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Playing Santa

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It’s that time of year again when we all get to play Santa Claus. As I grow older, I debate whether to just have a signature gift or to reinvent my yuletide basket of goods annually. Of course the latter is far more fun and offers an excellent excuse for shopaholics.

Either way, we can all use a few suggestions:

Stick to Tradition

Tsokolate and Suman. My signature gift, if you have been following this column, is our family’s Nana Meng Tsokolate. Special Cashew Tsokolate for the VIPs or Original Tsokolate Filipino, which is in paste form and ground with peanuts, for the foodies. I’ve been giving this gift for 10 years now and being a lazy shopper, will most likely not change this pattern. My box comes with six bundles of suman and coconut jam.

Ensaymada. Tsokolate goes best with ensaymada. For hard-core traditional Kapampangan ensaymada, try the one by Inang Salud Dayrit-Santos. It is as big as a giant saucer and is boxed individually. Think of Imelda’s coiffure in a box, hehe. It has all the notes of the classic ensaymada: light but not too moist, buttery sweet but not overwhelmingly so. It’s the kind that triggers memories of grandma’s best baking. (Available at Legaspi Market on Sunday mornings. Tel. 837-0842, 0920-9478819, www.inangsalud.com).

If you want a twist on the classic ensaymada, try Hey Gourmet! The pastry comes in a box of four or six and comes in several flavors, among them tiramisu ensaymada. Veering away from tradition, this ensaymada is very moist, even more so than Mary Grace’s version, and with toppings more appropriate for cupcakes. While it may bring horror to the purist, it makes for a really cute gift! (Available at Mercato Centrale @ BGC. 0917-6635855, Facebook.com/HeyGourmet).

Fruit Basket. Some fruits you can get from your local market, but for something special and oh-so-sweet, try Ormoc pineapples. Ormoc Citizens’ First Lady Christina Dragon-Locsin will ship these weekly starting December 5. You can get a bayong of six pineapples for only P425. (Call 0920-9128496.)

Lechon. For this, I have on speed dial Elar’s: 0920-9501075. Aside from being so flavorful, the skin stays crispy through the afternoon so you can be sure that whoever gets your gift will enjoy the lechon as you envision it. If you don’t need to feed a village, my go-to cochinillo is that of Cirkulo (tel. 810-8735). They have mastered this. Nuff said.

Ham. For the best Christmas ham, you must order early from Michelle Dee. She has only 10 kilos left until December 24 so order now! (Call 892-0688. P850/kilo.) Otherwise, just go to Rustan’s.

Turkey. For the non-pork eaters, there’s turkey. Cirkulo by J Gamboa offers maple-glazed roasted US turkey with sausage stuffing, giblet gravy and dried cranberry compote, buttered French beans and baby carrots (tel. 810-8735, 810-2763). These are huge, by the way. Good for 12 to 15 pax.

Meanwhile, M Commissary by Margarita Fores offers roast turkey with focaccia, pate di fegato, dried mangoes and chestnuts (roasting on an open fire). Or an alternative combination of turkey with ensaymada, jackfruit, Antipolo cashews and prunes. (Call 729-0030, 0917-5138945, look for Anna Lopez and order at least two days ahead.)

Wine. No less than US President Barack Obama endorses this wine: Kendall Jackson chardonnay-round yet crisp, fruity but not overly sweet. Best of all, it sells at just P1,320 at Titania Wine Cellar (at Power Plant Mall, Rockwell; Yakal, Makati; Camp John Hay, among other branches. See www.titaniawinecellar.com).

If price is not a problem, the 2007 Opus One at Wine Story retails at approx. P20,000. If it must be French, there is the highbrow Chateau Siran Margaux 2009 (MUST be an ’09!), also at Wine Story. For a more affordable version, check out the 2008 St. Jacques de Siran at Santi’s for just P700, which is easy on the tongue without losing its density or elegance.

Hamper. For an expensive sweet nothing, get a hamper from The Mandarin Oriental filled with cookies, cold cuts, a bottle of wine and other goodies from its deli. If you can’t brave the traffic on Makati Avenue, there’s always Santi’s on Yakal St., also in Makati.

It’s More Fun in the Philippines

Christmas can also be the best time to promote local finds. Hit the weekend markets for some of the best items. A few that I liked…

Heirloom Rice. Echo Market is promoting the preservation of the age-old tradition of terrace rice farming. Let’s support it by buying heirloom rice! Offered are the following varieties found only in the Cordillera region: Unoy, tinawon, and chong-ak. (Available at Echo Market in Serendra.)

Honey Wine. These are light, flavored wines best for dessert or possibly as an aperitif. Best of all, the wines come in wooden boxes that are perfect for gift-giving. (House of Honey & Honey Wines, Level 3, Festival Mall, Alabang. 0917-8660545, www.diellesmeadery.com).

Tapang Usa. I like to venture beyond cows. Tapang usa and tapang baboy damo are available at P250 per 1/4 kilo at the Salcedo Market (across the veggies stalls) in Makati. (Call 697-2112, 0917-6145923 look for Sally Tomas).

Alavar Sauce. This is a little less deadly than pure bottled taba ng talangka (crab roe) as it is mixed with gata (coconut cream). It comes from the famous Alavar seafood restaurant of Zamboanga and is available at the Legaspi Market in Makati on Sundays. The market also offers the best-selling curacha (coconut crab) in Alavar sauce. A unique gift for the real foodie! (0919-7652385, 0915-7645837, 127-A Sct. Fuentebella cor. Timog, Bgy. Sacred Heart, Quezon City).

Vinegar. Another thing the Philippines should promote is our various vinegars. Sukang paombong, sukang Iloko, the list goes on. Herbolario offers sukang tuba, among other varieties, in bottles that retail for as low as P50 each. These come in Filipino-style gift packages. Unfortunately, they are in faraway Antipolo but will be joining a few bazaars this Christmas season. (Call 0927-5514424, 0932-2531625.)

Tea with Jam and Bread

I first saw this brand that offers over a thousand varieties of tea in Singapore. TWG is overwhelming. And classy. And revitalizing. And not lacking in flavor. Of course Manila foodies are never far behind and just this November, the first Tea Salon & Boutique of TWG opened in Greenbelt 5.

For a far less highbrow, less pricey and healthy alternative, Aro Baro Churo offers Bignay tea which is said to be medicinal (775-9352, 0917-5346431, arobarochuro.shopinas.com). Pair this with the “luxury jams” of Green Babes in the City, with flavors like Strawberry Mint, Pineapple Coco Rhum and Mango Lime. They come in oh-so-cute boxes, whether individually or in a tasting box of six little bottles. (Call 475-4502, 0917-8307399.)

Food Literature

For something that’s not perishable, try giving books published this year:

“Savor the Word.” This is the tenth anniversary book of the Doreen Fernandez Food Writing Award. It’s a collection of essays on food by the winners of this contest throughout the years.

“Memories of Philippine Kitchens 2.” The sequel to the best-seller by New Yorkers Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, it zooms in this time on Bulacan specialties but still has the same template of various features of Philippine kitchens across the nation.

“Eat Out Now!” The latest restaurant guide by Alicia Sy of spot.ph. I’ve always been a fan of spot.ph-their recommendations are spot on and up to date.

Eat Pray… Laugh

Sometimes it’s all in the packaging. To make life easy, opt to contact a professional gift packer/designer. Mine is Beng (0917-6201969 or 0917-3021965), a florist and event organizer who wraps gifts by the bulk for Christmas.

This reminds me of one of the best gift-givers I have ever met, an ardent follower of Menu, Dr. Teyet Pascual, who passed on to heaven last November 20. He always gave the best and most extravagantly wrapped Christmas gifts, complete with giant ribbons and trinkets. Customizing gifts, he always gave me something with “Margaux” on it: artisan chocolates named Margaux from France or a bottle of Chateau Margaux from his collection. He was a collector of art, a lover of food, a man of exquisite taste. Dinner in his home where you could view his collection of paintings by the masters was a sought-after invite, with cooking by Edwin served on the best collection of china that even the Mandarin Hotel would sometimes borrow for lavish affairs. “Noritake is tacky!” he would joke.

He inspired me to write better—as the doctor who introduced me to him also does—and to be more observant. He always made us laugh with his jokes and insider information on high society. He will be sooo missed.

Realizing that we are not immortal, this Christmas, give the best non-perishable gifts: prayers, laughter, love. Be a human ribbon and wrap your loved ones in your arms in a bear hug. It’s better than tsokolate! •

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