Stockings, Stuffed

A foodie's guide to last-minute gifts to make your chowhound smile

 

France 44

Are you just dying to put something, anything, in Dad's stocking that he'll legitimately get a kick out of? Oh, I know you are. If so, here's a hot tip: In the basement showroom of France 44 they have a whole selection of small, 50-milliliter vintage Armagnac bottles, from Dupeyron, in just about every vintage year since 1929. The bottles cost between $10 and $36, but, you know how it goes: The look on his face when he sees that vintage 1941 bottle? France 44's liquor store also has the largest selection of half-bottles of fun grappas, brandies, dessert wines, and liqueurs that I know of: I picked up a 375 milliliter bottle of French 100 percent black currant cassis liqueur, from Mathilde, for $11, so I can make Kir Royales on Christmas Eve, and I couldn't help noticing that the slim bottle is just crying out for a home in someone's stocking. If Kir Royales aren't your bag, there were a ton of American Clear Creek Distillery eaux-de-vie, Italian liqueurs, and the works.

Serious holiday cheer: Regina's Fine Candies
Jana Freiband
Serious holiday cheer: Regina's Fine Candies

Meanwhile, in the cheese shop, France 44 was well stocked with my favorite product of the year, Ames Farm honey, in both the limited edition buckwheat ($8, which, as I said a few months ago, tastes like an afternoon in an old library, all gingerbread, port, currants, leather, tobacco, and wood smoke) or as two flavors of honeycomb boxes, a little square of which really puts the ka-pow! in your cheese plate.

If you've got an ambitious cook on your holiday list, France 44 has a bunch of the secret ingredients that local restaurant chefs use to punch up their plates: For $4 you can get a box of Maldon sea-salt flakes, which make a simple salad stand up and crunch, and which Adrienne Odom at Solera uses to make warm chocolate stand up and fascinate. For another $4 you can pick up a box of El Rey de la Vera Spanish smoked paprika, which chefs such as Steven Brown at Levain and Doug Flicker at Auriga have used to turn tomato dishes subtle and evocative. For $10 you can get a bottle of the 2004 harvest Tunisian olive oil from Moulins Mahjoub. This olive oil is a favorite of lots of local chefs for its decent price and green, herbal, almost sage-touched freshness. (Look for the green bottle with an olive-green label and little ring on the neck of the bottle reading "2004"; with olive oil, fresher is better, and this is the first 2004 I've seen around here.)

Finally, if you don't have a big holiday present for the food person on your list, how about a wine class? A four-part series covering Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, and Grenache costs $100, or you can take any of those classes individually for $30. I've done a few of these myself over the years, and they're terrifically helpful.
(Check out the class schedule and more on FRANCE 44's website:www.france44.com; 4351 France Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.925.3252.)

 

Surdyk's

Of course, Surdyk's has long been Minnesota's major player in the cheese-and-other-public-pleasures category, and this year is no exception. In the cheese shop, they are carrying a wide range of gifts for the ambitious cook, like truffle things at every price level, including $16 truffle oil, $30 truffle oil, a beautiful little bottle holding two brined truffles for $60, and, as of press time, plans on receiving perhaps as many as half a dozen fresh truffles, which will likely cost about $60 each and will be sold to those smart enough to call ahead or lucky enough to blunder in the day they arrive. Surdyk's also has South Dakota smoked pheasants, at $6 a pound, or around $10 each, and the biggest selection of D'Artagnan terrine and foie gras things in town, including, new this year, six-ounce logs of duck foie gras studded with black truffle, for $16.99. Do you have a sweetie with expensive tastes who doesn't get to go out to dinner as much as she'd like? I say you could make a lifelong impression by planning a Christmas-vicinity picnic of this duck foie gras, some bread or crackers, an apple, a little box of chocolate truffles, and a bottle of Champagne--and, please note, those dragging the sunshine of their lives out to a farm in the Dakotas for the holidays can consider this less of a suggestion and more of an order.

But which chocolate truffles to pack? Glad you asked: B.T. McElrath, a longtime favorite of mine, has just lowered prices and started individually packaging some of his most famous truffles. For $5.99 you can get his Zinfandel-balsamic vinegar truffles, which I liken to tasting a rainbow, at midnight, in midsummer. How I love them. Surdyk's also has a number of cheeses that are especially wonderful at Christmastime. I am thinking here mainly of the French soft cheeses made with the last outside-grazing milk of summer: Look for Camembert, Rouzaire Brie, Epoisses, or St. Felicien.

Of course, if you've still got a big gift to buy, Surdyk's also has plenty of wine courses, which are described on their website: www.surdyks.com. In addition to the intro series, there are fun specialty classes, like the wines of Argentina class, or the sake seminar. Most classes are in the $30 to $40 range. Finally, stocking-stuffer-wise, Surdyk's has lots of sexy little half-bottles of Champagne and other treats. I think the Sandeman's half-bottle of port for $10 is a great choice for grown-up stockings.

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