Have you ever encountered a food while traveling that you just can’t get out of your head?
Whether it’s lychee-flavored sake from Tokyo, aged pecorino from Tuscany, or smoky barbecue sauce from Texas, there are items that you crave, but may not be able to find. Fortunately, with the holidays just around the corner, this is the ideal time to track down those hard-to-find treats using the Internet.
Food gift sales have grown to nearly 50 percent of all gifts bought as of last year, which is no wonder since food has a one-size-fits-all appeal. But we don’t just wrap a box of Twinkies in holiday paper—the best food gifts are unique, personalized discoveries.
Igourmet is one of the most comprehensive gourmet food import sites on the Internet, importing a vast selection of unusual cheeses, meats, wines and other treats from all over Europe and the Americas. You can select foods based on their country of origin or category (such as meats/seafood, kosher, coffee/tea or chocolate/desserts).
In the “From the Garden” section, you can find lavender honey gathered by a family who has been beekeeping since the 1700s, or pomegranate jelly from a German community in Israel (no high-fructose corn syrup in this healthful spread!). Quality cheeses are a hallmark of this company, which is appropriate since the founder’s grandfather was one of the pioneers of the gourmet industry and started a cheese import business that is still family-run.
Igourmet was started 10 years ago when its founder, Spencer Chesman, decided his parents required a hobby to deal with their “empty nest syndrome.” The hobby quickly became a full-time job, and a “pain in the neck” as Mr. Chesman puts it.
They began by selling individual cheeses and branched out to other food categories such as meats and olive oil. As they added more unique foods and products, gift baskets became a logical next step. More than 35 percent of sales are gift baskets, which are also designed around regions, or even occasions (i.e. everything you would need for a romantic picnic lunch).
If you can’t find exactly the combination you want, no problem: You can create a custom basket with three to 15 items from anywhere on the site that will arrive beautifully packaged. The Web site’s description of the products tend to be well-informed and detailed, which Mr. Chesman attributes to his staff, many of whom have food backgrounds, as well as the knowledge passed down in his own family.
In fact, Consumer Reports has named igourmet’s gift baskets the best among all mail-order food gift companies for the last two years, singling out the International Classic gift basket.
The most popular products sold on the site are Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Olio Carli extra-virgin olive oil, and Douwe Egberts medium roast coffee. But, according to Chesman, the more unusual finds on the igourmet site make up a very long list. Some of the more exotic offerings are aged Bonito cheese, wild-harvested escargot from Burgundy, and authentic Italian Burrata cheese (not a domestic copy).
The Burrata cheese has a very short shelf life, so they have to fly it in at the beginning of the week, and have it all sold by the end! Their extra-fresh cheese is due in part to their onsite Department of Agriculture-certified cheese cut-and-wrap operation which only leaves the cheese wedges exposed to air for a very short period of time before they are vacuum-packed. 877-446-8763
At Importfood.com you can find Thai herbs, spices, produce, and even recipes—perfect for someone who has traveled in Thailand and can’t forget those exotic flavors. The produce, such as lemon grass and fresh Thai basil, is grown in Hawaii due to its similar climate to Thailand and its proximity to the U.S. To ensure the freshness of the herbs, they are usually shipped the same day they’re harvested.
All the produce is personally checked by owner Jerry Good, who explains, “Every time somebody orders, we pack it and ship it ourselves. We pack everything really well.” The items are still subject to weather conditions, so he suggests that customers take advantage of the winter weather which helps keep the produce cool in transit. If it doesn’t arrive fresh, he’ll replace it. Many of their customers are Thai-Americans who live in rural areas without access to Asian markets, which is a testament to their quality and authentic taste.
Importfood.com also has a food blog for Thai cooking as well as traditional Thai recipes, many of which Good and his wife (who is Thai) discovered while traveling. He says “a lot of these [recipes] are a hundred years old,” and he even includes street vendor recipes with photographs.
The “Shop as You Learn” feature is a handy way to gather what you need for the recipes that appeal to you. Find something that looks good, click a button, and you’ve ordered most of your ingredients!
Popular recipes are for Tom Yum Soup, Tom Kha (or coconut soup), and they have a particularly good recipe for Pad Thai. Authentic Thai tea makes a unique gift for tea-lovers as well. The site also has a section for gift sets, such as the “Taste of Thai Starter Set” or the very popular spice kit which includes all the major spices of Thai cuisine. https://importfood.com, 888-618-8424
Bestdutch.com is a family-run business that was founded 30 years ago and specializes in Dutch and Indonesian food. Sound like an odd pairing? Apparently it’s not!
Indonesia was a Dutch colony until 1945. Over time, many Dutch people lived in Indonesia during which they acquired a taste for the local food. In the last hundred years, many Indonesian restaurants were opened in the Netherlands, and gradually, Indonesian dishes started to enter Dutch kitchens.
According to Marinus Grootenboer from BestDutch.com, “A Dutch store in the U.S. has to have Indonesian food. Dutch Americans long as much for their Indonesian food items as they do for their Dutch cheese.”
Sharon Peters, the granddaughter-in-law of the owner, thinks of their products and gift baskets as “memory gifts.” Instead of giving a material object as a gift, give something so unique and special that the real gift is the memory of receiving it, or the memory of times past brought back to you.
Mrs. Peters’ favorite food from the site is the Banket, a kind of butter cake, “it’s something that my mother made, so it’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve never been able to master it. It brings back wonderful memories.” Dutch and Indonesian recipes can also be found on the site and many come directly from immigrants who came to the States with family recipes handed down through generations.
Other Dutch specialties on the site include almond paste (better than almond extract, this is actually crushed almond, not an artificial flavor), and Poffertjes (pronounced “pufferjes”). The site also features Dutch cheeses, rarely found outside specialty cheese shops, such as Dutch Gouda Pittig and Leyden Aged cheese.
For the holidays, BestDutch has an excellent selection of marzipan, an almond-flavored confection in the shapes of fruits, and “little pigs”—often given for luck during the holidays. Ickx Belgian chocolates are popular picks. They come in the shapes of Christmas trees, snowmen and holly leaves. The chocolate and bakery items for St. Nicolas Day (December 5) make especially good gifts and are among the most popular products on the site. 800-826-6841, BestDutch.com
Cost Plus World Market started in the 1950s as an import store on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The exotic goods were a hit, and four decades later, World Market has expanded to 297 stores across the country, each carrying unusual foods and other products from around the world.
World Market’s tea section is stocked with treats such as organic white tea, Genmai Cha (a green tea with brown rice), Sencha green tea, and Hougi Cha (a roasted green tea low in caffeine), which are difficult to find outside specialty tea stores. Many of the sodas, jams, and candies are made with real sugar—which, if you’ve looked, is scarce in U.S. grocery stores which favor high-fructose corn syrup (America grows a lot more corn than sugar cane).
Christmas treats from Scandinavia, such Saturnus Glogg from Sweden (their version of mulled wine), Marzipan good luck pigs and other shapes, and Erfrischende Kirsch Taler (a German chocolate filled with cherry liqueur) can be found along with multi-seasonal goodies, like chocolate-covered marzipan with almond paste, or elusive clotted cream and lemon curd (try finding those at your local Ralphs). You’ll also find fun whimsical gifts like a backgammon board game with pieces made out of dark and white chocolate, or chess pieces made of the same. For the travel enthusiast, they have a package of chocolate airplanes, helicopters, a flight tower, and a hot-air balloon!
You’ve probably seen Walker’s Scottish shortbread cookies, but did you know they also make mincemeat tarts? And if you like gingerbread, check out the decorative tins from Germany and Austria with beautiful Christmas scenes. They even have a large Lubecker marzipan Christmas calendar with treats for every day of December—a wonderful present for children.
World Market has a lot more than just food—there are baskets (it’s easy to make your own gift basket from this store, and you don’t have to pay for shipping), furniture, home decor, and a well-stocked wine and liquor section … perfect for the holidays! www.worldmarket.com.
By Lauren Van Mullem for PeterGreenberg.com.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of our Culinary Travel section!
Previously by Lauren Van Mullem: