Summer is in full swing, which means a lot of people are heading to the airports or getting out on the road for destinations both near and far. If you are lucky enough to be in a position to take a vacation, may I suggest that instead of shopping for the usual souvenir trinkets, you consider dropping in to the local grocery store wherever you may be. Many of us already have enough stuff, and food souvenirs will both remind you of your trip and inspire you in the kitchen when you return.
As an example of, perhaps, over-shopping in other places, here is my most recent haul from northern Italy. When most people think of Italy, pasta and olive oil come to mind. The northern part of the country, however, is known for butter, rice, and superb risotto. I stocked up on Carnaroli and Vialone Nano rices, both of which can be either difficult to find or super expensive here where arborio is more common. The Carnaroli was being sold by a small, independently-owned bakery, but the Vialone Nano came from the regular grocery store.
These fennel seeds looked gorgeous and their scent permeated the packaging, so into the basket they went. The oregano is something I bought mainly because it had a date on it and what appeared to be an outline of an island. It turns out to be a rather famous oregano from the island of Pantelleria where the hot and dry conditions make for amazing flavor, but I never would have guessed it from the plastic tub and low price. If you spot a product and there is a harvest date and/or a map on the packaging, these are good indicators of a unique food with terroir, produced with care and pride. It has already been used in a batch of gigantes plaki with great success.
My traveling companion talked me into a jar of pistachio cream, and I haven’t yet decided what to do with it. Maybe a sbriciolata or two – you can fill them with anything. She stuffed her suitcase with packages of bronze die-cut pastas and espresso. And then of course, because the northern part of Italy is known for both chocolate and hazelnuts, there was the gianduja from Torino.
Be sure to check with the USDA website to see if the foods you want to bring in from foreign countries are legal for importation, and then declare it all when you head through customs. I have brought back Gouda from the Netherlands, and I bought it in a large shop that was able to provide me with a printout that listed the ingredients and methods of production. Asking for the proper documentation will insure safe passage of your items through customs and a few great cheese plates in your future. Don’t get busted by the beagles!
I recognize that not everyone is vacationing in Italy, although it sure seemed like it in Venice, but it doesn’t matter where you go. California has fantastic wines and beautiful olives. Anywhere along the US Gulf Coast is going to have Blue Plate mayonnaise, the best mayo out there. Grab some Crystal hot sauce and Zapp’s potato chips while you’re at it. Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico will have bulk bins of dried chilies that will keep you in mole and enchiladas for the next year. Maine? How about wild blueberry preserves? Canada? The maple syrup cartel has a plethora of products waiting for you. I’ve purchased Puy lentils in France, Tieguanyin tea in China, and Cheerwine in North Carolina.
Finally, for the truly food-obsessed, there are kitchen supply stores. That fabulous whisk in the header came from Siccardi in Torino, the most amazing kitchenware shop I’ve been in since the famed La Cuisine in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia closed a few years ago. If you aren’t sure what the local specialties may be or where the shops are located, ask a resident. People love to talk about food. After all, it is something that connects us with one another, no matter where we live.