Did you ever play the secret Santa game, where a group of people - friends, colleagues, classmates - each give an anonymous Christmas gift, and receive one in return? It can be great fun, but in my experience with these things people rarely know each other well enough to pick out something their gift recipient will actually like. We all know how hard it is to pick out gifts for those we're closest to (I can see Manuel nodding in agreement!), so how much harder is it to pick out gifts for those we barely know? Not that hard at all, it seems, if you're a food blogger!
Blogging by Mail was initiated by Nic of The Baking Sheet as a way for food bloggers to exchange something more tangible than digital words and photos. The idea was picked up by Andrew of Spittoon over here in the UK, who thought a European version might be fun. Considering the huge number of nationalities represented by European bloggers, this seemed like a great way to do a bit of cross-cultural culinary exchange, but unfortunately I was going to be out of the country the first time it happened. So when Andrew recently announced Round Two, I didn't hesitate to sign up.
Since the most appealing aspect of the European exchange seemed to be the prospect of receiving a packet of goodies from another country, chock full of exciting things unavailable at home, my first reaction was disappointment when a heavy box showed up bearing UK postage stamps. It only lasted as long as it took to open the box, however, because what I found was a treasure-trove of unusual delicacies, none of which I had ever run across before. Everything inside had been beautifully wrapped in colored tissue paper and foil, and cards bearing a little description and history accompanied each item. The wonderful mystery box was sent to me by London-based blogger Johanna, a.k.a. The Passionate Cook, who originally hails from Austria, but has lived and traveled far and wide. Johanna has had the bizarre luck to have been assigned Edinburgh bloggers both times (despite there being only two of us) - she may be getting a bit tired of posting boxes up to Scotland, but the pleasure is certainly mine, since she obviously knows how to assemble a box of goodies worthy of any food-lover's fantasies.
Included in the box were:
Homemade plum-apple-ginger chutney, thick and fragrant and spicy. We've been eating this with cheese, and last night I used some in a delicious salad dressing for a plate of arugula, pears, goat cheese and almonds. It's delicious - and she was thoughtful enough to include the recipe.
A bag of sweet and spicy wasabi peanuts. Johanna says she picked these up from the Cranberry's stand at Euston station. They're similar to wasabi peas, but heartier, spicier, and very, very addictive.
A bag of chocolate meringues from the chocolatier William Curley in Richmond. Crunchy chocolate meringue coated in thick dark chocolate - how did she know I like chocolate? ;)
A small bottle of blackcurrent liqueur made by Bramley & Gage in Devon. Similar to creme de cassis, which I love mixed with white wine for a Kir, but infinitely more complex and fresh-tasting, with a hint of blackcurrant bitterness and fruity acidity. We're saving this for a few Kir royales (with champagne, of course)!
An envelope of Herbie's Sydney spice, an aromatic and exotic mixture of wattleseed, lemon myrtle, galangal, lime leaves and other spices. She says this company's spice blends are impossible to find outside Australia - I'm assuming this little packet has traveled back with her from there! We're planning to use it as a rub for some luscious grilled Antipodean chicken.
Milerb Italian Mischung, a blend of fresh herbs in oil, sealed in a little jar and ready for use anywhere you'd use fresh herbs. She brings this back from Austria, which reminded me that I used to buy similar things in Germany. It's a great concept and a fantastic way to have fresh herb flavor available at any time - I don't know why it doesn't catch on more widely. I can't wait to try it in salad dressing!
More chocolate - this in the form of two very unusual chocolate bars from Zotter, a family chocolate business in Styria, Austria. One has the absolutely hilarious name Hot Chicken Ensemble and consists of milk chocolate surrounding a creamy egg liqueur filling (which tastes like eggnog!), and the other, called Grammelnussn, contains dark chocolate-enrobed crunchy bits of pork cracklings in a cinnamon-scented cream. Very bizarre sounding, but as she promised, very delicious!
And finally, the instructions to all of us had been to reach to the back of our cupboards and find something to send that we hadn't used in a while. Johanna's 'cupboard love' ingredient was a bag of quinoa flour, something she bought long ago but never found a use for but thought I might appreciate because of my wheat allergy. I'm very intrigued by this unusual ingredient - I love quinoa salads and have even had quinoa pasta, but I'm also a little stuck for ideas. All suggestions welcome!
A big thank-you to Johanna for the tremendous care and thought that went into this package - we're going to be enjoying these edible treasures for weeks! And if this wasn't enough, you can catch the roundup of all the food-mailing action across Europe over at Spittoon.