No, sadly, the Gift Guide is not edible. But all the gifts in it are!
This time last year I put together a Chicago Foodie Holiday Gift Guide featuring delicious products made in the Chicago area, like Vosges Haut Chocolate, Carol’s Cookies and Eli’s Cheesecake, that are ideal for holiday gift-giving. I stand by all the recommendations I made in that post, and I urge you to check it out. This year, however, I am casting my net a bit wider and featuring delectable edible gifts from around the Midwest. I am even giving away one of my favorite products — think salami! — to a lucky West of the Loop reader. So if you are casting about for memorable gifts for the office staff, the in-laws or any of the other impossible-to-shop-for people on your list, read on.
Right before Thanksgiving, my friend Chef Druck and I attended a delightful tasting of Wisconsin artisanal cheeses at Oak Park’s own gourmet destination, the Marion Street Cheese Market. Between sips of wine, we sampled a delicious and inspiring array of cheese, charcuterie, crackers, spreads, and candies, many of which were from Midwest-based producers. These unusual handmade products make unique and thoughtful gifts and at the same time buying from these small producers supports people who are living out their culinary dreams. It’s way more fun than sending a generic fruit basket.
Jams and Jellies
Because I make more jam than my family could possibly ever eat, I am not really in the market for the store-bought kind. If you want to sample some of my homemade jam, then I suggest you either do me a favor — because I thank people in jam — or bring something yummy to trade me at the Chicago Food Swap this Sunday. But barring that, if you are looking to give jam and fruit spreads as a gift this holiday season, there are two local varieties that are worth checking out. First, Oak Park’s very own Rare Bird Preserves makes amazing small-batch jams in flavors like Peach Lavender. (The woman behind Rare Bird Preserves actually lives in my town, but I don’t know her.) I personally would buy a jar of the Passion Fruit Curd for my mom, who has a thing for passion fruit sorbet.
Another Midwestern jam maker to try is Quince & Apple. Based in Madison, Quince & Apple uses locally grown fruit for their handcrafted preserves. The unusual flavors, like Fig and Black Tea, are surprisingly versatile and would work well paired with some Wisconsin cheese, like a chevre or Gouda. Personally, I am excited that Quince & Apple makes a Ground Cherry jam. Ground cherries are little round red fruits that grow in husks like tomatillos. I see them occasionally at the Oak Park farmer’s market, but I’ve always been too chicken to buy them — which is not like me at all. But now I know what to do with them and next summer, I will not be so timid.
One of the most interesting people that Chef Druck and I met at the Marion Street Cheese Market event was the owner of Hidden Springs Creamery. Located in southwestern Wisconsin, Hidden Springs Creamery makes sheep’s milk cheeses from their own herd of dairy sheep. Chef Druck and I buttonholed this poor woman for 15 minutes, peppering her with questions about her sheep, her milking operation and her products. This farm is clearly a labor of love for the owners and you cannot help but be entranced by the image of the placid sheep grazing on lush green grass until milking time. While sheep’s milk cheese are commonplace in Europe, there are very few domestic sheep’s milk producers, which makes Hidden Springs Creamery that much more unusual. We absolutely loved the cheeses we tried, especially the soft fresh Driftless cheese, which had a distinctive (grassy?) taste. It comes in several flavors, such as Honey and Lavender or Tomato and Garlic, and would make a unique spread for your holiday entertaining.
If you need something on which to spread that Driftless cheese, or you want to give a package of cheese and crackers as a charming gift, I recommend Potter’s Crackers, which are another handmade Midwestern product. These whole-grain, organic crackers are made with local ingredients and are designed to showcase the best Wisconsin cheeses. I love how the crackers are presented in cellophane bags tied with ribbon. It looks so homemade! We sampled the seasonal pumpkin graham flavor and it tasted like fall but without being too sweet like some pumpkin-flavored products can be. The rosemary crackers are also a favorite of mine.
It turns out that there are a lot of gifted confectioners making their sinful treats right here in Chicago. Chef Druck and I met one such candy-maker, Lauren Pett of Rich Chocolate and Candies, who left a career in photography for pastry school. She started her company in 2007 and still makes all her candies by hand. As passionate foodies ourselves, Chef Druck and I were really moved by the way Lauren is living out her culinary dream. And needless to say, her chocolates are amazing. Chef Druck could not stop drooling over the Bacon Toffee Bark, while I was crazy about the Pub Bark, which combines chocolate with pretzels, peanuts and — wait for it — corn chips. Needless to say, Lauren understands the allure of the sweet-salty combo. Rich Chocolates and Candies’ Windy City Truffle collection, with flavors named after Chicago neighborhoods and landmarks, would make an elegant gift for an out-of-town friend.
I could not leave the event at Marion Street Cheese Market without buying a box of La-Dee-Dahs made by the Chicago-based Whimsical Candy company. I had one teeny sample and I was hooked. This little bite of heaven is a swirl of nougat and caramel dipped in dark chocolate. But the nougat is not like Milky Way nougat. Oh no! It is like the honey-sweet nougat you get in Italy but softer in texture. Apparently, the owner of Whimsical Candy is on a mission to bring back nougat. I’m all for it. (Better than bringing back sexy anyway.) These chocolates taste like the old-fashioned, handmade treats that they are. I would normally say that $6.50 is an insane amount to pay for three pieces of candy, but I did it that night and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Or better yet, someone send me a box for the holidays. Whimsical Candy offers gift baskets in several sizes that would make any candy-lover’s holiday (ahem!) extra-sweet.
Charcuterie (and finally the giveaway!)
I have explained before that while I eat and enjoy pork products very much, we do not have them in our house due to an elaborate religious compromise between me and my husband. So, while I love charcuterie, I don’t get to enjoy it very much and when I do enjoy some out of the house, it seems like a forbidden pleasure. (Maybe that only makes me love it more. Who knows?) Anyway, the best of the best when it comes to American-made charcuterie is Creminelli Fine Meats. I wrote all about my love for Creminelli and its founder Cristiano back in March. Creminelli is based in Salt Lake City — the dry climate being perfect for curing meat — so it is a little less local than some of the other products that I am featuring. But hey, Creminelli’s salami is worth a trip.
As I explained in the post I wrote in March, I sent my dad the Creminelli Gourmet Artisan Salami Mix last January when he was recovering from surgery and needed to get his strength back. He especially loved the tartufo flavor. Now that my dear dad is gone, I am so glad that I sent him that care package when he was ill and I think I will always have a soft spot for Creminelli’s products because of that.
But you don’t need to have a sentimental association with Creminelli’s salami to love it. The products are so delicious and made with such care that you can’t help but go wild for them. And they make a very impressive gift. This year, Creminelli Fine Meats has 11 Salami Gift Sets along with new hardwood hardware, providing the perfect complement and accessory to aged salami.
I can’t bring Creminelli’s beautiful salami home, but you can. Creminelli Fine Meats is giving away a Gourmet Artisan Salami Mix, the same one I sent to my dad, to one lucky West of the Loop reader (United States address only). Seriously, this is one of the coolest giveaways that I have ever done. You will want to win this. To enter, leave a comment to this post telling me an edible gift that you would like to give or receive this holiday season by 12 am CST, Wednesday December 7. You can earn an additional entry the following ways:
- By subscribing to my RSS feed. (That just means you get new West of the Loop entries emailed directly to you, which is obviously extremely awesome and convenient.)
- Follow me (@westoftheloop) on Twitter
- Tweet about the giveaway with a link back to this post
- Blog about this giveaway on your own blog with a link back to this post.
For all these options, please make sure to leave me a comment letting me know that you did so. I will select one winner at random. Good luck!
Full disclosure time: None of this post was sponsored. I paid for my ticket to the event at Marion Street Cheese Market where I sampled all of the products mentioned. Creminelli is giving me the salami mix to give away. All opinions are naturally my own.