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Bring Back Gifts With Good Taste

Ireland

Pick up some premium Irish whiskey, such as Jameson's Middleton Very Rare. Pair it with smoked Irish wild salmon and Irish brown bread (look for the mix made by Odlums or Hogan's). Soda and potato breads are also unique to the Emerald Isle, and cheese-and-onion Tayto chips are considered the "Original Irish Crisp." And for dessert: a box of Butlers chocolates from the classic Dublin chocolatier.

Italy

Many "Made in Italy" products can be bought in U.S. supermarkets, but not all. Lavazza espresso is unique to this country of strong-coffee drinkers, as is Amaro Averna, a Sicilian after-dinner liqueur. Limoncello, squeezed from Sorrento lemons, comes from the Amalfi Coast, and tortellini from Bologna is world-renowned. For friends you really like, you can drop a couple hundred or more on vintage balsamic vinegar from Modena. Another indulgence: white truffles from the Piedmont region or black truffles from Umbria.


(File Photo by Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)

One Italian tradition is dipping cantuccini biscuits from Siena into a glass of Vin Santo, the cherished wine from Tuscany's Chianti region. At Christmas time, panettone is chock full of dried fruits and dates, unlike the paltry American version.

Japan

This country is big on seafood, noodles, sake and sweets -- all of which you can bring home in some form or another. Take back snackable sea life, such as dried fish flakes, seasoned roasted nori or seaweed and shrimp-flavored chips. Also popular are prepackaged udon and soba noodles. Look for sakes by Takara Nigori and Takeno Tsuyu, and high-quality green teas encased in decorative metal containers. Sweet bean paste cakes are for dessert adventurers; for more traditional candies, there's Pocky's straw-shaped biscuits dipped in strawberry or chocolate, and the ultra-kitschy Hello Kitty and Pokemon candies.

Netherlands

A stiff cocktail requires a shot of jenever (gin), bessen jenever (berry-flavored gin) or beerenburg, an herbal liqueur. Black licorice, called Dutch Drop, puts a salty twist on Twizzlers. Stroopwafels (caramel-filled wafers) are sold in pretty tins and go well with a hot beverage (locals place the cookie atop the steaming cup and let the tastes meld). Hagelslag and muisjes are crumbled onto bread and come in flavors such as chocolate and anise.

Serve fries the Dutch way, with mayo or French fry sauce, sold in plastic bottles and tubes by such local brands as Calve and Remia. Before you jet off, stock up on Old Amsterdam cheese and matured black edam, sold at the airport.

Russia

What else but vodka and caviar? For vodka, Russian Standard (Russky Standart) and Stolichnaya are the brands to buy; Stoli's range of flavors (lemon, strawberry, vanilla, etc.) will impress any top-shelf snob. Plus, they're cheaper over there. The best caviar comes from the Caspian Sea region, but you can find equally good osetra, beluga and sevruga in metropolitan areas. Be sure to purchase at official stores (only 250 grams per customer) and ask for a receipt, so that your pricey eggs aren't confiscated at customs.

The country's premium chocolatier, A. Korkunov, packages its cocoa goodies in florid boxes and tins as stunning as a Faberge egg.

South Africa

Australia has vegemite, South Africa has marmite -- equally thick and brown and yeasty. Upgrade a Slim Jim habit with spicy strips of Biltong beef jerky or Droewors, dried herbed sausage sold in handy gift packs. Mrs. Ball's peach chutney is a timeless favorite; the chili chutney is avant-garde. Both, though, go with rooibos tea (Afrikaans for "red bush"), known for its health kick -- and strong flavor. Or stock up on Cape Town wines (red, white or sparkling) and Beacon chocolates.

Thailand

Many hotels and public places ban durian, alias the "stinky fruit," but when it's all tarted up, no noses will be the wiser. Try the fruit as a paste, chip or hard candy. Less odoriferous are tamarind fruit (dehydrated, chewy, wet slab snack, etc.); luk choop, a jellied bean and coconut dessert molded into fruit shapes; and pandanus leaf candy. Canned sticky rice puddings come in such flavors as mango, coconut, black rice and durian.

Bet you didn't know Thailand had vineyards. The proof is in a bottle of Monsoon Valley (red, white or rosé). Nonalcoholic choices include bottled drinks made of chrysanthemum, grass jelly and pennywort leaves, and Krating Daeng, the Red Bull of Siam.

Turkey

The people of Turkey are big drinkers -- of tea, coffee, wine and raki, an anise-flavored alcohol sipped with meze, or small platters of appetizers. You can find many flavors of tea as well as ground coffee at most outdoor markets. Pair your coffee -- scented with a dash of cinnamon or cardamom from the thousands of spices sold at Istanbul's Spice Bazaar -- with a cezve, a long-handled cylindrical pot. Raki is sold nationwide in markets and kiosks. For wines, look for vintages from Kavaklidere Winery, founded in 1929.

All those groves in the Aegean region mean buckets of olives for martinis and nibbling, and gallons of olive oil for drizzling, saucing and sauteing. Turkey is also famous for its sweets, nuts and nut pastes. Check Istanbul's ritzy Bebek neighborhood for the best marzipan, and Bursa for chestnuts.


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