The season of giving and receiving has descended upon us again, with Christmas, Hanukkah, hostess gifts, and thank-you tokens all requiring rumination, choices, and purchases. There aren’t many gift options that can be considered universal, but food is nearly always a welcome present. Even the hard-to-buy-for must eat, and even picky eaters appreciate a jar of jam or a chocolate bar.
Where can we find gift-worthy groceries? Last December’s review of the Farmers Market listed many local purveyors of specialty foods, and additional vendors have shown up this year. Obviously we could put a bow on most anything we might pick up at Morgan and York or the Zingerman’s outlets. A bottle of wine or a six-pack of artisan beer is also a self-evident choice. And don’t forget that TJ Maxx and HomeGoods have shelves devoted to weird and wacky luxury foodstuffs at clearance prices, making indulgence more affordable. Here, though, I’ve concentrated on grocery stores and local markets, scouring the shelves for the hidden and the obvious, looking for gifts that would please serious cooks and indulgent consumers.
Invited to spend the New Year’s weekend up north skiing, you couldn’t bring your hostess a better gift than a side of Durham’s Tracklements’ excellent Highland Smoked Salmon ($28/lb.), a small loaf of beautifully seasoned Pate de Campagne (also $28/lb.), or a slab of Farmhouse-style Bacon ($14/lb.). For the busy holiday season, the Kerrytown smokery reduces its offerings to better keep up with demand, but you can also select from smoked scallops, sable, and duck breast. In all cases, it’s best to order ahead to assure availability.
My family would be delighted with Monahan’s Seafood Market’s smoked mussels ($19.95/lb.) or the pickled herring, creamy or not ($13.95/lb.), that far outshines any jarred variety. For the holidays Mike Monahan usually brings in caviar, so for a gift meant to impress, you could order a jar of California white sturgeon roe ($100/oz.).
Whenever I travel abroad, I shop markets and grocery stores for local staples that typify the country’s food culture–dried beans and grains, honey and condiments, chiles and spices. Michigan is a leading producer of dried beans, and if you’re trying to put together a state basket, include the beautiful Carlson-Arbogast Farm beans carried by Sparrow Market–navy, yellow-eye, cranberry, black cannelloni, and others ($2.99-$3.49/2 lbs.).
Upstairs at Kerrytown are two shops chock full of potential gifts. Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars is an entire shop devoted to these two condiments. In their tasting room you can sample an array of varietal and infused olive oils, nut oils, and straight and flavored balsamic vinegars ($14.95-$34.95/375 ml). Their sage-and-wild-mushroom oil would be a lovely seasonal drizzle over roasted squash or Brussels sprouts.
Down the hall, Spice Merchants sells a multitude of interesting options besides teas and coffees. For adding quick but dazzling flavor, the store stocks dozens of spice blends, rubs, and seasonings for seafood, meats, and vegetables, like pork jerk or coffee barbecue ($2.89-$6.29/oz.). Specialty salts are trendy now, and the store offers several regional and infused examples, from pink Hawaiian to black smoked to Fleur de Sel ($1.79-$4.29/oz.). Bakers might appreciate a sampling of sugars infused with tangerine, vanilla bean, or cocoa ($2.29/oz.). And disks of Taza Mexican-style chocolate, plain or infused with cinnamon or chiles, wrapped in arrestingly designed paper ($5.95), would make perfect stocking stuffers.
Serious popcorn lovers like my mother don’t consider the treat a snack but a meal, so they look for fresh, flavorful kernels. The tiny store Replenish on East University carries locally grown Bur Oaks red ($2.99/lb.), as well as the same farm’s Rabble Roasters ($2.99/7 oz.), roasted soybean nuggets in a variety of flavors. The store also carries imported lavender honey ($3.99/7 oz.), an item I’ve had trouble finding elsewhere in Ann Arbor.
If your recipient is really a honey lover, though, drive over to Arbor Farms, which must carry the town’s largest selection. Although I didn’t see lavender honey, they do have exotic options from New Zealand ($6.79-$8.99/500g); organic ones from Italy ($9.49/400g) and the Himalayas ($8.79/12 oz.); Tupelo honey from down south ($9.99/16 oz.); and honey creme, plain and flavored, from northern Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Farm ($4.99-$5.99/8 oz.). Arbor Farms also has the biggest selection of chocolate bars, locally made and otherwise, and of local Al Dente pastas ($3.59-$4.59/10 oz.). More Michigan-made products include Food for Thought organic preserves, with intriguing blends of fruit and wine ($5.99-$7.49/9.5 oz.); Keweenaw Kitchen’s jams ($4.99/10 oz.); Sleeping Bear Farm’s honey mustards ($2.99/6.5 oz.); and Detroit Spice Company’s handsome tins of spice seasonings–steak, Greektown, jerk, and Mexicantown ($5.99/2 oz.).
While wine and beer are obvious gift choices, artisan sodas for teetotalers or kids are less so, and the Produce Station on S. State has a wide variety. If you’re still craving local, Grass Lake’s McAtee Organic Farm’s artesian spring water ($3.99/750 ml) comes packaged like wine, while Ayala’s herbal waters ($6.99/4-pk.) offer surprising combinations like lemongrass-mint-vanilla or cinnamon-orange peel. The Produce Station also carries Gus sodas with jazzy fresh fruit flavors ($4.99/ 4-pk.) and Boylan vintage soda pops ($5.99/4-pk.), made with natural ingredients. Ginger beer must have a serious following, because the store stocks three different brands, as well as the delicious Sprecher root beer ($6.99/4-pk.). (Most of these are available at other stores as well.) You can also pick up house-brand jams, preserves, butters, and marmalades, including F.R.O.G. (fig-raspberry-orange-ginger) jam ($5.99/13 oz. or $6.99/16 oz.), or imported Italian saba ($24.99/250 ml), a luxurious syrup made from grape must, used in dressings and sauces or drizzled over cheese.
Ethnic markets, of course, feature many items that might interest a devotee of the cuisine, but an extravagance that would thrill most anyone is a box of the moist, melt-in-the-mouth dates that many Middle Eastern stores carry, particularly in the winter. The fruit moves quickly through these stores, so it’s always fresh and completely unlike those hard nuggets in many bulk bins. The Mediterranean Market at Ellsworth and Stone School carries boxes of medjool dates from California ($24.99/5 lbs. or $49.99/11 lbs.).
Cookies are a part of many Christmas celebrations, and Decadent Delight on W. Huron bakes individual gingerbread “people” and other decorated figures ($1.50-$7/ea.). They also stack sugar cookies into gaily designed tins ($39). You could astound Francophiles with a small or large buche de Noel ($35/$70) or croquembouche ($20/$90), a tower of custard-filled profiteroles drizzled with caramel. Don’t delay in ordering these desserts, however, because the bakery needs notice.
I find Trader Joe’s on E. Stadium an odd store, but it does carry a number of gift possibilities. For non-alcohol drinkers who still might want something bubbly and elegant, pick up Villa Italia grapefruit or blood orange soda ($2.99/L) or French Market sparkling limeade or berry lemonade ($2.99/L). Nuts and more nuts, imaginatively flavored and plain, at great prices, line the opposite side of the aisle. Attractive packaging isn’t always Trader Joe’s strong suit, but for that rare and exclusive club of black licorice lovers, the store offers a range of choices, including Panda’s all-natural ($2.49/7 oz.). More universally appealing candy selections include all-natural fruit jellies ($3.99/16 oz.), chocolate orange sticks ($3.99/18 oz.), chocolate-covered jelly sticks ($3.99/18 oz.), and chocolate-covered toffee popcorn ($2.99/8 oz.). Salt-and-sugar addicts may want to try chocolate-covered potato chips ($2.99/6.5 oz.). The Trader Joe’s present I would most appreciate is one of their seasoning mixes or exotic salts packaged in ready-to-use grinders ($1.99-$2.29).
The two Whole Foods stores, on Eisenhower and on Washtenaw, are much like Zingerman’s or Morgan and York–what’s there that a food lover wouldn’t want to try? Some less obvious choices include winning bottles of cocktail mixers put out by Stirrings. The company uses real ingredients, so all you need to add is the prescribed alcohol to produce reasonable cocktails with reasonable ease. Options include mojito, margarita, cosmopolitan, and other exotics ($6.99/L). They also carry Detroit-based McClure’s Bloody Mary mix ($8.99/30 oz.), which I bet is as good as their pickles ($9.99/32 oz.). Whole Foods must stock dozens of barbecue and hot sauces and mustards, but my condiments of choice would be Busha Browne’s jerk rub ($3.69/4 oz.) or sauce ($5.99/5 oz.), which, though terrifically hot, are so powerfully intense and delicious that they transform grilled chicken or pork. Whole Foods also carries Rick’s Picks, cunningly named and spiced jars of pickled vegetables like Phat Beets and Windy City Wasabeans ($7.99-$9.99/15 oz.), and the Artisan Salt Co. line, captivating bottles of flavored, smoked, and regional salts ($11.99-$20.99/9 oz.). If cheese is the centerpiece of your gift basket, you might include a wedge of dense fig-almond cake ($13.99/lb.) or a plum-walnut log ($7.99/6.35 oz.).
Plum Market in Maple Village has many edible gift possibilities, including Raincoast Crisps, fruit-and-nut toasts that might complete your cheese basket. The seasonal pick would be cranberry and hazelnut ($7.99/6 oz.) in a handsome gray-and-rose box. A cracker Plum Market may carry exclusively is the Fine Cheese Co. line from England, inventively seasoned crisps in wonderfully designed boxes that suggest the best accompanying cheese ($4.99/5.3 oz.). The store also stocks the best variety of nuts and snack mixes from Detroit’s Germack Pistachio Co., all in one- and three-pound bags, and loads a display table with pies from Achatz Handmade Pie Company ($13.99/8 in. or $18.99/10 in.). (Achatz has just opened its own local store; See Marketplace Changes, p. 49.)
Even ignoring the obvious, this list is just a snippet of the possibilities for edible gifts that can be bought in Ann Arbor. My notebook catalogs many more ideas, and not one on this long list–well, save the black licorice–would I not be thrilled to give or to receive.