The overabundance of glossy catalogues offering food by mail presents a gift-giving dilemma. First, what if you and your friends and relatives are on the same mailing lists? Secondly, the food in some catalogues is such a pale imitation of what it purports to be that many of us would not want to give, much less receive, it anyway.
The solution is not to give up ordering foods by mail. Rather, it is to go further afield, seeking out the wonderful but relatively obscure producers whose advertising is mainly word-of-mouth. Scattered around the country, often in out-of-the-way locations, there are dozens of small food companies that offer holiday delectables made by hand, using time-consuming methods and top-quality ingredients.
Without turning on an oven, it is possible to stock your holiday larder (or fill your gift list) with a range of ethnic and specialty goodies -- from kourabiedes, the powdery butter cookies often served at Greek weddings, to Yugoslavian potica, a pastry roll with chopped walnut filling. Most freeze well.
Following are six specialties from small food producers, each eminently suitable for a holiday table or gift giving. These come from humble operations, so don't expect glitzy packaging. With two exceptions, bank cards are not honored. Phone orders are taken by three of the companies. The prices generally are as modest as the plain Jane wrappings, which is remarkable, given the amount of hand labor involved.
Of course, if the word spreads too far about these special sources, there is always the danger that friends will discover them too. The correct response in such a situation is to quickly congratulate each other on your mutual good taste, open the packages, and eat up.
*Drake's Linzer Torte: It is hard to top Chris and Marie Drake of Keene, N.H., for purity of ingredients. The Drakes raise laying hens for brown eggs, grow herbs and vegetables and make their own unsalted butter and cheeses. Marie is known for her high-quality vegetarian frozen dinners that the couple sells to local shops, and also for her fine baking. Her extraordinary linzer torte is available by mail through A Taste of New England, an operation run by Mike Kreek in nearby Walpole that offers carefully selected food items from small producers around New England. The Austrian torte has a pecan shortbread dough with the traditional layer of raspberry jam and a lattice top, and escapes the usual linzer torte flaw of cloying sweetness. Two eight-inch tortes are packed in a white-enamel tin and delivered for $24.95. Bank cards are accepted. Christmas orders must be received by Dec. 11.
A Taste of New England, R.R. 1, Box 333-A, Walpole, N.H. 03608. Telephone: (603) 756-4381.
*Kristina's Wedding Cookies: The traditional rich Greek cookies known as kourabiedes have a short ingredient list -- butter, flour, eggs, confectioners' sugar, vanilla, anisette liqueur and leavening -- but a memorable buttery taste and flaky texture. Using her mother Kristina's recipe, New Yorker Kathy Pappas has been selling the powdery white two-inch rolled cookies to food shops for two years. She has just begun selling the cookies by mail, and will send a two-pound box, containing approximately 32 cookies, via UPS for $19, shipping charges included. Pappas, who does all the rolling, shaping and dusting with sugar by hand, says she needs to receive Christmas orders by Dec. 2.
Kathy Pappas, Kristina's Wedding Cookies, 417 East 74th St., New York, N.Y. 10021.
*Wisteria Candy Cottage Divinity: Divinity is a confection firmly linked with Christmas, but at the Wisteria Candy Cottage in rural Boulevard, Calif. (about an hour east of San Diego), it has been made all year since shortly after the business began in 1921. The cottage, a former one-room schoolhouse that is indeed landscaped with wisteria, is also known for its hand-dipped chocolates, with homemade cream centers, and pecan or Brazil nut rolls, but its divinity is unique. It is more creamy and fudgy than the fluffy, meringue-like candy made at home and comes in no less than 17 flavors. The nut variety (pecan, English walnut, black walnut and cashew) appears in either chocolate or vanilla divinity, while the fruit choices (apricot, pineapple and others) come only in vanilla. A boxed assortment of divinities is $6.50 for one pound, $12 for two pounds or $17.50 for three pounds. Add shipping and handling charges of $3.95 to each address for up to five pounds of candy. Wisteria's Old-Fashioned Mix, a gift box, includes divinities and fudges, brittles, toffees and caramels, for the same prices. Bank cards are accepted and all candy is wrapped in the cottage's signature violet boxes and ribbon. Christmas orders must be received by Dec. 15.
Wisteria Candy Cottage, P.O. Box 985, Boulevard, Calif. 92005. Telephone: (619) 766-4453.
*Francine's Potica: A small iron-ore town north of Duluth, Minn., is home to a Yugoslavian pastry made in an Italian bakery. Potica, pronounced po-teet-sah, is a yeast pastry roll encasing a filling made of chopped walnuts and cream, and it is tricky to make. If you've ever struggled with getting the dough even and shaped into a uniform roll, you will appreciate even more the bargain-basement prices at the Italian Bakery. A one-pound loaf is $9.50, including UPS delivery charges. Two poticas sent to the same address are $15.25. The one-pound loaf disappears quickly and you might want to consider the bakery's 1 1/2-pound loaf, which is $12, postpaid. Two 1 1/2-pound loaves are $20.75, postpaid to a single address. The bakery, which also sells wild rice and its own fruitcake by mail, will take collect calls for orders. Christmas orders should be received by Dec. 11.
Italian Bakery, 205 First St. South, Virginia, Minn. 55792. Telephone: (218) 741-3464.
*Low Country Poppyseed Cake: In Charleston, the heart of South Carolina's Low Country, Teresa Pregnall has been called The Cake Lady for years. In 1983, the then-55-year-old college secretary had a commercial kitchen built adjacent to her home and she began selling a variety of poundcakes. Her consistent best seller is a dense poppy seed, a not-too-sweet cake flavored with sherry that is often served at brunches or with coffee in the Charleston area. Another favorite at holiday time is her macaroon cake, which is a coconut poundcake. Both the poppy seed and macaroon cakes are baked in a tube pan and freeze extremely well. Each cake is approximately 2 1/2 pounds and serves 15 to 18 people. They are $14.50 each, shipping costs included. Christmas orders should be received by Dec. 10.
The Cake Lady, P.O. Box 30683, Charleston, S.C. 29417.
*Dakota Sun Candy: The chances are very good that absolutely no one on your gift list has heard of Jesse Harrold's sunflower seed candies, but it isn't due to any defect in their character. Harrold's candies have been made commercially only since 1984 and he is located in Bismarck, N.D., which he cheerfully admits is not the hub of the nation's food consciousness. His square, coated candies are similar to a sunflower seed brittle covered with chocolate, carob or butterscotch coatings. They are festively wrapped in colored foils and, although available year-round, look as though they belong in Christmas stockings. The coatings are not real chocolate, but are awfully good imposters. The candies are sold by two-pound box, at $12 postpaid, and customers can choose any combination of coatings (dark, milk or white "chocolate," butterscotch or carob). If desired, an assorted two-pound box will be sent with up to four coatings you specify. Christmas orders must be received by Dec. 10.
Dakota Sun Candy. 2433 LaForest Ave., Bismarck, N.D. 58501.
*Ericann Lebkuchen: Lebkuchen is a centuries-old German spice cookie made with fruits and almonds, and it is increasingly hard to find at holiday time. Erich Hamburger, 67, a baker and confectioner who learned his trade in Germany and Switzerland, is now a land developer, but each year from October to December he takes to the kitchen at the Pinewood Lodge in Grand Beach, Mich. There he turns out Lebkuchen, Dobosch torte, marzipan and praline loaves and chocolate cookie leaves for a loyal mail-order clientele. His prices are reasonable -- $7 for a 15-ounce tin of Lebkuchen and $7.75 for a one-pound loaf of Dobosch torte. He prefers that customers write him first for his price list and shipping charges.
Send requests to: Ericann Candy Company, R.R. 1, Box 6, Station Road, New Buffalo, Mich. 49117.