve, in southern Portugal. A stew of sorts, the dish almost always contains fish or shellfish. My favorites feature pork and clams, served with french fries, and octopus with sweet potatoes. The sauces are delicious, and you need a spoon or some good bread to soak up all the juices.
A traditional cataplana is made of copper but some modern versions are fashioned out of stainless steel – both work well in a regular stove. Cataplana’s origins are a bit muddied, but historians think it goes back to the Moorish occupation of the Algarve. The pan seals and steams the food, a bit like the tagine in Morocco though in a different shape and material. I like to think of it as an earlier version of the pressure cooker, keeping all the flavors inside the pot. Check out the selection here. – Célia Pedroso
Tinned fish (conservas in Portuguese) is an old industry in Portugal, dating back to the 19th century. The quality of the fish and the olive oil, plus the packaging makes it a delicious gift. My favorites are the small horse mackerel in olive oil from Briosa, the sardine eggs in olive oil from La Gondola, and the tuna fillets in organic olive oil from Santa Catarina. – Célia Pedroso
We were excited to learn that natural chewing gum company Chicza, which is based in Quintana Roo, began shipping their organic chewing gum to the U.S. in early 2017. The gum is produced from the sap of the chicozapote tree (which all chewing gum was made from, before synthetics). More importantly, this sap is being sustainably harvested from living trees by the Consorcio Chiclero, an umbrella cooperative that brings together some 2,000 small producers. That’s something to chew on. – Culinary Backtreets with input from Martha Pskowski
A Sampler of Heirloom Beans and Clay Bean Pot
We wholeheartedly admit that we are gaga for beans here at CB. In Mesoamerica, beans have been a pillar of culinary traditions – not to mention civilizations – from time immemorial. Needless to say, in Mexico today beans are still an important part of the daily diet. To help small farmers in Mexico continue to grow their indigenous beans, Rancho Gordo and The Xoxoc Project have teamed up to offer a sampler of the country’s more unusual varieties. Pair this sampler with a traditional clay bean pot, and you’re well on your way to a home-cooked Mexican feast. – Culinary Backstreets with input from Ben Herrera
A Sign from Pasquale ‘o nummararo
One of the highlights of our Naples culinary walk is a visit to Pasquale De Stefano, better known as Pasquale ‘o nummararo, “the number man” who hand paints signs for Neapolitan fruit sellers and vendors – one of the last of his kind in Naples. We have teamed up with our Naples correspondent and walks guide, Amedeo Colella, to offer you the chance to get your own sign made by Pasquale. You can purchase a 13 cm x 13 cm sign featuring your or your loved one’s first name written by Pasquale himself in his inimitable style. The sign costs €4 and shipping is €13. Orders will be accepted until December 15. You can place your order here. – Culinary Backstreets
The town of Vietri sul Mare is famous for its ceramic products. The largest factory there is Solimene, which is still run by the family who established it. All ceramic items are hand painted. We’re partial to these octopus Christmas plates, especially after we learned that the Solimene family still use these plates for their Christmas Eve meal, which features over 25 different dishes. – Kristin Melia
Editor’s note: A popular Christmas gift in Naples (and an essential ingredient for Christmas pasta) is ‘pummarola ro piennolo’ (hanging tomatoes). These cherry tomatoes are harvested in the summer and then hang in ventilated cellars until Christmas time; their flavor becomes extremely concentrated in the intervening months. Since hanging tomatoes don’t travel well, we suggest purchasing Vesuvius tomato seeds to grow your own cherry tomatoes and make a pummarola ro piennolo for the next holiday season.
Mail-Order Meat Basket from Muncan
I like to walk into Muncan just for the smell. Plus, I can find everything I want in this Balkan charcuterie specialist in Astoria that makes its own smoked and cured meats. As so many businesses become increasingly depersonalized, this remains a family operation – unique, warm-hearted and wonderful. Keeping with their old-school vibe, Muncan until very recently only delivered their products through mail order (download the form here), but they now have an online shop as well. For a holiday meat basket, I recommend the duck pastrami, the Hungarian csulok (pork knuckle) and the Istrian salami. – Brad Fox
In the words of Margie Schmidt, the third-generation owner of this candy shop in Woodhaven, everything is made with “these ten digits.” We have long been fans of her hand-dipped chocolates, which are fresh, free of preservatives and need no factory wrapping – each piece is one of a kind. Folks who have moved away from Queens still crave her chocolates, and lucky for them them (and us), she does mail orders. Our favorite candy is the peppermint pattie, which is inevitably lumpy and out of round. But the mint flavor is pure, free of the metallic notes that taint some brand-name patties, and well balanced by a thick robe of dark chocolate. – Dave Cook
Editor’s note: One of the best tips we ever received from our correspondents and guides in Queens was to carry our own utensil(s). Dave Cook recommends a spork like this one from REI. “It’s super-light and easy to clean,” he says. “Another virtue: Every time I use it, I know that one more plastic fork or spoon won’t ultimately get tossed in the trash.”
Rio de Janeiro
Weber Haus Amburana Cachaça
You can never go wrong with a good bottle of cachaça. It’s probably one of the most Brazilian gifts you can find. Plus, the sugarcane-based alcohol has been on the rise over the past five years – it’s finding its way into chic circles where it was once seen as a bit cheap and rustic. While there are several excellent cachaças available online, I would recommend the Weber Haus Amburana. – Juarez Becoza
Okay, we admit, this is the one product that isn’t available in the U.S., but it’s so good that we couldn’t not share. Emerson Gama, the man behind Quetzal, has really taken off since 2016, when he left his job as an airport electrician and started making chocolate in his tiny kitchen in Rio. A boutique chocolatier who values sustainability and social responsibility as much as flavor, Gama is now selling Quetzal in some of Brazil’s chicest grocery stores. So now’s the time to call in any favors with friends in Brazil. – Culinary Backstreets with input from Taylor Barnes
Pinyin Press Tea Towels
I mostly encounter chicken’s feet (known as 凤爪 or phoenix claws in Mandarin) when making chicken stock or eating dim sum, but that’s the point of a Pinyin Press piece. Both beautiful and educational, Pinyin Press’s hand-drawn designs are inspired from every day life (and food) in China, whether it’s a pet cricket coffee mug or a baozi romper designed for the little dumpling in your life. The artfully designed chicken feet tea towel brings a splash of color to any open kitchen – and it’s a great conversation starter the next time you’re hosting a dinner party. – Jamie Barys
Umami Collection from The Mala Market
In 2011, Chengdu was named the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in Asia, thanks mostly to the spices, sauces and flavors that make Sichuan cuisine unique in China. While most lovers of Chinese cuisine are well-versed in the mala flavors of Sichuan peppercorn and red chiles, not as many have delved beyond the numbing spice to try the savory flavors of dishes like twice-cooked pork or “fish-flavored” eggplant. The Mala Market’s Umami Collection has just that, with ingredients like doubanjiang (fermented fava bean paste) and yacai (preserved mustard greens), as well as recipe cards to get you started. – Jamie Barys
Gotsa Natural Chinuri Wine
All of Gotsa’s wines are great. We love the Chinuri because it is lighter than the most popular Georgian whites (amber, technically), yet it’s a kvevri wine with complex herbal flavors. In the U.S., the wine can be ordered through Blue Danube, which has a great reputation as a distributor of fine wines (the Wine Thieves, a trio helping humble Georgian winegrowers get their juice to market, are working with Blue Danube to sell their wines in California). – Paul Rimple
Svaneti Salt is a plucky spice blend that originates from the isolated high Caucasus region of Svaneti. Made primarily of coriander, wild blue fenugreek, salt, garlic and sometimes red pepper, the mix (which can be ordered here) is a popular salad seasoning that goes excellently with tomatoes and cucumbers. Some use it to zest up a bowl of soup, or as a meat rub, while we love to sprinkle it on poached or boiled eggs. – Paul Rimple
Editor’s note: If you’re looking to try your hand at some Georgian recipes, we highly recommend Carla Capalbo’s new book “Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus,” which is part cookbook, part travelogue. Read our interview with Carla here.
Miya Ramen Bowls
We’ve all queued for way too long at our favorite ramen joints waiting for a bowl of heaven. For those who want to try their hand at preparing ramen at home, our favorite Japanese bowls come from Miya. We first discovered Miya ceramics in the basement of a dusty food emporium in New York’s Chinatown. They’ve since become mainstream and gone up in price, but all of Miya’s dishes are well worth it and make great gifts. – Fran Kuzui
Japanese snacks from World of Snacks
We got tired of stuffing our suitcase full of the endlessly evolving variety of weird Kit Kat flavors in Japan as souvenir presents for American friends and were so happy to note that World of Snacks has the motherlode of Japanese sweets. They could be the most appreciated and unusual stocking stuffers ever, especially the wasabi chocolate and sake flavors. – Fran Kuzui
Editor’s note: If you’re on the hunt for Japanese cooking equipment, Tokyo walks guide Mairi Wallace pointed us to Japan Centre, an online store with a range of traditional pans on offer for making such Japanese dishes as ‘takoyaki,’ ‘tamagoyaki’ and ‘donburi.’