By Jamie Drummond

Taste No 5 Umami Paste – $5 (exclusively from Holt Renfrew)
Upon first seeing this tube of Umami Paste I immediately thought “What a load of hocus pocus nonsense!”… however after some serious kitchen experimentation with this interesting product (adding it to a chicken stew and then a lamb casserole) I decided it to be THE gift of the season… and an utter steal at $5 a pop. Through combining the most umami-rich natural ingredients (porcini mushrooms, anchovies, parmesan cheese, tomato paste) into a single paste, this product delivers an inexplicable concentrated tastiness to any dish that it is added to. It is really quite astonishing to experience. I would imagine that most of my family and friends will be finding a tube of this in their stockings this year.

Alvear Fino and Amontillado Montillas ($10.95 at the LCBO)
Yes… you read that correctly… both of these wines are available for $10.95 each on the General List of the LCBO, meaning that theoretically one could pick them up in every LCBO store across the province of Ontario. Hailing from the town of Montilla, just Northeast of Xeres, the home of Sherry, these wines exhibit many of the characteristics that one associates with Sherry and can be thought of as similar, but very different. Unlike Fino and Amontillado Sherrys, Montillas are made entirely from the Pedro Ximenez grape, a varietal that is extremely rich in natural sugars. Because of this the wines naturally reach an alcoholic strength of 15% without the need for the addition of alcohol for fortification.

I would highly recommend buying three or four bottles of Alvear Fino for your holiday get-together and serving ice cold with Serrano ham and a selection of charcuterie, while I’d suggest pairing the Amontillado with a warming bowl of French Onion Soup. I’m not the only one who thinks that these wines exhibit spectacular value BTW… The Fino was rated an 89 by Robert Parker in The Wine Advocate, and the Amontillado an 89 by Stephen Tanzer in International Wine Cellar!

Jameson Reserves Gift Pack ($99.95 at the LCBO)
This natty little gift pack contains three little 200ml bottles of Jameson’s Reserve Irish Whiskeys: The 12 Year Old, The Gold Reserve (A blend of whiskeys between 15 and 20 years old), and the 18 Year Old. The box also contains complete tasting notes for all three bottlings. As Jameson use natural gas instead of peat during the malting process, these whiskeys do not have those smokey peat flavours and aromatics that one finds in many a Scottish whisky. The three whiskeys here are dramatically different from each other, in particular the Gold Reserve which sees a fair bit of new oak, and for many would be the most accessible, feminine, and easy drinking in this lineup. Personally I enjoy the licorice, anise, cloves, and sense of minerality on the 18 Year Old, which is without a doubt the most focused and complex.
Rundles Cooking ClassesRundles Weekend Cooking Classes with Chef Neil Baxter
March 25, April 1, 8, 15, May 6, 13 ($385 per person)

Having always been thoroughly impressed with the imagination and cooking skills of Rundles Chef Neil Baxter, I was delighted to hear that he was hosting a series of cooking classes for the general public in Stratford this coming Spring. The classes are very much a hands-on affair with class sizes never exceeding more than 16. The intimate educational sessions last around 90 minutes, with the entire group then shedding their kitchen whites and then sitting down to enjoy the fruits of their collective labours. Sounds like my idea of a good time! Click here for more details.
Christine Cushing’s Greek Olive Oils
“Vibrant” Organic ($54.50 for 3 x 500ml bottles)
and “Bold” EVOO ($45.50 for 3 x 500ml bottles)

A couple of weeks ago GFR blind tasted these Greek Olive Oils from television personality Christine Cushing and were most impressed. Both oils are devoid of any bitterness, clean and bright, and would make the perfect finishing touch for so many salads/dishes. We leaned towards the “Vibrant” Organic bottling for its amazing finesse and elegance… but the “Bold” Extra Virgin would put many a pricey Italian EVOO to shame. Christine’s oils are available from a number of retail outlets and through her website.
Strange Belgian Beer Gift Packs
Brewery Van Steenberge 6 x 330ml ($17.95 at the LCBO)
Biere du Boucanier 6 x 330ml ($13 at the LCBO)
For some mysterious reason the buyers at the LCBO go a bit Pirate daft for the festive season. This year, as well as having the wonderful Piraat strong beer, they have a full gift pack replete with what look like inebriated pirates on each label. It really is quite something. Pirates aside, these beers are really rather tasty, with each having its own individual character. Most of these beers are upwards of 6% alcohol, so they are by no means “session” beers, but something to be savoured, perhaps serving them with a cheese board. I’d recommend that you drink them from the larger bowl-style wine glasses for maximum aromatic impact. My personal favourites are the crazy-strong (10.6%) Tripl Dark Gulden Draak and the lighter (6%) Bruegel. Which reminds me… How much did it cost for a Pirate to get his ears pierced?… A Buccaneer.
Marc Thuet – French Food My Way ($39.95 at The Cookbook Store)
The fourth generation Alsatian chef, television star, and human tattoo canvas tries his hand at his very first cookbook. Of all the cookbooks that crossed my desk this season I have to say that Thuet’s has given me the most pleasure thus far. While it has to be said that a few of the recipes are somewhat challenging for the home cook, the directions surrounding technique are extremely well laid out. It’s a good looking book too, with photographs, colour palette, and fonts all being very pleasing to the eye. I love to leisurely browse through cookbooks, gathering ideas for the weeks ahead, and French Food My Way fitted the bill perfectly. A the top of my list of recipes to try in the near future: Lamb Navarin with Chops, Kidneys, Testicles, and Young Fava Beans followed closely by Gratin of Tripe, Snails, and Fois Gras. My mouth is watering just typing those…

A Holiday Retreat at The Drake Hotel (from $189 for the 1st night, and then $129 for a subsequent night in ANY of their rooms, including the XL suite)
There is undoubtedly something indulgent and, dare I say it, downright dirty about staying at one of the better hotels in the city you actually live in. The Drake Hotel has seriously raised the bar when it comes to this city’s expectations of what a true boutique hotel can be. What better gift for your best friends, or for yourselves, than a couple of nights at this Queen West institution. Available December 1st, 2010 through January 31st, 2011. Excludes New Year’s Eve. Click here for more details.
The Complete Book of Knife Skills – Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan ($34.95)
I have always fancied myself as a skilled sharps man in the kitchen, but the truth of the matter is that I have destroyed more perfectly good food, and cut more fingers than you would possibly believe. Over the years I have attempted to remedy this through the purchase of a number of books on knife skills, but have always found them to be quite difficult to follow… normally leading to even more devastation of both foodstuffs and digits as I attempt to read and chop at the same time… never a good idea. This particular tomb is altogether different from those I had previously purchased, with explicit colour photographs (often annotated) of every single step of the particular process in question. I think that this would make a wonderful gift for any budding home cook, perhaps coupling it with a good Chef’s knife from Zwilling J. A. Henckels.

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of  Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he hopes that Santa is kind to him this year as he has been a very good boy.