'Tis the season of not wanting to show up to holiday parties emptyhanded. While flowers, candles, and other trinkets are always acceptable stand-ins, food-related hostess gifts remain the most popular — and most warmly received — way to say "thank you for having me."
TOWER OF FLAVOR A “gift stack” from Vervacious is sure to open doors.
To that end, we explored Portland's shops searching for the perfect little somethings to bring to your next dinner party or holiday fete; we earthed up ingestible presents for wine snobs and foodies, people with sweet tooths and party animals. An added bonus: many of these hostess gifts are made right here in Maine, meaning that whether you're spreading the holiday cheer near or far, you're always showcasing a bit of home.
For the chocoholic in your group, bring along an eight-piece gift box of Dean's Sweets truffles — choose from the Boozy, Fruity, Spicy, or Maine Mix flavor assortments, or mix and match your own ($17.50). These hand-dipped treats, made here in Portland by architect-turned-chocolatier Dean Bingham, combine fine imported chocolates and local ingredients in an ever-changing rotation of (nut-free!) delicacies.
Another choice for sweet-loving hosts is a half-dozen or dozen cupcakes ($14.50 or $28) from East End Cupcakes on Fore Street. Featuring airy cakes (pumpkin, chocolate, vanilla, red velvet, bacon, pear, blueberry . . . the list goes on) topped with smooth, rich buttercreams (salted caramel, cinnamon cream cheese, maple, coconut, chocolate . . . this one goes on too), these classic confections are bound to please everyone at the party.
If you'd prefer to go the savory route, take a spin down Commercial Street. Stop at Vervacious, a foodie's delight that sells culinary condiments ranging from specialty balsamic vinegars to exotic spice rubs to savory preserves that pair well with cheese and seafood — all made in small batches by husband-and-wife team Heidi and Mark Stanvick at the North Dam Mill in Biddeford. Choose from several "gift stacks" (the curvy bottles are designed to fit neatly atop one another) or a box set (stacks of three starts at $24; box sets are $30 and up). Bring these for a hostess who appreciates international inspiration and the finer things in life.
Next stop: LeRoux Kitchen, which displays fine balsamics and olive oils along with other sweet and savory gift foods, in the front of their store. Select a fancy olive oil (choices include Butter, California Mission, and Leccino; $9.29-14.99), combine it with Divina stuffed olives, nuts from the Peanut Shop, or specialty popcorn kernels from Fireworks Popcorn, plus a pretty apron ($20) or a set of three vintage-style tea towels from Now Designs ($9.99), and you've got yourself a gift basket.
Speaking of popcorn, it's a crowd favorite — and you can pick up a gift-sized tin at Coastal Maine Popcorn (one-gallon containers are $15.99; bags are less expensive). Try crazy flavors like dill pickle, buffalo wing, sour green apple, or red hot cinnamon, or go traditional with Maine maple, southwest cheddar, or salt-and-vinegar. For a special holiday treat, ask for the Chocolate Candy Cane popcorn, which its creators say is "just like a chocolate peppermint stick!"