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Piquant Packages

[whitespace] mixing bowl
George Sakkestad

Bowl Game: Holli Adams of Chefworks displays a gourmet mixing bowl in all its reflecting glory.

When desperately seeking the perfect gifts, don't forget that everybody adores fine foods and culinary specialties

By Christina Waters

FOOD AND FRIENDS invariably fuse in the holiday archetypes that we've carried around since childhood. The scent of spices perfuming something warm from the oven, sparkling champagne by firelight, tables set with homemade favorites and a sense of being exactly where you always wanted to be. Even holidays that aren't printed by Hallmark or colorized by Steven Spielberg tend to bring out the need for time-honored flavors somehow directly linked with all the best memories.

Edible gifts go with the season.

My great-aunt Mariana always sent us a heavy foil-wrapped fruit cake this time of year. Even though we secretly hated that dense block of fruit and nuts, we still remember its incredibly rich and haunting aroma. One uncle always showed up on Dec. 24 with a tall foil bag filled with a bottle of French champagne. We thought he simply lacked imagination. But in fact it was a thoughtful luxury that delighted my parents.

Baking cookies and breads to give as gifts is as old as King David's psalms. At my house the best stocking stuffers include exotica like Szechuan peppercorns, vanilla beans, salt grinders, Moroccan olives, sun-dried tomatoes and always a big triangular bar of Swiss Toblerone chocolate.

GIVING A GIFT that tastes delicious is somehow more personal and loving than a silk tie or gift certificate. So here are a few tasty ideas for local culinary consumers that should impress even the most jaded chef/host on your list.

The Santa Cruz Mountains produce lovely handmade wines. Comb the shelves of your favorite wine shop and you'll find wonderful gifts. We love the luscious cassis from Bonny Doon Vineyard, as well as the 1996 Devlin Wine Cellars El Dorado County Zinfandel and Silver Mountain's 1996 Chardonnay, made from organically grown grapes. You can find your own favorites, but chances are any wine lover will be pleased with a decent ($10 and up) bottle of Merlot.

Jones & Bones, 621 Capitola Ave. in Capitola, carries enough condiments to consummate Christmas well into the next millennium. All the Stonewall Kitchen jellies and sauces are here, including an amazing new dressing of maple and passion fruit. Demerara sugar from the Caribbean is the sort of tony item that a tea lover might adore.

Big--very big--this year is the line of condiments and seasonings perfected by Restaurant Lulu. The San Francisco- based restaurant markets tall slender bottles filled with balsamic vinegars flavored with fig, blackberry or currant ($16-$18). Lulu's Roasted Tomato Sauce ($6.25) will make anyone a pasta genius. And the brand's White Truffle honey ($10) is simply decadent.

We especially loved pastel-hued Jelli cutting boards made of space-age plastics, as well as the Jones & Bones wall of barbecue sauces, marinades, salsas, chutneys and jerk seasonings. Go and stock up for everyone on your list. Or if you're lazy, just grab the Christmas tree-shaped gift box of 18 truffles from the house of Joseph Schmidt ($49.95) and impress a loved one with a sweet tooth.

YOU CAN FIND huge ceramic mixing bowls covered with polka-dot glazes ($58) from Terramoto or brass pepper grinders from Greece, with long, graceful handles ($44). Tuck a tiny ($5) mortar and pestle made from laboratory porcelain into a stocking. These and a thousand other culinary accouterments lie in wait at ID, 1515 Pacific Ave. in downtown Santa Cruz.

A visit to a kitchen store like Chefworks, 1527 Pacific Ave., turns up gifts like the Republic of Tea jams--the Ginger Peach Tea and Blackberry Sage Tea are both exquisite. Bodum makes neo-moderne pots and kettles of gleaming stainless steel--tea drinkers will adore tiny glass individual pots ($20).

From Aloha come jellies with sexy flavors like apricot pepper, pomegranate pepper, even habañero chile, pretty as shimmering jewels. Wine Country Kitchens makes more splendid vinegars, gorgeously packaged with pouring spouts ($11-$19) in provocative flavors like mango chile and sesame ginger. The craze for flavored oils and vinegars shows absolutely no signs of waning, so you have to be in a coma not to find these babies.

If you have a serious, industrially committed chef on your list, consider something important like a professional-grade knife.

We're also mad about the beautiful wicker picnic hampers from Picnic Time. Lined with red tartan cotton and made of sturdy woven bamboo, the Sandringham model ($90) comes ready for alfresco dining romance with wine glasses, corkscrew, stainless-steel utensils, cotton napkins, melamine dinner plates, even a plastic food container--for two, of course.

Remember, all real foodies are hopelessly devoted to Saveur, the quintessential culinary magazine. Call 800/462-0209 to order a gift subscription. Chances are you'll be invited to dinner more than once. In the immortal words of St. Nick--feliz Navidad, happy Chanukah, and bon appetit!

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From the November 19-24, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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