For us, no souvenir is sexier than a taste of something discovered on our travels--farmhouse goat cheese from the Pyrenees, Isle of Skye smoked salmon, a rose-colored soft drink from Ladakh, India. But who wants to lug such delicacies home?A stinky cheese and a smashed wine bottle prompted us to search for a saner route. As mail-order and Web purveyors of Southern staples, we get a thrill from sending boiled peanuts to Riyadh--and we aren't the only ones. The Internet promises to make almost any ingredient you have a hankering for accessible via your desktop. Holiday gifts?Read on. We've compiled a source list of extraordinary foreign foods available at a click or a call. Overseas delivery, of course, comes at a price, but credit cards make cross-currency purchases nearly effortless, and international express shipping has become fast and reliable. So leave that extra room in your suitcase for Chinese silks or Moroccan tiles, and let your food finds ride on a different plane!
Prices quoted do not include shipping, unless noted.
GREATEST HITS FROM FOREIGN TABLES
TRUFFLES We love surveying the just-harvested French fungi on the lavish Web site of Périgord's Marché de Truffe de Sainte Alvère (www.sainte-alvere.com). If you need a truffle tutorial, the site provides a wealth of info in proficient English, and there's a discussion board where you can post questions. In season--December through March--purchase truffles directly from the site. Per-gram prices vary according to the market.
FOIE GRAS Having mail-ordered various types of foie gras made in France, Austria, and this country, we've found that Hudson Valley Foie Gras (877/289-3643; www.foiegras.net; $65 for 11/2 lbs.; phone orders only), from upstate New York, is the best bet for freshness, flavor, value, and, especially, a smooth arrival: our Strasbourg order dawdled for more than two weeks in customs.
SMOKED SALMON Small purveyors like Knipoch and Inverawe deliver direct from Argyll, Scotland, but we found that the vagaries of international shipping left the fish, though vacuum- and foam-packed, a bit bedraggled from the trip. Finally, we caught word of an Atlanta-based distributor of Scottish salmon (from $9 for 4 oz.), whose product comes to them in refrigerated containers, ensuring the quickest, gentlest transatlantic journey. Gourmet USA (888/889-1949 or 404/843-2047, fax 404/843-4465; www.freshcaviar.com; phone or fax orders only) imports a proper and delectable Scottish salmon from Strathaird, a smokery in Oban founded by the Jethro Tull flutist Ian Anderson. Rock on!
THE WORLD'S BEST CHEESES As with salmon, for wheels of English Stilton or wedges of Lombardi Taleggio and their kin, you're better off letting a stateside importer take on the risks of international transport. We swear by Murray's Cheese Shop (888/692-4339) and Ideal Cheese Shop (800/382-0109; www.idealcheese.com), both in Manhattan. Though Murray's has a catalogue and Ideal a Web site, you'll prefer talking with the knowledgeable staff (and often, the owner) of these establishments. They can steer you toward cheeses that are in a perfect state of ripeness, and tip you off about what's just come in off the plane.
TUSCAN OLIVE OIL For peppery, perfectly grassy olive oils that evoke farm stays in Tuscany, try the Rare Wine Co. (800/999-4342 or 707/996-4484, fax 800/893-1501; firstname.lastname@example.org). Get on their mailing list, and you'll receive 16 mostly wine-oriented newsletters a year. In December, watch for word that the olio nuovo, made from the first hand-picked olives of the season, and bottled on a few family estates, has arrived. Be warned: Once you taste new olive oil, you won't be going back to garden-variety extra virgin. A 17-ounce bottle of Fratelli Grat's Monte is $17.95, not much more than a premium extra virgin. Of course, the company also imports wine, with an emphasis on limited releases and emerging vineyards all over the world.
DUTCH LICORICE Hear ye, hear ye, Dutch expatriates: All Things Dutch (800/879-3882 or 781/982-8100; www.allthingsdutch.com) stocks real Dutch licorice--the black confection whose distinctive salty flavor brings tears of nostalgia to the native-born and tears of agony to those who haven't yet acquired the taste. For novices, the less-salty (and very cute) katjesdrops, black licorice cats, or coin-shaped muntendrops (each $3.99 for an 8.8-oz. cone-shaped bag) are the perfect introduction. But beware the DZ, or dubbel zoute (double salt), coins--they taste like salty ammonia. Also look for Droste's large dark-chocolate letters, $3.75 each, a traditional Dutch holiday gift for children (a T for Ted, an M for Matthew!); fruit-shaped marzipan ($2.99 for six pieces); and Delft-patterned tins of speculaas, the buttery spiced almond cookies shaped like windmills ($8.99 for 14 oz.).
EUROPEAN CHOCOLATES The best small-scale foreign chocolatiers generally play hard to get: if you want them to deliver to your door, you'll need to trot out your rusty French or Flemish or German and play fax tag, which can be frustrating. But it's worth the effort if the dividend is a box of silky truffles and croquants from Bernachon (33-4/78-24-37-98), a century-old atelier in Lyons that roasts its own cocoa beans. For ease of purchase, contact ChocolatEpicure (805/584-6861; www.chocolatepicure.com), the American agent for 15 European confectioners with impeccable credentials. ChocolatEpicure mercifully lists prices in dollars, with shipping included. Of the many chocolates we've ordered through the site, the ones from Wittamer of Brussels ($97.50 for 1.6 lbs. of mixed chocolates) were the hands-down favorite. Of course, at that price, they should be.
PLUM PUDDING When we were young, this sticky British Christmas cake of brandy-soaked minced figs, dates, nuts, raisins, lard, and anything else the maker's heart fancied except plums, seemed tragically unsweet, even bitter. Just as we began to acquire a taste for it--with the help of generous dollops of sweet, alcoholic hard sauce--Sophie, our British source, retired from baking. Recently, we were delighted to find British Express (888/840-1280 or 603/594-0021; www.britishexpress.com), which carries three brands, including the traditional dense one-pound Matthew Walker Christmas pudding with rum, brandy, and cider, packed in an earthenware bowl ($19). Alas, this one doesn't include a good-luck shilling hidden inside, but we can vouch for its authenticity otherwise. British Express also sells all manner of hard-to-find British specialties, such as pickled cockles, and can help you usher in the new millennium with a bang: their foil-wrapped party crackers are sanctioned by the queen. Grab the other end, Charlie, and stand back, Mum!
PANETTONE The famiglia Albertengo, now in its fifth generation of bakers, stokes an oven that's been churning out Italian dessert breads for more than 50 Christmases. Located in Torre San Giorgio, a Piedmontese town of 400, the family bakes a traditional panettone with raisins, candied fruits, and a hazelnut glaze; the beautifully minimal, raisins-only Antica Ricetta variety, a Milanese specialty; plus 20 other panettones and two types of pandoro (another holiday bread)--all of which are available through Christmas via Doral Gourmet in Queens, New York (718/886-7315, fax 718/886-7313; www.doralgourmet.com; from $13; phone and fax orders only).
YULE LOG Like those of the best Paris pâtisseries, Sarah Lambert's bûches de Noël are decorated with extra-bitter Valrhona buttercream bark, gold-leaf-dusted meringue mushrooms, and marzipan holly leaves and berries. From her shop in Mill Valley, California, Pâtisserie Lambert (877/292-1229 or 415/389-1977, fax 415/389-1978; www.patisserielambert.com; $32 for a foot-long bûche, $60 for a two-footer), she ships overnight, but if you intend the bûche to follow the Christmas goose, place your order by noon on December 21.
SWEDISH HAM Look no further for salt-cured juleskinke, or Christmas ham. Nordic House (800/854-6435 or 510/653-3882; www.nordichouse.com) offers an (uncooked) version for $3.75 a pound (10-pound minimum; a whole ham is about 20 pounds). The site also displays Scandinavian staples (crawfish in dill juice, $19.95 for 2.2 lbs.), candy (five cream frogs, $3.25), and toiletries (Vademecum toothpaste, $5)--perfect stocking stuffers.
WASSAIL We think our recipe for spiced punch (see below) is unsurpassed, and we're happy to let you in on our source for the key ingredients. Penzeys Spices (800/741-7787; www.penzeys.com), based in Wisconsin, sells high-quality condiments from exotic locales: galangal (a ginger relative, $1.39 for 0.85 oz.) from Thailand, East Indian and Grenadian fresh whole nutmeg and mace, bright green cardamom pods from Costa Rica, and Ceylon cinnamon--"true cinnamon" to those in the know.
THE EXOTIC GROCER
INDIAN Namaste.com (800/803-1183 or 847/475-7715) has the Web's widest variety of Indian comestibles and hard-to-find items at good prices: coriander chutney ($2.49 for a 7.8-oz. jar), the smoky condiment black salt ($1.19 for 7 oz.). We like to snack on saunf (candied fennel seeds), available in five mixes.
GERMAN Germandeli.com stocks everything from delicious sugar-beet syrup ($2.99 for 16 oz.) and dill-infused pickling vinegar ($2.89 for 25 oz.) to German bratwursts and liverwursts. It has bath products, too. We had to try the "Caribbean Lemon" Fa soap ($1.49 per bar). Turned out to be a dead ringer for Irish Spring.
ASIAN AND LATIN We get the nopalitos tiernos ("tender cactus"; $1.79 for 12 oz.) we use in salsas from the Pacific Island Market (877/274-2639; www.asiamex.com). Try the pumpkin seed-based Doña Maria mole verde ($2.69 for 8.25 oz.) to spice things up fast.
JAPANESE Maruwa Japanese Foods Supermarket (415/563-1901; www.maruwa.com) has all the maki makings--neon-yellow pickled radish, various rices, nori sesame seeds. We also shop here for sweets such as Muscat Gummy candies. Lucky residents of the 12 states that permit interstate liquor shipment can order premium sakes and plum liquors. If Y2K fears have you grounded this holiday season, consider an order from sites such as this an affordable substitute to international travel.
THE LEE BROS.' TANNENBAUM TIPPLE
This recipe reflects our Southern roots (the green tea is the giveaway) as well as our college preoccupations (as steward of Harvard's Signet Society, Matthew was in charge of making the wassail every Christmas). This one has a sprightly beer-and-sherry base, and just the right balance of spice and other curious flavors to tantalize a merry throng. We recommend serving it in a festive punch bowl, slightly cool, but not cold.
2 750-ml bottles Amontillado (medium dry) sherry
6 12-oz. bottles cold ale (preferably a hoppy American microbrew, though Sam Adams will also work just fine)
1 quart room-temperature gunpowder tea or other green tea, sweetened with 1/2 cup of sugar
1 cup brandy
3 small oranges
20 whole cloves
4 cinnamon sticks
1 heaping tbsp. ground galangal
2 whole nutmegs
Stud one orange with cloves. Slice the second into eight thin disks. Squeeze the juice of the third into a small bowl, then add the zest to the juice.
Into a punch bowl pour the two bottles of room-temperature sherry, followed by the beer (slowly!), then the tea, brandy, and orange juice. Grate cinnamon sticks into the brew until fatigue sets in, then toss in the remaining sticks. Grate nutmegs into the mix until fingers are in danger and set the remainder aside. Add ground galangal, stirring lightly.
Finally, float the studded orange and the orange slices in the bowl. Feel free to experiment with the balance of spices to suit your taste. Allspice, mace, and juniper berries are also compatible ingredients in this wassail. Serves 25.
MORE TO EAT, ANYONE?
Some of the best food purveyors aren't on-line, and many that are won't be found by all the search engines. Don't give up! The source you're looking for is likely to be in the directory of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (www.specialty-food.com). It lists names and addresses of dozens of international food manufacturers, with links to their Web sites.
Another resource is Slow Food International (www.slowfood.com), an Italian-based group with international chapters, devoted to preserving culinary heritages around the globe. Look to them for recommendations of food producers and restaurants, plus culinary chitchat.
Matthew and Ted Lee's Boiled Peanuts Catalogue is available at www.boiledpeanuts.com,, or send $1 to Box 315, Charleston, SC 29402.