A very global holiday

A domestic guide to international food gifts
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  December 6, 2006

Eldo Candy House

Nothing says “holiday” like a gluttonous gorge. Whether you’re Christian or Jewish, black, white, or, yes, even purple, one of the greatest American traditions is to stuff yourself silly, whatever you celebrate. But aren’t you a teeny bit tired of fruitcake (ick) and turkey (yawn) and crummy, plastic sugar cookies? Thought so. We bet your friends are, too.

So instead of handing out crappy knickknacks this year, why not treat your loved ones to holiday foods from around the world? No need for frequent-flier miles, though; the ethnic neighborhoods of Boston are great resources for unusual sweets and savories. It’s tough to fail with food gifts, so ’tis the season for some global goodies — purchased locally.

The North End is the obvious source for Italian holiday staples, and you can gift your friends with an entire Christmas meal with just one afternoon visit. The most notable of Italian holiday traditions is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a Christmas Eve commemoration of the wait for the birth of the baby what’s-his-face. Since you can’t exactly gift-wrap a mackerel and call it a day, swing into a groceria and pick up baccalà, a salted, dried cod that’s usually served as part of the feast. It will go nicely with a bottle of Etna Rosso, a soft Sicilian red wine that you can find at the Wine Bottega on Hanover Street.

Any bakery you walk into will be bedecked with boxes of panettone, a fluffy Christmas cake stuffed with raisins, candied orange, and lemon. Yes, the mighty Mike’s Pastry has cookies, cakes, and cannoli galore, but also check out its impressive marzipan — sweet almond paste molded and painted to look like fruits and vegetables. Mix and match individual pieces for a customized cornucopia.

For those who love kitchen gadgets, Polcari’s Coffee has some cool ones. The robust aroma of this caffeinated shop will hit you smack in the face when you walk in the door. Needless to say, you’ll be wide awake as you browse for a pasta maker, espresso pot, or, a personal favorite, a pizzelle maker. Pizzelles are intricately decorated waffle cookies that are thin and crisp and taste subtly of anise. They look like snowflakes; the perfect accent to the winter holidays.

Olive oil and almonds lend sweet succulence to many Mediterranean holiday pastries. Roslindale boasts one of the best Greek bakeries in town, and, according to employees, Vouros will be soon be crammed floor to ceiling with the traditional Christmas bread Christopsomo, a sacred loaf that’s hearty but mild. As far as sweets go, try the crescent-shaped kourabiedes, dense, velvety cookies dusted with powder sugar. Oh, and melomacaronas, olive-oil cookies that taste like spiced cloves and honey.

Chinese New Year isn’t until February, but Asian holiday foods are good all the damned time. You can buy moon cakes at any bakery in Chinatown for about $3, and they’re as gorgeous as they are delicious — golden cakes imprinted with Chinese characters and bursting with sweet black-bean or lotus paste. The rich, dense cakes are traditionally served during the mid-autumn Moon Festival (surprise!).

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