Paige’s Picks: Gifts for the Foodies on Your List
I suspect that non-cooks wonder what in the world to give those of us who are culinarily-obsessed. Cookbook? New gadget? Basket of delicacies? These are all good ideas—but how do you take them from “good” to “impossibly clever”? For me, simpler is better, and, as with every other aspect of life in our region (save, perhaps, shoe shopping and ethnic dining), there are a plethora of buy-local options when holiday shopping for cooks.—Paige Orloff
Craft sales are ubiquitous this time of year, but they usually only last a day or two. The Spencertown Academy “Handmade Holiday” gift sale will continue through December 21 at the Columbia Country arts center. Anyone who entertains would appreciate local potter Mary Anne Davis‘s modernist, colorful creations, which are a fixture on local dinner tables for good reason: they are elegant, sometimes whimsical, and come in a dizzying range of colors, from wild to earthy. Though her work (all handmade in her Spencertown studio) can be pricey, smaller pieces—a tiny bowl, a cream pitcher—are affordable. Clarke Olsen’s handmade cutting and serving boards (many under $20) would be beautiful as stand-alone gifts or in combination with a selection of artisanal cheeses from Rubiner’s.
Ah, Rubiner’s—Great Barrington’s elegant palace of cheese and specialty foods—has not only great edible gifts, (and lovely boxes in which to gift them) but also some off-the-beaten-track non-cosmetibles. The marble mortar-and-pestle sets (available in three sizes, in black or white marble $50 - $120) are beautiful, sculptural, and useful for everything from crushing spices to making guacamole—and serious cooks can never have too many. A nice stocking stuffer is something I’ve never seen anywhere else: packages of Fortmaticum Cheese Paper especially for wrapping up cheese. Any serious cheese-head will tell you that confinement in plastic wrap equals death-by-asphyxiation for fine cheese, so this is one of those items that proves that the best gifts often cost the least ($9.95).
Bizalion’s is also known for its cheese and charcuterie, and a bottle of their exclusive, in-house olive oils is always a welcome gift. I cannot imagine anyone who would not appreciate an Opinel knife. These clever folding knives have been made in the same town in France since the 1890s. For friends who needed cheese knives in their weekend place, I bought one #6 Opinel, a small cleaver, and a lovely parmesan knife—the whole gift cost less than $30. Bizalion’s also has hard-to-find Italian mezzaluna knives for $19.95, and a wonderful stainless steel Parmesan grater, designed to be used at the table, for only $12.95. If you want to give your friends a culinary treat, Bizalion’s is offering pre-orders for special holiday ingredients, ranging from fresh Italian truffles (around $100/ounce) to guinea hen, pheasant and duck for Christmas roasts. Owner Jean-François Bizalion’s home-made cassoulet is available for $25/person, or you can buy all the ingredients to make your own. They even have rendered duck fat so you can make your own duck confit.
Most cooks like nothing more than exploring a new ingredient or a new cuisine, and in our neck of the woods Polish food counts as exotic. I must have driven by Maria’s European Delights in Great Barrington dozens of times, always wondering what was hidden behind the strip-mall storefront. When I gave into my curiosity, I discovered a treasure trove of Polish (and other eastern European) specialty foods. Owners Maria and Krzysztof (pronounced “Christoph”) Sekowski opened the shop about a year ago, but they’ve been living in the Berkshires for over thirty years, first as weekenders and then, starting in 1986, full time. Krzysztof worked for twenty years as an engineer at Rising Paper in Housatonic, but when the mill closed, the Sekowskis decided to open their own market. For gifts, they have a delicious range of kielbasa guaranteed to expand your horizons when it comes to this succulent variety of smoked sausage. Whether the long, skinny kabanosy or the thicker krajana, mildly flavored with large chunks of tender pork inside, they are all delicious, and the Sekowskis, proud of their product, are delighted to offer samples. Says Krzysftof: “I know these butchers personally from Brooklyn.” The store also offers a range of sweet and savory breads, frozen pierogis, smoked fish platters, stuffed cabbage and a huge selection of condiments from jams to pickled vegetables. Non-Polish speakers may need translation for some of the labels, but the Sekowskis are happy to oblige.
I’m not so into electronics—most of the electrified gadgets I need I already have. But if you know a serious cook who doesn’t have a Cuisinart food processor or a KitchenAid stand mixer and you can afford such largesse, get thee to Different Drummer’s Kitchen in Lenox immediately. You will be showered with love and thanks, not to mention fantastic baked goods or homemade pesto.
Of course, you can almost never go wrong with a cookbook. Any of the region’s independent bookstores should be able to guide you to new and interesting titles (such as A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis), but if you want something less expected, pay a visit to Rogers Book Barn in Hillsdale. This humble temple to bibliophilia is one of my favorite local places to lose an afternoon. Though it has a small cookbook section, I’ve never failed to find a title—or three—that I wanted, including some terrific first editions. Be sure to doublecheck that it’s open—like many local businesses, hours change seasonally, and winter hours are more limited.
Do you have other suggestions for hidden treasures for cooks and the people who love them? Leave a comment, and share your secret sources.
Route 203 P.O. Box 80, Spencertown; 518.392.3693
Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers
264 Main Rd Great Barrington; 413.528.0488
Bizalion’s Fine Food
684 South Main Street, Great Barrington; 413.644.9988
Maria’s European Delights
67 State Road, Great Barrington; 413.528.3456
Different Drummer’s Kitchen
374 Pittsfield Road, Lenox; 413.637.0606
Rodger’s Book Barn
467 Rodman Road, Hillsdale; 518. 325.3610