How To Make Your Gift Basket Not Suck: Central Market Counts The Ways

Food can be an inspired holiday present, but gourmet retailers say it sometimes takes a bit of razzle-dazzle packaging to make edibles seem more like a gift than groceries.

Rather than stick a lonely hunk of parmesan under the Christmas tree, staffers at Central Market suggest using the cheese - or spices, or wine or whatever - as the starting point for a gift basket. They shared with City of Ate a few suggestions for creating a culinary gift basket that isn't just a space suck.

1. Personalize

"I think the number one thing is, whenever you're putting together a gift basket, the key is personalization," says Central Market's cooking school manager Michelle Rodarte. While Central Market offers pre-assembled collections of sweets and snacks, a gift basket's even better if it contains some hint that the giver's met the giftee. If a friend has a favorite beer or chocolate bar, be sure to include it.

2. Find a theme

The fun comes when gift-givers narrow their themes, Rodarte says. For wine, she suggests putting together a set of one wine from each continent - "We don't have wines from Antarctica, but we do have ice wines," she says - or buying a bottle of every wine on a "Top Ten Wines of 2010" list.

And themes don't have to be restricted by time or place: Food purveyors elsewhere have experimented with competitive themes, such as the North Carolina Barbecue Company's Battle in a Box, featuring one pound each of western and eastern Carolina-style 'cue (with sauces to match), and philosophical themes: Zingerman's this season is selling subscriptions to a "forbidden foods" club, which includes monthly shipments of foods made with peanuts; fatty foods; foods high in lactose and foods that definitely aren't kosher.

3. Accessorize

Not every item in a food gift basket should be edible, Rodarte says. If a giver is going to spring for hundreds of dollars in fine wines, it's considerate to throw in a few good wine glasses too. While I'm not sure whether Rodarte would approve, I recently gave a friend a copy of David Wondrich's latest treatise on punch-making, a bottle of Batavia Arrack (a critical component of many traditional punch recipes), fresh nutmeg and a nutmeg grater. She seemed to like it.

4. Think off-the-shelf

Central Market spokesperson Michelle Owens advises gift-givers not to stick to the tangible when devising a gift basket.

"We can set up experiences," says Owens, ticking off the various classes and guided tastings that could enhance a basket of Chardonnays or sheep's milk cheeses.

5. Ask for what you want

Everything has a price. Or, as Owens puts it more diplomatically, "everything is negotiable." At Central Market, that includes private tutorials from the grocery's bakers, produce managers and butchers. Other stores and restaurants are likely to be equally eager to please: Has your friend always dreamed of sitting in on a staff meal at his favorite restaurant? Or joining his favorite chef at the farmer's market? Negotiate away.

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