I know that Christmas gift suggestions are rife at the moment, and that providing a list of ideas for ‘the foodie in your life’ is hardly original. But this is slightly different, firstly in that it in no way claims to be directed at any ‘foodies’, given that the term is an abomination and a plague upon the English language, and secondly in that this is a list compiled from my own personal experience, rather than from whatever has caught my eye in the numerous catalogues and PR emails doing the rounds at this time of year. It’s essentially a collation of food-related items that I own and love, and would love to have received (or did in fact receive) at some point in my life under the Christmas tree. There are also some suggestions for homemade food-based gifts that are guaranteed to please almost any audience. I haven’t been asked to promote these brands or items, incidentally – they are recommendations based on things I genuinely love or find useful. So here they are: fifteen ways to make someone who likes food very happy.
1. Make a hamper. There really is nothing more satisfying than delicately packing a selection of inventive and enticing homemade treats into a little basket and bedecking them with ribbons and personalised labels. Granted, you have to be a certain type of person to enjoy this – the type of person who hoards leftover egg whites in the freezer, owns ten different varieties of fruit-infused vinegars (three of which are homemade), has a special ‘olive oil cupboard’ and makes her own vanilla extract. Basically, a frustrated home economist woefully out of place in a waste-happy, surplus-driven consumer culture. If you’re a preserving fiend throughout the year, now is a good time to give away that glut of home-made jam, chutney and alcohol that you’ve been relegating to the back of the cupboard. That said, you don’t have to do anything particularly extravagant or complicated: a couple of jars of homemade jam or chutney, some chocolate cookies or biscotti and a homebaked loaf of bread would make a fabulous hamper. Flavoured salts make a lovely gift and are very easy to do – see my tutorial here. You can pick up smart baskets or boxes at vintage shops and market stalls for very little money – pack them with tissue paper and your treats, and use wrapping paper ribbon to secure little gift tags (and recipe suggestions) to them. This year, I made one for my boyfriend (picture above) featuring apple and chilli jelly, rhubarb vodka (recipe here – I made this a couple of years ago and it’s been infusing ever since), Christmas granola (featuring toasted pecans, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, orange zest and warm spices) and Christmas pudding fudge (I know, right. Literally, just fudge with leftover Christmas pudding crumbled in. Otherwise known as the best thing ever – and a great way to use up the Christmas pudding).
2. An unusual citrus or herb tree. I bought a kumquat tree in the summer, and it grew, flowered and fruited surprisingly well in my conservatory. There are a number of small citrus trees that can be grown in a sunny spot indoors in the UK, and they make a wonderful and unusual addition to a house, as well as (eventually) supplying a few delicious fruits. The website Plants 4 Presents sells all sorts of enticing varieties, including calamondin, limequat, yuzu, bergamot and the standard lemon, lime and orange. They also sell kaffir lime plants, which again grow very well in a sunny spot indoors, and provide fabulous aromatic leaves for Thai cooking. They grow very quickly, too – the more you harvest the leaves, the quicker they seem to grow back. Other good plant gifts for the keen cook include lemon verbena and chilli plants.
3. A mini chopper. Hands down my most useful and beloved kitchen gadget – I have no idea how I survived without one. I use it for everything, from quickly chopping nuts or blitzing up breadcrumbs to making curry pastes, pesto, salad dressings and marinades. It’s great for blitzing small quantities of food, which is often difficult to do in a full-size food processor. Once you have one, you will never look back – a brilliant gift for keen cooks (or time-pressed cooks).
4. Coconut oil. Versatile, super-trendy, healthy, and bloody expensive. Save the bank balance of someone you love by buying a jar for them – go for a quality brand of virgin oil by a reputable company, like Lucy Bee or JustIngredients. Good for experimental cooks (it’s great in Indian food, and dairy-free baking), but also excellent for everyday stir-frying and cooking thanks to its high smoke point, so a good gift for anyone who cooks even a little bit. Besides, if they don’t want to cook with it, it makes a great moisturiser and eye make-up remover.
5. A selection of Bluebird Teas. I stumbled across this tea company whilst on a flying visit to Brighton, and was forever hooked after a cup of their Cherry Bakewell tea. I love their innovative tea blends (Strawberry Lemonade, Watermelon Splash, Retro Ted, Gingersnap Peach…), from rooibos to white to black and chai, and range of tea-making accessories. They have some limited edition Christmas blends that sound mouthwateringly good (Christmas Cake and Snowball), and will also put together hampers of their top teas, or tailor-made collections of green teas, chai teas, et cetera. Perfect for a serious tea-lover, or for introducing someone to the magical world of tea.
6. A subscription to Amazon Student (you can sign up for a free 6-month trial, then get 50% off Amazon Prime). OK, so you won’t be giving something for them to physically open, but you will be hugely improving the life of any student you know. Combining Prime Video, Prime Music and Prime Photos, the package basically provides an unlimited, streamable multimedia library, completely transportable and hugely convenient. The online photo storage is a huge bonus, too – my tiny laptop can’t cope with the sheer volume of my food photography, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Even better, there’s free one-day delivery on millions of items and Amazon Student members get early access to special deals and exclusive competitions. While this isn’t a strictly food-related gift idea, it can definitely prove useful for students who are beginning to find their way around a kitchen, particularly as many of them may well end up writing a food blog. Give them music to stream while they potter around the kitchen, the option to order kitchen gadgets and cookbooks with free one-day delivery, and a place to store photos of their creations, and you may well change their life for the better.
7. A bundt cake tin. These are all the rage at the moment, thanks to many an American baking blog showcasing desirable ring-shaped concoctions dripping with glossy icing (or frosting, I suppose I should say). They add the wow factor to an otherwise plain cake, and any creation made using one begs to be smothered in icing so that it runs attractively down the sides. Fancier bundt tins, with interesting grooves and patterns, can be surprisingly expensive, so would make lovely presents for the bakers in your life. They open up a whole new world of creative potential. I like the ones by Nordicware.
8. Flavoured oils and vinegars from Demijohn. I love this ‘Liquid Deli’, which has a branch in York, and is very generous with its sampling policy. Many a time I’ve gone in there just to browse, or to buy something innocuous like oil, and ended up imbibing three tots of infused gin or whisky liqueur. They sell an amazing range of flavoured alcohols, oils and vinegars – some favourites of mine are the Seville orange gin, the bramble whisky liqueur, the elderflower vinegar, the blackcurrant vinegar and the tayberry vinegar – and you can choose from a range of attractive glass bottles to package them in, which come beautifully decorated with customisable inscriptions. Fantastic for experimental cooks or adventurous drinkers (and for those wonderful characters who inhabit both of those realms).
9. A good knife. Predictable but I thought I’d mention it anyway. I don’t realise how spoiled I am by my super-sharp knives until I go to my parents’ house in the Dales and attempt to chop an onion with something that resembles those child-safe scissors you give three year-olds to use during craft time. It’s not like I lovingly sharpen mine after every use, either – they just seem to stay sharp. Start with good quality knives – I love my santoku and paring knives by Zwilling J. A. Henckels, and my little Global knife – and treat them well: don’t chop onto ceramic or glass surfaces, store them in a knife block not in a cutlery drawer (it blunts them and also risks severed fingers as you fumble around looking for something), never put them in the dishwasher and sharpen them occasionally using a steel rod (there are lots of videos on Youtube demonstrating the technique). A great knife is one of the best gifts you can give a cook, and the kind of thing we never buy for ourselves as it seems too extravagant. Santoku knives are probably the best gifts – they have an unusual and beautiful shape that is more likely to elicit an ‘ooh!’ from the recipient than a standard knife.
10. A proper, sturdy pestle and mortar. None of these aesthetically pleasing shallow dishes that are about an inch deep and cause everything to fly over the edge whenever you attempt to bash it into submission. A pestle and mortar should be deep and robust – I saw a porcelain one the other day, which is literally the spice-grinding equivalent of a chocolate teapot. My beloved pestle and mortar was a gift from my boyfriend; I think it came from ProCook. It’s granite, too heavy to lift with one hand, and makes a mean Thai curry paste without lemongrass shards flying all over the worktop. That’s a proper pestle and mortar. If you can lift it with one hand, it’s not good enough. So there.
11. A bottle of Cornish Elemental Gin. Delicious, small batch, artisanal goodness – my favourite gin and great for both drinking and cooking. Try it in this rhubarb, strawberry and clotted cream Cornish cobbler for dessert, or splashed into the gravy for a roast pheasant. Or enjoy with a squeeze of lime and a smidge of good tonic.
12. Toast tongs. Don’t laugh – I mocked my mother relentlessly when I saw she had these stuck to her toaster (they’re magnetic so can be stored on the side of it). Then she gave me some and I have never looked back. My entire life now is a glorious sequence of intact-fingered toast removals. No burning, no risk of electrocution, no big broken-off crumbs left to languish flammably at the bottom of the metal crevasse. The best thing since sliced bread. Because it helps you save sliced bread from a carcinogenic fate.
13. On that note, a dough scraper is a very useful tool for anyone who likes to bake bread. It’s the kind of small thing you’d never buy for yourself, but is great for portioning out lumps of dough, scraping bits of dough off the worktop and dealing with particularly sticky doughs. The same goes for a proving basket – a little bit too expensive to buy for yourself, but unbelievably useful for making any kind of bread, particularly sourdough. By the same token, a proper set of measuring spoons and US cup measurements are great little presents for bakers and means they won’t spend ages faffing around with floury hands trying to google the conversion of half a cup of sugar into grams.
14. A subscription to a food magazine like Delicious or Olive (the former is my favourite). If you’re self-interested, bear in mind that you also get a great free gift (check the websites for offer details) when you set up a subscription, which you could keep for yourself (sssh). I get very excited when my copy comes through the letterbox every month, and I get a month’s worth of fantastic recipes out of it. Again, the kind of thing people are unlikely to treat themselves to, so do it for them.
15. A meat hamper. Because MEAT HAMPER. I like the ones by Farmison – you can choose from a range of cuts and different themed hampers, and they’re fantastic value for money. You also have the advantage of knowing all the meat is produced to high welfare standards. I was hugely impressed by their steak and pork chops.