- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Mother’s Day gift is a token of affection for a life devoted to nurturing, whether it be a handmade but loving gesture or an expensive indulgence. While the saying, “It’s the thought that counts,” is certainly appropriate for Mother’s Day, we all — child and mother alike — know the happiness-inducing power of a great gift.

As my daughter was growing up, she warmed my heart with hand-scribbled cards, clay formed into a vase complete with scraggly flowers picked from the neighborhood, a papier-mache blue-striped cat that for years has watched over me from my office shelf. But oh, when she realized that foodie gifts — Greek olive oil, rose petal preserves, salt-caramel chocolates, white truffle paste — were the way to her mom’s heart and that mom was willing to share — we started having some serious culinary fun that continues.

Thinking of my delight at her tasty gifts, I had a trawl through San Francisco’s January Fancy Food Show, searching for edible Mother’s Day presents. The newest and most exciting goodies are launched at the show. My mission was to search the aisles of endlessly varied cookies and crackers, rainbows of chutneys and pestos, olives and salami, and end up with a selection of munchies that would make any mom feel special. Ready to nosh, I hit the stands.

I found my first Mother’s Day must within moments: Heritage Coconut Palm Sugar from Big Tree Farms in Bali, Indonesia. Mother and son owners, Christina and Ben Ripple, were offering samples of their unique golden sugar grains that have a whiff of smoke and depth of caramel flavor.

How can sugar be so chic or so tasty? “It’s harvested from the swaying coconut palms,” Mr. Ripple said, “boiled up in a sugar shack until thick and sweet, then dried and crushed into granules.” Meanwhile, his mom was spooning me a taste. Nothing like the ordinary white powder one adds to coffee or tea — though it would be blissful in either — this stuff is sophisticated, fragrant and only slightly sweet, and perfect for gift-giving in its rustic wooden canisters.

I had a difficult time choosing between the turmeric or ginger sugar, each so hauntingly delicious. They would be memorable sprinkled onto French toast for a Mother’s Day brunch. Heritage coconut palm sugars sell for $8.99 per 8.5-ounce canister and are generally available across the United States.

Big Tree Farm also sells artisanal ingredients from Bali that you’re not likely to find elsewhere. Among their offerings are exceptionally fragrant and unusual peppercorns, pyramid-shaped salts, and honey from the island of Java. (The coffee-steeped honey is so yummy I had to close my eyes as I sucked on a spoonful.) For information, visit www.bigtreebali.com.

Another island delicacy, although an island on the other side of the world from Bali, is mastiha, or mastic from Greece. Mastic is the resin of a bush related to the pistachio tree, which only produces the aromatic resin on the southern part of the Greek island of Chios, near Turkey.

It is an ancient ingredient whose fragrance is subtle yet memorable, which not only has the ability to add flavor and fragrance, but also has healing properties, according to many modern studies. For its myriad of uses, it has long been famed throughout the Middle East and is just now entering the U.S. market in a more significant way.

Mastic turns almost rubbery when chewed. In fact, it is used to flavor Greece’s favorite gum. As an ingredient, mastic has the ability to enhance whatever it is added to and amplify it with a certain air of mystery.

The island’s traditional farmers have organized a collection of products and chic shops, Mastihashops, which sell such diverse fare as mastiha liquor, Turkish delight flavored with mastiha, cookies, candies and even spaghetti sauce flavored with mastiha.

Its soothing properties make mastiha a natural for health and beauty products from eye cream to facial masks to toothpaste. The toothpaste especially gives your mouth a natural, clean feeling, and I’m positive that the eye cream made even my wrinkles disappear. For information, visit www.mastihashop.com.

Olive oil was one of the first things my daughter chose as a Mother’s Day gift, and we have continued that gift tradition. Because of this, I often discover oils I might not otherwise have noticed. Although Mediterranean and California offerings keep my olive oil kitchen going, New Zealand and Australia are growing some splendid olives and pressing fragrant oils, as healthful as they are delicious. The extra-virgin Australian oil has a fruity flavor and lush tropical tones, and the New Zealand oil is herby, fruity and peppery. Both are available nationwide from 34 Degrees, which also produces tangy, intensely flavored fruit pastes to eat with cheese, ripe and vivacious semidried tomatoes and a smooth, rich marinated sheep, and goat feta cheese. For information, visit www.34-degrees.com.

An adventurously cooking mom is sure to appreciate the selection of spices and spice mixtures offered by Seasoned Pioneers from Yemenite Hawaj, with its exotic fragrance (delicious in earthy soups and stews or marinating chicken), to ras al hanout, with its scent of Marrakech’s spice bazaar, or the lemony achiote, which is brick red and tastes of Yucatan.

Hard-to-find ingredients such as amchoor, awajan and black salt are on their list, as are rose petals and Gujarati masala. Seasoned Pioneers spices may be found at Whole Foods or seasonedpioneers.co.uk. The foil-packaged (good for keeping out the light, which destroys the delicate flavor and aroma of spices), resealable, 1- to 2-ounce container sells for just under $5. If buying mail order, there is no minimum order and the shipping charge is the same regardless of how much is ordered.

All moms — and, for that matter, women alike — need a reward now and again, actually as often as possible. And chocolate is such a good reward. Fudge, to be precise. Fudge Is My Life is the thickest, darkest, most chocolaty jar of deliciousness you could ask for. It is available in 23 states, but if you live outside the web of chocolate goodness, visit www.fudgeismylife.com. Fudge comes in several flavors, including orange and mint. However, Dark Chocolate Sauce — pure and simple — is my personal favorite. A 10-ounce jar costs about $8 and is perfect for preparing ice cream sundaes to share or for sticking a spoon in as a naughty solitary treat.

After days spent dishing out cookies to the little ones, what mother doesn’t have the urge to sit down to her own delicious cookie — especially a simple, elegant, rich and crunchy cookie such as Duchy Originals Highland Shortbreads?

Full of buttery flavor, yet thin enough to be crisp, they are just right to munch alongside a cup of soothing tea — something every mother needs, come afternoon. Duchy’s ginger biscuits are divine, and some might be able to stop eating the lemon biscuits, but I can’t. They are so tasty I find myself reaching for just one more. I hasten to add, since the company is owned by her son, these cookies are just possibly favored by one of the most famous mothers in the world, Queen Elizabeth II. Duchy cookies and biscuits retail for around $9.50.

Duchy also makes a savory oat wafer, which is traditional to eat with cheese. Since these are special cheese biscuits, you need some special cheese to go along. Get yourself online to Cowgirl Creamery or to one of their shops in the San Francisco Bay and Washington areas. Or sample their cheeses in stores across the United States.

You could also order up specially selected cheeses in perfect condition sent to Mom once a month. The Cheese Club is a wonderful way to kick-start mom’s love affair with cheese. If you’re the child, think of how much your mother will love the splurge and how nice it will be for her to share it with you. For information, visit www.cowgirlcreamery.com.

For a special splurge (maybe with the assistance of several siblings or Dad), sign mom up for the $540 Cheese Club and every month for a year, a 1-pound wedge or wheel will be sent, paired with the perfect accompaniment. If a year is too great a commitment, $175 buys a three-month membership.

Good cheese doesn’t really need a condiment, but sometimes they are just so special you need to have one on your shelf. Geeta’s chutneys are fabulous — sweet, spicy and perfect with cheese, or spread onto a curried chicken salad sandwich. Try topping a slice of sharp cheddar atop an oat biscuit with a dab of Geeta’s Mango Chutney and a leaf or two of fresh cilantro. Put your feet up and pour the tea. Or might it be time for cocktails and a few savory tidbits? For information, visit www.geetasfoods.com.

I’ve long been a devotee of the British idea of a hamper — a basket filled with all sorts of treats, possibly including crisp crackers and cookies, jars of preserved fruits and jam, pates of meat or fish, pots of unusual mustards and pickles. Usually I assemble them myself, searching for the most delicious ingredients, since most prepackaged gift boxes are filled with a selection of things you might not really want to eat. Then I found Chelsea Market Baskets. I was so taken with the selection of truly delicious goodies that I visited its shop in New York’s Chelsea Market — a premises it shares with a cornucopia of foodie destinations, as well as TV’s Food Network.

Specializing in unusual treats that they import, Chelsea Market Baskets overflows with exquisite French fruit gels, James White juices, Fentiman’s Botanical Sodas (try the Dandelion and Burdock) and the most divine cheddar or Stilton wafers — thin, crisp and crunchy and screaming umami flavor.

There is a chocolate basket to make you cry, while for body pampering, they offer several hampers of soaps, spa treatments and lotions. The Citrus Oasis is a large rattan basket with a few tasty treats, including a bar of Renew Chocolate blended with lime blossoms, crisped rice and bitter orange, perfect for refreshing and relaxing. Chelsea Market Baskets is the kind of place to which I’d walk my child and offer to let her use my credit card.

Whether you are looking forward to giving or receiving this Mother’s Day, let it be a lovely day full of fun and food and love.

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