When it comes to shopping local for the holidays, especially when you’re on the hunt for food-related gifts, those of us who live in Maine are luckier than a hungry elf trapped in a gingerbread factory.
Looking for some boozy cheer to add to someone’s stocking? We’ve got Sweetgrass Farm’s Cranberry Gin, which is not only tasty but a lovely Merry Christmas red as well.
Want to share some Maine holiday spirit with friends and relatives from away? Check out Cranberry Island Kitchen’s Peppermint Whoopie Pie Cake, which just won an Editors’ Choice award in Yankee Magazine’s holiday food issue. (Full disclosure: I haven’t tried it, but it looks amazing.)
For the past few years, I’ve shared with you some of my favorites – local products I’ve discovered during the previous 12 months that would make great stocking stuffers or hostess gifts for people who love food. After the first couple of goes at this, I expanded my definition of “local” to mean regional. Last year, for example, Eden Ice Cider from Vermont made the list. This year, even the regional rule is being stretched a bit, for reasons you’ll understand later in this column.
One rule that will never change: Anything recommended here, once a year, is something I have personally sampled and liked. So, although we may have different tastes and you’ll have a different opinon, you won’t find any random, PR-driven selections here that I only know about because someone sent me an email begging me to promote their product.
One final word before we reach into Santa’s bag of goodies: If you know of a food or food-related product from Maine or northern New England that’s widely available but still relatively new, email me. I’m already on the hunt for next year.
Most are $6.99-$7.50 per 4.5- or 5-ounce package online; gluten-free are $8.99.
Available online, at The Cheese Iron in Scarborough and at numerous locations in Portsmouth, N.H. See website for a list.
Diane Romagnoli considers her artisanal flatbread crisps “my own little artwork.”
Lots of restaurants are making their own crackers now, but if you want restaurant quality at home, check out these delicious, crispy, handmade crackers that are produced in a bakery in Concord, N.H. They are long and beautiful, topped with black and white sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds or wild rice that give them color, texture and crunch. Two or three packages bound together with a bright red bow would make a great hostess gift at a holiday party.
There are 20 flavors, believe it or not, including some gluten-free varieties. Try the Roasted Potato and Chive cracker with a cup of clam chowder. The Black and Whites pair well with charcuterie, and the Spicy Ten Seed (which “tastes like an everything bagel with a good crunch”) loves hummus. The Tuscan goes well with aged Italian cheeses, while the Cheesy Pleesy Jalapeno Cheddar is a good dipping cracker, especially for guacamole.
There’s even a line for craft beer drinkers that includes a Curried Toasted Sesame Ginger, a cracker Romagnoli says goes well with India Pale Ale.
Romagnoli has been making and selling Craquelins for three years now. She made her first batch for her daughter-in-law’s baby shower, and a family feud broke out over the leftovers. Romagnoli watched guests from New Hampshire and New York fighting over crackers, figured she was onto something, “and that’s how this whole thing got started.”
All of the crackers are handmade, hand-cut and hand-topped in small batches, and there are no artificial ingredients. Even the potatoes that go into some of the crackers are hand-cut and roasted.
I first met Romagnoli in September at the Wells Reserve Nature Crafts Fair, when I bought four packages of her crackers. She advised me they would be good for three months; after that, pop them in the freezer. If you’re not planning to eat them right away, put them in the freezer right away to preserve their flavor.
FIORE ARTISAN OLIVE OILS AND VINEGARS
Prices vary, but most 200 ml bottles are $10; 375 ml bottles are $15; and 750 ml bottles are $28.
Folks in Bangor and Rockland already know about Fiore, a Maine company that imports ultra-premium extra-virgin olive oils, aged balsamic vinegars and other products by “chasing the crush” of the olive harvest all around the world.
Now southern Maine cooks can sample Fiore’s wares at the company’s new store at 58 Main St. in Freeport. (It’s actually just off the main drag, down a set of stairs.)
The store is basically a tasting room where you can wander around and sample everything, which is what I tried to do a few weekends ago, with the help of a staff member. You will need the help narrowing your choices: Fiore olive oils come in unconventional flavors like harissa, Meyer lemon and Baklouti green chili – there are more than 50 varieties in all – and its selection of vinegars (produced in Italy) includes black cherry, espresso and cinnamon pear.
They also have oils that are extra high in polyphenols, the antioxidants that promote health. These give you a peppery kick at the back of the throat.
There are all kinds of options here. You can buy a single bottle, or maybe a paired duo of an olive oil and a vinegar to tuck in a stocking or slip into a gift bag. Fiore also has a number of gift options, ranging from wooden gift boxes filled with full-size bottles to gift packs featuring five 60 ml sampler bottles. I chose the latter as my go-to gift this year for friends and out-of-town relatives. (Buy 10 at once, and you get a 10 percent discount.)
I filled my gift packs with blood orange, organic Persian lime and Tuscan olive oils (the Tuscan, the store employee told me, is the most popular “plain” olive oil, and when you taste it you’ll see why), as well as a bottle of blackberry ginger balsamic and summer peach white balsamic, which I’m told is good in cocktails. The store employees will help you pair things. My organic Persian lime olive oil, for example, is supposed to go well with the blackberry ginger balsamic vinegar.
MALTED MILK BALLS FROM HARBOR CANDY SHOP
This Ogunquit candy store, located at 248 Main St., has long been a favorite of Mainers with a sweet tooth. They make almost everything they sell on site. Walk in the door, and you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old-fashioned candy store; if it’s summer, the place is probably packed with kids perusing the wall covered in a million flavors of Jelly Bellys.
Here’s the thing: This place sells the best malted milk balls on the planet.
When I was a kid, I loved getting malted milk balls at the movies. But over the years, in a weird kind of hidden price increase, manufacturers made the layer of chocolate surrounding the malt ball thinner and thinner, and it was made of cheap, sugary chocolate. The malt ball became smaller, too, so there was less satisfying crunch. Eventually, I gave up on them.
Then I stumbled across the malted milk balls at Harbor Candy. They are amazing. Think of how thick you’d like chocolate to be on a malt ball, and then double that. And the malt ball is big enough that you get both good crunch and that sensation of it melting in your mouth.
Not only that, they come in a crazy variety of flavors, including raspberry, mint chip, peanut butter, espresso, blueberry and, of course, milk and dark chocolate. There’s a flavor called “Ultimate” that is a mixture of dark, milk and white chocolate.
The most popular flavors, according to shop owner Jean Sotiropoulos, are Ultimate and plain milk chocolate. But all of them are “hugely” popular, she said, “so much so that people call in to ask us to include some with their Christmas orders.”
Sotiropoulos said that while kids like the candies, too, it’s mostly nostalgic adults who snap them up by the bagful from the big bins in the store.
“Malted milk is a familiar, popular flavor,” she said, “and from my personal experience, I think that things are also popular that have some kind of combination of creamy and crunchy, and they have that too.”
Sotiropoulos said she can’t take credit for making the malted milk balls she sells in her shop.
The seasonal flavors – pumpkin, maple and cranberry – come from Wilbur’s of Maine, but she buys most of them from wholesaler Koppers Chocolate in New York, which makes even crazier varieties like hot cinnamon, pineapple and lemon meringue.
(Note to Jean: Please order the ginger snap flavor.)
SEASONED PISTACHIOS FROM THE GILDED NUT SNACK CO.
Go to gildednut.com for a list of Maine stores that carry them, or you can order direct from the website.
Average retail price in Maine is $4.99 for a 2.25-ounce package; 6-pack cases available online for $19.99.
If you’re watching your weight but still want to snack on something flavorful, these seasoned pistachios created by Mainer John Powers will satisfy your tastebuds without wrecking your diet.
They come in four flavors – original, Mediterranean herb, habanero heat and sea salt and pepper. (My favorite was the original.) The package advises sucking on the shells a little if you want to extract the most flavor from each nut.
The nuts are grown, seasoned and packaged in California, but Powers runs the company from Maine. He made his first batch when he was living in the U.S. Virgin Islands from 2001 to 2009. He used to get together with friends on Sunday afternoons, and they would take a boat over to the British Virgin Islands from St. John to go island hopping and hit the beaches.
Powers worked in the beverage distribution business at the time and got great deals on beer and wine, so he always got assigned the task of packing the cooler they’d take along on the trips. He also loves to cook, so he would pack food as well.
“One day I had a bag of plain pistachios, and I always liked pistachios,” Powers said. “I wouldn’t say I loved them, but I found them a little bit boring and sometimes they’re a little soft and don’t have the crunch that I like.”
So he dumped them in a salad bowl, added some extra virgin olive oil, garlic powder, smoked paprika, cayenne and black pepper and popped them in the oven to bake until they were crispy.
“Everybody went crazy about them, and it kind of just became my calling card for all the other boat trips, for Super Bowl parties, for Fourth of July get-togethers, those kind of things,” Powers said. “And I assume as with most food startups, I kept getting encouraged by my friends and family to do something with this idea.”
He started his company after he moved to San Francisco, figuring if he didn’t try it while living in a foodie city and in a state where pistachios are grown, he never would. That was a year and a half ago. He moved to Maine last year. While the pistachios are still grown, seasoned and packaged in California for now, he hopes as the company grows he’ll be able to move part of it here.
“We’d love to add some new flavors,” Powers said. “We want to venture into other nuts and some nut blends or nut-and-seed blends, but we really want to keep everything very, very healthy. I think there’s too much sugar in today’s food – in spaghetti sauces and chili and salad dressings and those kind of things.”
There are no artificial ingredients in the Gilded Nut pistachios – none of the added sugar, gums or binding agents that other snack foods use. The pistachios have been gaining in popularity as premium bar snacks, and are starting to be snapped up by luxury hotels, which are interested in more healthful alternatives.
You can make the people on your gift list feel like VIPs by slipping a package in their stocking or under their tree.
A FEW OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
There are some perennial foodie gift ideas we sometimes forget about, so here are some to help you brainstorm:
• A gift certificate to a favorite restaurant.
• Some restaurants sell T-shirts, ball caps, aprons and other merchandise emblazoned with their logo.
• Tickets to a local food or beverage tour, such as a Maine Foodie Tour or Portland Taste Tour; the Maine Brew Bus or Maine Beer Tour for the craft beer lover on your list; or call your favorite brewer, winemaker or distiller to see if they offer tours of their facilities.
• A bottle of local mead, kombucha, wine, cider or spirits. (See reference to Cranberry Gin above.) There are lots of craft distilleries in the Portland area now, making everything from rum to moonshine.
• A local cookbook, such as the Harbor Fish Market cookbook released this year. Standard Baking Co. has its own cookbook, as does Allagash Brewing Co. Is the person on your list a fan of Arrows restaurant in Ogunquit, which closed this year? Buy them the Arrows cookbook. Do they love to hunt and fish? Get the “L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook.”
• A gift certificate to a local kitchen store, such as LeRoux Kitchen in Portland or Kitchen & Cork in Scarborough.
• Sign up for a pie-of-the-month club. Two Fat Cats Bakery and Maine Pie Line, both in Portland, have them. Two Fat Cats even has a Mini Pie of the Month Club.
• Anything from Rabelais, which sells books on food and drink in the North Dam Mill in Biddeford. You’ll find plenty of classics here, on just about every culinary topic imaginable.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: