Nothing saps the joy out of the holiday season like gift-giver's anxiety. And some of the most annoying people to shop for are finicky foodies — you know the type, with their autographed French Laundry menus, refusal to set foot in a regular supermarket, and penchant for peddling unsolicited cooking advice. (Full disclosure: Certain significant others have described me, not unfairly, as just such a tool.)
Of course, not all edible gifts are created equal. Because friends see me, for better or worse, as "the food guy," over the years I've received my share of dull cheese baskets and boxes of vacuum-sealed smoked salmon from airport duty-free shops. (Yes, life is hard.)
Luckily, the Bay Area is home to artisans of every imaginable food genre. Here are just a few delicious gifts that are sure to please this holiday season, whether you're looking for stocking stuffers or just don't want to show up empty-handed when the boss's end-of-year party rolls around.
Spice Sets from Oaktown Spice Shop, $25-$35.
For the serious home cook, high-quality spices are a secret weapon — an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. What better gift, then, than one of the dozen or so themed spice sets available at Oaktown Spice Shop? There's a self-explanatory "Hot and Spicy" set; there's "A Taste of North Africa" for anyone who wants to dabble in Moroccan tagines. Or, for more conservative cooks, consider the "Rollicking Rubs" (to put on a steak before slapping it on the grill) or the holiday set, with mulling spices and pumpkin pie spice. Owner John Beaver sources spices from all over the world and grinds them down in small batches frequently — the key, he says, is the freshness. Each set of four bottles is priced between $25 and $35 and comes in an attractive gift box.
Oaktown Spice Shop, 530 Grand Ave., Oakland, 510-201-5400, OaktownSpiceShop.com
East Bay Urban Bees' "Camino" Honey, $15.
One taste of East Bay Urban Bees' locally harvested honey and you'll never want to go back to the cloying commercial honeys sold at most grocery stores. The company's "Camino" varietal is notable for its lush, creamy texture and seriously intense flavor — sweet, yes, but also floral and as complex as fine wine. Harvested from a hive on the rooftop of Oakland's Camino (whose owners, for their troubles, get a cut of the honey to use at the restaurant), the honey is a point of pride for Betsy Belding and Miguel Rivas, two hobbyist beekeepers who founded East Bay Urban Bees earlier this year. From now through the end of the holiday season, Umami Mart will be the only retail shop carrying the Camino. It isn't inexpensive, at $15 a jar, but a small spoonful goes a long way.
CommonWealth Pickles, $10-$20.
Since it opened last year, Piper and John General Goods has been the exclusive retail vendor for the pickles served at CommonWealth Cafe and Public House, but — just in time for the holidays — the shop has now launched a new line of pickles jarred by type: just beets or sweet peppers or baby carrots — bright reds and yellows and oranges, almost too pretty to eat. Of course you, or your lucky gift recipient, certainly should eat them, especially if you like your pickles vinegary and bracing — a bright hit of acid.
Piper and John General Goods, 469 9th St., Oakland, 415-509-6791, PiperandJohn.blogspot.com
Oaktown Jerk Beef Jerky, $6 for 2 oz., $48 for 1 lb.
For the mountain man (or mountain woman) in your life, there's no better gift than the gift of jerky — especially Oaktown Jerk's excellent beef jerky, available at the Friday Old Oakland farmers' market and online through the business's website. Owner Randall Hughes' jerkies are made from grass-fed Piedmontese beef and have a nice meaty bite to them (unlike the many approximations of shoe leather out there on the market). I love the classic Hickory Smoke, but my favorite is the spicy Thai Basil with its many layers of flavor: basil, fish sauce, a hint of sweetness, and enough Thai chile seeds to pack serious heat. For the holidays, Hughes will offer special taster bags that will include small portions of several different varieties.
Oaktown Jerk, 510-504-2251, OaktownJerk.com
Subscription to INNA Jam, $66-$264, plus delivery/shipping.
The Bay Area has no shortage of locally-produced jams, but I've long admired INNA Jam products for their elegant simplicity — owner Dafna Kory makes each one from a single varietal of peak-season fruit and (not too much) sugar, nothing else added. A jar of jam makes a great host/hostess gift, but for the holidays, consider giving an entire jam subscription — six or twelve (or 24!) seasonal jams, delivered (by bicycle, if you're within range) in three shipments over the course of the year. The best part about the subscriptions — besides, you know, the abundance of jam — is that they include limited-edition jams that aren't readily available in stores: a black mission fig jam, say, or an Ouichita blackberry jam that Kory says tastes "all foresty," like the wild blackberries you might find in the woods.
INNA Jam, 1307 61st St., Emeryville, 510-214-6620, INNAJam.com
A Salumi Society Subscription from Boccalone, $198 (three months)-$696 (one year).
While we're on the topic of subscriptions, a membership to Boccalone's Salumi Society would make an appropriately pork-centric gift for red-blooded carnivores and home cooks ambitious enough to figure out what to do with, say, a pound of guanciale (hint: make pasta). At $58 to $66 every month for a three-, six-, or twelve-month period, this is a gift for ballers and diehards — but as someone who's received a gift subscription, I can attest to the sheer awesomeness of having a mystery cooler full of "Tasty Salted Pig Parts" show up at my doorstep every month. One-time gift packages are available if a subscription is too rich for your blood.
Boccalone, 1924 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-261-8700, Boccalone.com
Amphora Nueva Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $7-$18.
Amphora Nueva is an olive oil shop for science geeks, where in addition to a description of each oil's flavor, you'll also find a listing of its polyphenol content (the antioxidants that make extra virgin olive oil healthy and give robust varietals their characteristic pepperiness) and — perhaps most importantly — the date the olives were crushed. If you're into olive oil you've probably heard of olio nuovo — oil that's bottled right after the olives are harvested and pressed, when it's at its freshest. Amphora Nueva is unique in that it always features oils pressed in whatever part of the world has harvested most recently — South America, during a recent visit. The first crop of oils from California and Europe will arrive just in time for the holidays. Go to the shop and sample some oils and balsamic vinegars for yourself; they've got dozens on tap, and — perhaps most revolutionary of all — they're all priced the same, too, with $7-, $12-, and $18 bottle sizes available.
Amphora Nueva, 2928 Domingo Ave., Berkeley, 510-704-9300, AmphoraNueva.com
Chocolates from Chocolatier Blue, $35 for a thirty-piece box.
I won't be the first or last person to describe Chocolatier Blue's chocolate truffles as gleaming, intricate jewels, but the point remains — these confections are as beautiful as they are delicious. The current collection of seasonal chocolates is filled with holiday-themed flavors: pumpkin, candy cane, spiked eggnog, and more. Chris Blue, the man behind the chocolates, said his personal favorite is the caramelized sweet potato casserole flavor, inspired by childhood Christmas memories of an aunt who couldn't cook very well and would always scorch her yams. For the holidays, Blue will have a thirty-piece box special for $35 — a steal, quite frankly, considering the quality.
Chocolatier Blue, 1964 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-705-8800, ChocolatierBlue.com; 1809 Fourth St., Berkeley, 510-665-9500
Stollen from Gaumenkitzel, price TBA.
Finally, 'tis the season for Christmas cakes in the European tradition. One of the best is the bread-like, sugar-dusted cake known as Stollen — especially as prepared by Gaumenkitzel chef Anja Voth. This year Voth will make three different versions, in one- and two-pound sizes: the traditional "Dredsmer" style (fragrant with almonds, raisins, and citrus zest), plus a rolled-up version with a nut filling and one with a crunchy poppy-seed filling. As of this printing, Voth hadn't decided on pricing yet, but last year's Dredsmer-style stollen was $6.50 for a one-pound loaf that was big enough for three or four people to share — Voth recommends slicing it up and serving it with butter.
Gaumenkitzel, 2121 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, 510-647-5016, Gaumenkitzel.net
Bûche de Noël from La Bedaine, $18, $20.
I'd be remiss not to mention what is perhaps the most well-known holiday cake of them all: the Bûche de Noël (or "Yule log"). Nothing says Christmas time like a cute diorama of a snow-covered log, and that's basically what this is — in edible form. Better than edible, the Bûche de Noël that chef Alain Delangle makes at La Bedaine is delicious, rich with buttercream, and available in three flavors: coffee ($18), chocolate ($20), and — my favorite — gianduja (chocolate hazelnut, $20). Delangle said the cakes should be available between December 21 and 27, but it's best to call ahead.
La Bedaine, 1585 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-559-8201, LaBedaine.com