THIS SEASON is full of talk about sensational gifts--gifts that cost the moon and stars or are wrapped to dazzle. But we, mono-maniacal as we are, tend to focus our search for the sensational on food: gifts that thrill our sense of taste.
Efficient gifts they are, making it unnecessary to know anyone's glove size. And always welcome. Nobody need worry about being told, "But I already have a box of cookies." And if loved ones turn out not to like truffle juice (available at some specialty shops, about $18 for a nice big can), they can enjoy it anyway, by serving it to guests. Or give it as a gift.
Which happened to us. We poured a wine for friends one night, explaining that other friends had given it to us as a gift. And where, might you guess, had those friends gotten it?
Thus, if you are lucky, with food gifts you might give and receive.
Here are a few we would be happy to encounter on a plate if not in a Christmas stocking.
Rosemary plants are not only said to have religious significance, but if they are big enough and bushy enough they can be used as tabletop Christmas trees. Even so, we are more interested in their culinary significance; the very thought of fresh rosemary sends us in search of a few lamb chops. Earthworks Herb Garden Nursery at 923 N. Ivy St., Arlington, is opening Dec. 18 to 20, from noon to 4 p.m., to sell its jumbo rosemary plants -- three varieties -- for $5; you can order them in advance by calling 243-2498. You can also order them to be mailed out-of-town for $7.50 each (add $2 for air delivery).
This year's fresh truffles cost as much as dinner at a grand restaurant -- at least $30 each. But for $30 you can get a pound of truffle smell and taste in the truffled mascarpone at Sutton Place Gourmet, 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW. Mascarpone is the creamiest of Italian cheeses, just this side of butter, and in this case has been blended with finely minced fresh white truffles. Heaven and earth in a cheese. The supply is woefully limited, so don't buy a pound -- just a few ounces will do for a loved one to savor. Or on a more modest scale, if your gift list includes an olive fancier, try the mascarpone coated -- and imbued -- with strong, saline Italian green olives. Only $8 a pound. Just the thing to serve with gin and dry vermouth. Include some slices of Sutton Place's supple, midnight-red smoked goose breast ($20 a pound) or one of the few worthy versions of corned beef to be found in Washington ($8 a pound).
Speaking of corned beef, one of the few other good sources is Zeltner's, 5534 Conn. Ave. NW. It also sells some very fine smoked salmons -- at least four varieties -- and smoked trout in gift packages. But the Zeltner's gifts that tickle us are a soup sampler (one quart each of beef, bean and barley, cabbage borscht and matzo ball soup with a loaf of pumpernickel and herb butter, $26.50) or a Sunday breakfast -- delivered. The breakfast, $12.50 a person (minimum 2 people, but who would want to eat it alone anyway), is a platter of Nova Scotia salmon, cream cheese, whitefish salad, bagels and coffee cake. You've got to provide your own coffee and Sunday paper.
Karl Bissinger can provide the fun and games. He is a chocolate maker in St. Louis, a good one, and his catalogue this season includes a 28-piece dark chocolate domino set, $15 and guaranteed to make you want to lose so you can devour your leftover tiles. Bissinger's toll-free number is (800) 325-8881, his address 4744 McPherson Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63108.
Have you been expecting us to recommend the Godiva chocolate Lear jet model kit with chocolate adhesive? At $60 for 28 ounces? What have you got against balsa wood?
You probably don't usually buy your food in china shops. And you may wonder why Moravian cookies are being sold at the China Closet. Maybe it is because they are as fragile as porcelain. So thin that 200 fit in a small tube tin. Gingery. Crunchy. A delicious old Christmas tradition from North Carolina. $5.89 a tin.
Santa has granted our wish. Rather, Homespun has granted our wish. Jane Becker has opened a small shop at 2102 18th St. NW, and equipped it with a kitchen where her chutneys, conserves, preserves, pickles and relishes are made (in small batches, of course) before your very eyes. She will also rent out the kitchen for $4 an hour to cooks who need an inspected kitchen in order to do catering. Buy your favorite cook enough hours to get her catering business started or to make her apple pies to sell to Washington's restaurants and carryouts.
But that's not the only gift possibility at Homespun. The main reason for its existence is what Becker cooks to sell. Her lemon relish -- with cucumber, onion and red pepper -- is hot, tart and crunchy, an array of delicious tastes and textures that gradually dawn on you as you eat it -- with barbecued meats, preferably. Her gingered pear preserves are a mellow mixture of lightly sweet and faintly hot. We are fond of both her damson plum and cranberry conserves, both pleasantly tart and crunchy with nuts. And her spiced blueberry preserves can urge you through a loaf of bread before you can get ahold of yourself. Becker's jams and conserves are light on the sugar, which means that they are not as firm as you might expect, rather soft and near-liquid. No loss. At Homespun they average $5 for 8-ounce jars, $2.25 for 5-ounce jars, and can be tied with calico ribbon and garnished with a small wooden spoon at a small extra charge.
Just the right size for a stocking gift is Bloomingdale's caviar sampler. And just the thing to break the familiar round of wine tastings and cheese tastings. Four kinds of caviar -- beluga, osetra, sevruga and pressed -- of the impeccable Petrossian brand from Paris, are gift-wrapped and ready to be tasted and compared. While one could order the assortment in 100-gram jars ($199 for the four), sweet little 30-gram jars would make a tasteful gift at $62, or a compromise of 50-gram jars at $99. It's an extravagant way to buy caviar, but what are those extraordinary fish eggs, anyway, but an extravagance? Just remember that it takes four days to order the sample package from Bloomingdale's. And don't forget the champagne to accompany it.