When I was a kid in the 1980s, my Christmas shopping consisted of being dropped off at an abandoned anchor shop in the local mall. Inside, a couple of local shops had set up a plywood and tinsel “Kiddie Holiday Market” where local teenagers were efficiently separated from their pocket money and babysitting money.
But I could never find the right gift among the prepackaged offers, most of which contained gaudy ties and bottles of nostril-tearing perfume. I went upset and bought everyone on my list from Hickory Farms (where I could also gobble free samples while shopping). Summer sausage for my mother, wax-wrapped cheese for my father, and a handful of strawberry-filled candies for my sister. Unexpectedly, my gifts were a hit, and since then I’ve maintained the tradition of sharing edible gifts whenever possible.
This year, my intention is to share the taste of Maine with family and friends around the world. In 2021, this will be an easier task than ever, especially given the growing popularity of easy-to-navigate mail-order aggregators like Goldbelly, as well as inexpensive e-commerce technology that allows small, independent producers to ship their goodies almost anywhere.
Here are my ten local favorites for that special, non-local recipient on your list.
Fresh Maine Lobster Pot Pie Kit with Ramekins from The Kennebunk Inn (2 pot pies plus 2 Le Creuset casserole cases, $ 149), Goldbelly.com
Academe restaurant co-owners Brian and Shanna O’Hea won the marketing lottery in February 2013 when editor Gayle King (yes, this Gayle) selected her puff pastry lobster pot cake as a favorite in her “World After Gayle” In order not to be outdone, Oprah Winfrey himself followed suit in October, presenting the couple’s truffle oil lobster pizza as one of their year-end mailing tips for “O” Magazine.
I can take or leave truffle oil (mostly leave), but on this point I’m with Gayle: O’Heas’ lobster pot pies are a deconstructed indulgence, with each laminated pastry square being designed to bake and place on top of any generous portion . Think of these as individual pots of creamy lobster stew served with a buttery cracker. And while they’re certainly on the expensive side of my gift list, these pot pies come with extremely high quality Le Creuset stoneware molds that will remind your recipient of you (and your generosity) every time they make a creme brûlee.
Pear and Champagne Truffles from Ragged Coast Chocolates in Westbrook (4-pack for $ 15), raggedcoastchocolates.com
Since Kate and Steve Shaffer’s small-batch chocolate company moved from Isle au Haut to Westbrook six years ago, their business has transformed from a quaint coffee shop to a quiet powerhouse. The company formerly known as Black Dinah Chocolatiers has expanded its cocoa-covered footprint so much that a friend from England recently emailed me to request a box of their chocolates the next time I visit.
Since international travel is still in question, I plan to send her a four-pack of Kate Shaffer’s limited-edition winter truffles: ganache balls with local pear filling made of milk chocolate, coated in biting, bittersweet, single-origin dark chocolate. Styled to resemble the fruit they flavor, these truffles are almost too pretty to eat – emphasis on “almost”.
Belly Dancer oysters from Mook Sea Farm in Damariscotta ($ 49 for 30 or $ 79 for 50), Goldbelly.com
Spend an hour in Maine in the summer and you’ll spot at least one tourist walking around with a box with a bright red crustacean emblem on it. Nowadays, moving live lobsters across state lines has become a breeze. Have you ever tried it with oysters? Bill Mook did.
His Mook’s Sea Farm is one of the largest oyster producers in the state, whose environmentally conscious aquaculture operation introduced the country to “Mookie Blues” and “Moondancers” through wholesale partners.
It was only a matter of time before they began mass marketing their mollusks. If you’re shopping for gifts for someone who loves an oyster with a long, sweet finish, Mook’s Belly Dancers are an excellent choice. And with over four dozen Goldbelly-exclusive oysters for $ 80 and free shipping to New England, this Christmas present is a real bargain. You might even still have enough money for a fancy paring knife … or a second box of oysters for yourself.
Evan’s Rockin ‘Hot Sauce from Portland ($ 8 / bottle), evansrockins.com
Do you know what tastes great about oysters? Something sharp. Even better if it’s locally sourced, like Evan’s Rockin ‘Hot Sauce from founder and sauce master Evan Smith’s Pleasure Hill Provisions. When he’s not playing the saxophone with Taylor Swift or recording music with producer Jack Antonoff (Bleachers, Lorde, Lana Del Ray), Smith can be found in his canteen in the Fork Food Lab in Portland.
There he produces his company’s only product, starting with the usual hot sauce suspects: vinegar, Fresno and Habañero chillies, garlic and ginger. But here’s an unexpected key change – instead of tomatoes or sugar, Smith adds bananas for the sweetness. It’s not as strange as you might think. The savory-sweet Filipino ketchup does the same, relying on bananas rather than tomatoes for most of its sugar content. The substitution leaves no trace of banana aromas or flavors, but it does a wonderful job of softening the spice, which was Smith’s goal: “I’m not trying to book a spot on ‘Hot Ones’ or win any prizes for most of the tears,” he said me. “I looked at the top brands of hot sauces and found something was missing. The ripe banana is natural and prevents the sauce from getting too overwhelming.”
Vegan Spicy ‘Nog Whoopie Pies from Baristas + Bites in Portland (12-pack, $ 69) Goldbelly.com
At a Christmas party a few years ago, I met a vegan guest who masters the hidden dangers on our host’s table. What, I wondered, was she missing the most? Spiral cut ham? Sharp Stilton discs? “Oh, that’s very simple: eggnog,” she told me and took an extra deep breath while I dipped a ladle into a punch with nutmeg sprinkled nog.
My guess is that she would have loved the similarly flavored whoopies from Barista + Bites. These cream-filled small cakes, which are shaped less like flying saucers and more like hearts, are based on coconut and soy milk for richness and an extra helping of cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg for their nostalgic, nostalgic tingling sensation. A dozen of those whoopies don’t last through New Years Eve.
Maine’s Own Treats Blueberry Jam from Trenton ($ 4 for a 10 oz. Glass) shop.mainesowntreats.com
I guess I bought a couple of jars of blueberry jam from the gift shop at Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park. After a lazy July afternoon full of snacks and admiring the mountain scenery of Mount Desert Island, I needed a souvenir. Then, a few weeks ago, I realized that the familiar looking jams that I kept seeing advertised online by Maine’s Own Treats were actually the same “official wild blueberry jam from the gift shops in Acadia National Park, including the Jordan Pond House,” so the website of the company Trenton. Each jar contains more than two dry pints of locally harvested low-bush fruit. Popovers, tea, and bubble views are sold separately.
Maine Wild Blueberry Pie from Two Fat Cats Bakery in Portland ($ 59) goldbelly.com
Speaking of wild blueberries, here’s a classic that travels well: a 9-inch tart with sugar sprinkles from Two Fat Cats Bakery. In addition to tart, bursting berries in a butter and shortening crust, owner Stacy Begin’s recipe contains a touch of warm spices and lemon juice to offset the sweetness of the cake. If cake alone isn’t enough, I like to combine it with one three month roasting subscription to Deer Isle’s 44 North Coffee ($ 99 for two 12-ounce bags per month) 44northcoffee.com.
Crunchy Peppermint Yule Log from Chocolats Passion in Portland ($ 22 small / $ 48 large) at chocolatspassion.com
My favorite French holiday tradition is the Bûche de Noël (Yule Log), a rolled chocolate sponge cake filled with cream and decorated like a branch. One disadvantage of the classic Christmas celebration is that it just doesn’t hold up well. Eat the whole cake the first night or wake up to a liquid filling and a stale biscuit. A more durable option is the compact chocolate version of Chocolats Passion. I am a particular fan of the little jars made of 72% dark chocolate, coated with crispy, creamy peppermint ganache and decorated with happy sprinkles of pure gestural abstraction.
Giant chocolate hunting boot from Wilbur’s of Maine Chocolate Confections in Freeport ($ 39 for a 1½ pound chocolate) goldbelly.com
If artfully tricked chocolates are too impressionistic for you, Wilbur’s of Maine can help with a more visual symbol of Maine life. A miniature sculpture (if you can call an 18-ounce confection “miniature”), this dark white chocolate novelty is sculpted and hand painted to look like the famous LL-Bean boot. Who would want a giant block of solid chocolate in the shape of a shoe? If the guests of a recent dinner party I attended are any reference, the answer is anyone with a sweet tooth and an Instagram account.
Andrew Ross has written about food and eating in New York and the UK. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and the New York Times. He is the recipient of five Maine Press Association Critic’s Awards. Contact him at: [email protected]
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