What's more fun than a barrel of monkeys? Clearly nothing, or the culture would have replaced that particular weird phrase by now, right? To test this hypothesis, I recently had a rather large barrel of monkeys installed in my home office, so that I might finally, really start living. Take that, Zelda Fitzgerald, I muttered, using my crowbar to pop the top of said barrel. I'll show you I don't spend my whole life reinstalling the printer software. I'll show you a life of fun. I'll show you an earthly bacchanal. Yet, mere seconds after the lid from my barrel of monkeys clattered to the floor, a hamadryas baboon threw a pygmy marmoset at my head, a cotton-top tamarin set about ripping the pages out of my Oxford Companion to Wine, and a pigtailed macaque was using my already-touchy home copy machine to Xerox his own feces. Needless to say, I haven't been home since, and have been using the intervening days to search for the very best stocking stuffers for the difficult-to-impress grown-ups on your list.
Regina's Fine Candies
One for the file titled, "Where have you been all my life, oh, I see, right here on this very same corner," Regina's Candies has been making absolutely gorgeous handmade candies since the 1920s. They have all those foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas trees, Santas, toy cars, and toy saws you remember from your childhood--I'll confess, the sight of a few of these had me nearly in tears--as well as delicious homemade, super-old-fashioned chocolates like chocolate-dipped candied orange peel; buttery, delightful peanut brittle; and hand-pulled candy canes that look like they're made of Venetian glass. If you have a grandma, this place is chockablock with the timeless treats that will bring tears to her eyes--citrus slices, sour balls, almond bark, and the like. And I'm telling you, if you don't make it your business to delight her this year, will you get the chance next year? Okay, I know, but what is a Midwestern Christmas without a little guilt? And trust me, you'd rather have me nagging you today than mom coming at you on Boxing Day. They also have a bunch of sugar-free candies; at Regina's (rhymes with Christina) you can make all of the people happy all of the time.
If you've got an interior decorator or other artsy type on your list, be sure to pick them up one of Regina's jewel-bright handmade ribbon candies, which come in gorgeous blues, greens, reds, whites, and stripes. If you're not familiar with ribbon candies, they're hand-pulled zigzags of sugar that look like ribbons, and their chief virtue is that they make any Christmas table look like the most impressive Martha photo shoot imaginable, but at $9.95 a pound, cost about half what the ones in the Williams-Sonoma catalog run. And the blue and white ones are anise-flavored. Anise! That just kills me; it hearkens back to a day when candies had flavors like clove, anise, and violet, not Bubbleberry Apple Slime.
Charmingly, the shop itself has the old-fashioned feel of the 1920s, just glass and wood cases brimming with chocolates, and little baskets brimming with candies. Walk in the door and you get more of a real Christmas feel than you will in a month of eggnog parties.
(REGINA'S FINE CANDIES; 2073 St. Clair, St. Paul, 651.698.8603)
You know what no one ever talks about? The fact that Minneapolis-St. Paul has more architects, aesthetic philosophers, art designers, packaging whizzes, graphic geniuses, and proponents of visual refinement than anywhere else on earth. Where did I get this statistic? Well, I made it up, but you know, still, I think it's true. And if you hold dear one of those local members of the visual vanguard, I think you could knock their socks off with a trip to Kiev Foods, an Eastern European import market that stocks some of the most beautifully wrapped candies you'll ever hope to see. For instance, I now have in my possession chocolates wrapped in stoplight-yellow paper printed with a black and white swooping constructivist sort of building. No, I don't know why. I can tell you that the candy inside isn't very good, but I happened to bring one to a party, and about 20 people stopped dead in their tracks and gathered in a circle to ooh and aah over the things. And they didn't even see the big Ukrainian Roshen candy bars that cost $2 and look pretty enough to frame: One shows a brown-eyed little girl wrapped up in a prettily printed yellow headscarf. She looks like she just flew in from a movie combining the glorious future with the printing aesthetic of 1923. Another shows a black-headed seagull soaring past a yellow sun on a turquoise sky, and has more visual integrity than every single thing shown on television last month. Beautiful stuff.
Kiev also sells Kinder Eggs, those Italian chocolate eggs that are banned in the United States. If you don't know the things, they have a cult around them because of the wonderfully intricate little toys that come inside, in pieces, inside a smaller plastic egg. They're banned by the FDA because of fears that children under three could choke on the pieces, but I say anyone who would give one of these toys to a child under three is practicing child abuse to begin with. Some of these toys can take 20 minutes for an award-winning grown-up restaurant critic to put together.
(KIEV FOODS, 3509 W. Seventh St., in the Sibley Plaza strip mall, St. Paul, 651.690.5655.)
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.
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.)
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.
Well, come to think of it, everything I've written about is for grown-ups. I guess I have heard that children have something to do with this holiday. Just what, though, escapes me at the moment. All I know is, if you know where to shop, you can have more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and considerably less chaos.
(SURDYK'S, 303 East Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, 612.379.3232.)
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