When seasoned travelers from Europe and elsewhere visit us, or just my husband at the university, they usually bring presents. My husband wisely hands the good stuff — anything that isn't the visitor's latest scholarly tome — over to me.
The best presents are chocolate, of course. Sometimes French and Italian visitors bring a good bottle of wine, which was a nuisance for them to transport. Since I can't drink and my husband only likes an occasional sherry or Bailey's, it means we have a good gift the next time we are asked to dinner.
Our Paris friends sometimes remember that our favorite Mariage Frères tea is butterscotch. We really miss our Paris friends these days.
A Belgian visitor brings chocolate, so a Belgian visitor is always more than welcome. A recent one handed over a little cube that was surprisingly heavy, being packed tightly with half a kilo of little chocolate pyramids, filled with vanilla cream. Then she sent us another tiny box, this time packed with cats and Santas filled with hazelnut cream. She'd better come back soon.
Egyptian chocolate can be excellent. In December, we got a box of gold-foil-wrapped dark chocolates from Cairo, with a crunchy, sort-of praline center. I was initially skeptical, but Egyptians know from chocolate; I knew that they had pastry all figured out — and candy, too. The praline things were so addictive that we ate them all without saving a wrapper, and now we don't know how to get more.
The best thing about dark chocolate is that my husband thinks he doesn't like it and usually leaves it alone. Mine, mine, mine.
German, Austrian, and Swiss visitors wisely bring chocolate. The more diabolical among them bring us Lindt chocolate in varieties that we can't get here, a welcome gift that is also a form of torture. A package appears, full of something wonderful, and we (or I should say, I) snarf it down and realize I must, must, must have more. Now! So I race over to the Lindt store . . . and they've never heard of it.
Let me draw your attention to two such items, just in case this happens to you, or if you are going to travel to Switzerland and want to bring us a present:
These are roasted almonds covered in milk chocolate and dusted in sugar spiced with cinnamon and coriander:
They are amazingly good. They run rings around the deeply addictive chocolate-covered almonds with sea salt and Turbinado sugar from Trader Joe's. I ate most of a bag the other day, during a screening of La La Land, and it was by far the most enjoyable part of the experience. (Musical romantic comedies have Happy Endings — it should go without saying. So what was that?)
Anyway, I'm trying to learn how to pronounce Weihnachts-Mandeln nicely so I can tell Santa I want many bags of them next winter. They are, obviously (if you have any German; I do not), a holiday item. But that didn't register with me until I had only about four left in the bag. This means that nobody can get them now unless there's a Teutonic candy shop somewhere with a curse on it.
I will never understand why all the wonderful holiday things are only available at holiday time.* For example, peppermint bark tastes just as good in April as it does in December. But unless it's occurred to you to hoard the stuff (and I have) you'll just have to trust me on that.
After all, in A Christmas Carol Mr. Dickens advised us to keep Christmas in our hearts all year round, and it would be a hell of a lot easier if we could keep it in our stomachs, too.
I may actually try to make some Weihnachts-Mandeln soon. I'll let you know how that goes.
My other long-lost foreign-only item is Lindt's Milk Chocolate Orange Thins (see above). They look like nothing — thin little rectangles of plain chocolate. Big deal, you say. I know, I thought so, too. Loads of them come packed in a shallow box about the size of two decks of cards. But there's something lovely and satisfying about their very thinness and smooth flavor — and I'm hardly a chocolate minimalist. They melt in your mouth perfectly. And you really only need a few at a time but, as I said, there are loads of them, which is lovely, too.
In the US, you can get them in milk or dark chocolate. What you can't get is the orange-flavored milk chocolate and those are the ones you want. The ones you must have when you finish them out and trot over to the Lindt store for a crushing disappointment. (I can also tell you that they don't have them in the Heathrow Duty-Frees because I pestered a friend to hunt for them last week.)
If you are heading to Zurich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, or similar soon, please let me know.
** Which reminds me. It's the day after Valentine's Day. Are your Christmas decorations, etc., GONE YET? More on that subject later. I'm keeping Christmas in my heart AND here and there, I guess.