If you have food lovers on your Christmas list this year, whether they live locally or far away, how handy for you that you live in (or near) one of America’s most food-obsessed towns. Portland and environs are filled with good ideas for gifts, several of which we highlight here. Some are edible, some not, but all might suit either as Christmas gifts or hostess gifts for one of those many parties you’ll be attending.

A saffron necklace from Illuminated Me. Photo by Peter Herrick

SILK ROAD SPARKLERS
Illuminated Me
207-233-4170; illuminatedme.com

Spices are often as beautiful as they are full of flavor. Threads of vibrantly colored saffron, set in resin like an ancient insect suspended in amber, resemble a character from the Chinese alphabet. The tans and browns of cumin seed, when displayed in a necklace, are warming to the eyes. Black sesame, mustard seed, poppy seed, red chili pepper, and even locally sourced seaweed are trapped in time and space, becoming wearable (if no longer edible) art in the hands of jewelry designer Sharon Herrick, who transforms her favorite spices into necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. (Priced between $40 and $60.)

Like a chef painstakingly plating a course at a fine dining restaurant, Herrick uses tweezers to place the spices exactly where she wants them. “It’s like painting with spices,” she said. “Resin has a very short time you can work with it before it completely hardens, so I have to move with intention.”

She rubs a bit of mica between her thumb and forefinger and adds it to each piece, like a pinch of sea salt, so it will refract light and illuminate the preserved spice.

Sprinkles – the kind that go on cupcakes or birthday cakes – are a best seller, and also one of the trickiest materials to handle. (“Those things bounce,” Herrick said.)  But she likes seeing her customers’ faces light up, whether they are 6 years old or 70, when they spy the tiny, colorful balls in a piece of jewelry.

“I don’t know if they’re having nostalgia,” Herrick said, “but I know those colors literally make people squeal.”

Merrymeeting Spiced Rum is a new spirit from Three of Strong Spirits in Portland. Photo by Meredith Goad

CHEERS
Three of Strong Spirits
35B Diamond Street, Portland
207-899-4930; threeofstrongspirits.com

Even the name says “Let’s party!” Three of Strong Spirits, a new craft rum distillery in Portland, introduced a spiced rum in November they call Merrymeeting, made by master distiller Graham Hamblett. Dave McConnell, co-owner of the distillery, assured me that Merrymeeting “is more than the industry standard vanilla/cinnamon/sugar bomb.”

“For a spiced rum also it’s quite dry, almost running toward an amaro as far as the flavor profile,” McConnell said.

He wasn’t kidding. On a recent chilly late Saturday afternoon, I sampled the rum at the distillery in a straight pour ($10) and in a “Mai Pai” cocktail ($11). Rather than relying too heavily on vanilla and cinnamon, the rum ($36.99 per bottle) really brings the heat, especially when consumed straight up. Warm flavors of ginger, orange peel and Szechuan peppercorn come through strong. The rum is lightly sweetened with organic raw sugar and beetroot.

It also mixes well. My Mai Pai was tart and citrusy, made with a dash of Falernum and topped with a slice of dried apple and a sprig of mint – a perfect, tropical antidote to Maine’s cold, snowy winters. Another Merrymeeting special offered the rum in a mulled cider ($10). McConnell says it’s also good in eggnog, and he plans to experiment with it in cranberry sauce.

Chocolats Passion is making chocolate yule logs filled with nougat or gianduja for the Christmas season. Winky Lewis Photography

FRENCH CHOCOLATES (NEED WE SAY MORE?)
Chocolats Passion
189 Brackett Street, Portland
207-536-0496; chocolatspassion.com

Christmas is the time of year many people like to indulge in good chocolate without (too much) guilt. West End chocolatier Catherine Wiersema makes it easy for you to tempt everyone on your gift list, offering boxes of four, nine, 15 and 16 chocolates, shaped in squares and hearts, and five-to-a-box critters, including chocolate frogs, butterflies and bunnies. Wiersema, a native of France, is trained in French chocolate-making techniques and makes regular trips to the Cacao Barry Chocolate Academy in Montreal to hone her skills.

For the holidays this year, Wiersema is making two chocolate yule logs filled with … decadence. The smaller log (a couple of ounces) sits in the middle of a holiday platter of 36 chocolates for $68 (a discount of 10 percent over buying the chocolates individually). Choose 72 percent dark chocolate or 41 percent milk chocolate for the shell, and then one of two fillings: citrus nougat or gianduja with hazelnut toffee. (Gianduja is an Italian hazelnut-and-milk-chocolate paste). Select the flavors for the 36 chocolates as well, choosing from ginger caramel, passion vanilla, pistachio raspberry, salted caramel and more.

The larger, 6-ounce Yule Log, filled with gianduja, costs $27 and is sold on its own. It’s large enough to slice into individual pieces so fights won’t break out over it at the Christmas party.

A 90-piece party tray, with the chocolates presented on a slate, costs $90. It cannot be shipped.

The shipping deadline is Dec. 17. If you’re extra busy this season, and don’t plan to ship but still need chocolates, Wiersema says you can order your chocolates ahead online and include a note saying you’d like to pick them up in person at the shop. Wiersema will refund shipping costs and have the chocolates ready and waiting for you.

This $30 box of holiday cookies will feed your friends and help fund local nonprofits. Photo courtesy of Katherine Slevin

SPREAD THE COOKIE LOVE
c.love cookie project
94 Washington Avenue, Portland
[email protected]; clovecookieproject.com

Send a little spirit of the season with your food gift this year. The c.love cookie project, which bakes out of the Root Cellar‘s commercial kitchen in Portland, donates 21 percent of its profits to three local organizations that help immigrants: Portland Adult Education, the Root Cellar, and Way of Life Mission. This year, the cookie project, created and run by Katherine Slevin, is offering a $30 holiday box that includes a baker’s dozen of hand-decorated (with royal icing and sprinkles) gingerbread, cookies she calls nutmeg dudes (like a snickerdoodle but with nutmeg), winter dope (a milk chocolate chip cookie with figs and pumpkin seeds) and a dark chocolate brownie with a mint ganache swirl. The box comes with a glittery, hand-embossed tag. Your friends will think you worked all day on it.

The last day for shipping before Christmas is Dec. 22. The last day for free pick-up is Dec. 23. Slevin will also deliver your cookies for a small fee.

The best/easiest way to order is on the website, Slevin says. But if you’d like to see (or sample) her cookies before you buy a whole box, Slevin will be at a few local holiday pop-ups: 5th Annual Holiday Bike Build, 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 12 at Oxbow Brewing, 49 Washington Avenue, Portland; Annual Holiday Sale, 4 to 8 p.m. Dec. 13 at Running with Scissors Art Studio, 250 Anderson Street, Portland; Maker’s Market at The Point, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Brick South, Thompson’s Point, Portland.

Wild Maine Blueberry fruit tea from Bar Harbor Tea Co. contains no caffeine. Photo courtesy of Bar Harbor Tea

WARD OFF THE WINTER CHILL

Nellie’s Tea
5 Industry Road, Suite 1A, South Portland
207-761-8041; nelliestea.com

Dobrá Tea
89 Exchange Street, Portland
207-210-6566; dobrateame.com

Bar Harbor Tea Co.
150 Main Street, Bar Harbor
207-288-8322; barharbortea.com

Homegrown Herb and Tea
195 Congress Street, Portland
207-774-3484; homegrownherbandtea.com

Whenever there’s someone on my list who is hard to buy for – they have everything they need, for example, or the things they want are not on my budget – I like giving the gift of tea, especially here in Maine. You can substitute coffee here, but I’ve found that serious coffee drinkers can be picky about what they let pass their lips. Tea is safer. Most people like to try different kinds, and no matter what flavor or blend it is, it will keep you warm.

Let’s start with one of my favorites, which isn’t really a tea at all. My mother loves tea, so one Christmas I gave her caffeine-free Wild Maine Blueberry loose fruit tea from Bar Harbor Tea Co. ($7.95 per pound) The company also makes blueberry green tea and blueberry black tea, but there is something special about the fruit tea, which also includes elderberries, currants, hibiscus and rosehips. The first sip transports you to summertime in Maine. It’s like drinking liquid blueberries. I fell in love with it myself, and the next time I visited my mother, she said my niece had gotten hooked on it, too. (So now I’m the blueberry tea trafficker, regularly shipping a new supply south.) It also tastes great in the summer over ice.

Recently, for a friend’s birthday, I wrapped up six sampler packs of loose tea from Nellie’s in South Portland – a black tea, a green tea and so on. Most packs (3 for $13) hold an ounce of tea, and an ounce makes 10 to 12 cups, according to Nellie’s owner Marianne Russo. “We like to let people taste teas, if we can, before they buy them,” she said. If you want to upgrade your gift, Nellie’s offers a wooden tea chest filled with tins of tea. You can choose the tea yourself (each box contains 9 to 12 ounces) or buy a pre-filled chest, starting at $55.

Another option at Nellie’s is to buy a gift card good for a tea party at the shop so you and your friends can pretend you’re the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex enjoying a spot of tea while the boys are out playing polo. The store offers two different services: Tiered afternoon tea includes scones, savories (sandwiches, tartlets, etc.) and several pastries and desserts – along with a bottomless cup of tea, of course ($23 per person). Luncheon tea service includes scones, soup or salad, dessert and bottomless tea ($18 per person). Russo also offers tea classes, which cover the history of tea, the basic types of tea, how tea is grown and processed and how to taste tea like a professional ($20 per person).

Dobrá Tea also offers gift certificates for its cozy, eclectic tea room in downtown Portland, or you can buy and ship a wide variety of teas directly from its website.

At Homegrown Herb and Tea – which looks like a neighborhood bar with mugs and teacups – find specially blended teas designed to calm you, stimulate you, knock out that cold, melt away that stress, or balance your dosha. Many of the shop’s regular teas start around $7 per 2 ounces of loose tea; specialty blends typically start at $12 to 14 for 2 ounces. The owner even has a line of teas for moms and kids, with names like Mama-to-Be-Tea, The Milky Way (to stimulate production of breast milk) and The Tooth Fairy (to ease kids’ tooth and gum pain).

A wine sail aboard a windjammer is one of the many tours offered by Wine Wise. Photo courtesy of Wine Wise

TAKE A TOUR 

Maine Foodie Tours
207-233-7485; mainefoodietours.com

Maine Food for Thought Tours
207-619-2075; mainefoodforthought.com

Wine Wise Tours
207-619-4630; winewiseevents.com

Maine Brew Bus Tours
79 Commercial Street, Portland (Old Port Spirits)
207-200-9111; themainebrewbus.com

Sure summer and fall are the obvious seasons for walking tours, but some companies run such tours year-round for people who don’t mind negotiating a little cold and snow. Maine Foodie Tours, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, runs its Old Port Culinary Walking Tour ($75.95 per person) all winter, for example, along with an Old Port Happy Hour Tour ($74.95) and a newer tour that covers restaurants, bakeries and other hot spots Bon Appétit magazine mentioned when it named Portland its 2018 Restaurant City of the Year. If the person on your gift list doesn’t require immediate gratification, try the Lunchtime Lobster Crawl (May-October) or, for pet owners, the $39 Doggy & Me tour (June-October) where dogs get their own treats because they are such good booooys. Or good guuurls. Gift certificates are available online.

Maine Food for Thought’s Land, Sea to Fork Tour takes customers on a $79 three-hour walking tour of the Old Port, stopping at several restaurants along the way for sampling. What makes this tour different is it’s not just about how much you can stuff in your face; it’s educational, teaching guests about Maine’s food system and how food gets from the land and sea to the dinner table. Gift certificates are available online.

If the person on your Christmas list is interested in wine, then try Wine Wise’s wine and food walks, which also run throughout the winter. Walks focus on a style of wine (pinot noir, for example, or cabernet sauvignon) and wine regions such as Italy, Spain or the Loire Valley. The company, owned by sommelier Erica Archer, also offers wine and oyster walks and bourbon and cocktail walks. If you’re buying a tour for a summer guest, consider getting them on board one of Wine Wise’s wine sails. The windjammer cruises generally run June through October. The walking tours start at $65; the sails start at $79, but most cost $85 and up. Gift certificates available online.

But if beer is your gift getter’s jam, the Maine Brew Bus offers a mug-full of tours that stop at breweries in Portland and other towns in southern Maine. Tours typically visit three to five breweries or distilleries and run three to five hours. In addition to straight drinking tours, such as Thirsty Thursday or Beerunch, the Maine Brew Bus offers combination tours that blend activities such as curling or bird watching with beer drinking. Most tours start at $70 per person. Gift certificates available online.


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