Nothing wrong with the classic Christmas fruit basket, and a bounty of options exist if you're keen on it, but the truly food-obsessed probably are craving something a bit more obscure for the holidays.
Now's the time to indulge the food hounds on your gift list with little indulgences they wouldn't necessarily buy for themselves — or might not even have encountered before. To help with your holiday hunt, we've compiled a list of some unusual, top-notch delicacies, all available to purchase online.
Meat, cheese and fish
Simply for the concept, you've got to appreciate iGourmet.com's 50 States of Cheese, which if nothing else shows how far artisanal American cheesemaking has come in recent years. Among the selections are cheeses made from Arizona (Black Mesa Ranch's , $8.99 for 6 oz.) to Louisiana (the triple-crème , made by John Folse's Bittersweet Dairy, $19.99 for 8 oz.) and everywhere in between.
The cheesemeisters at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., give you two ways to shop. You can hand-pick everything from French selections like pungent washed-rind Epoisses ($19.95/lb., plus nasty glares from your delivery guy) and sheep's-milk Bleu de Basque ($23.95/lb.) to Piedmontese ($17.95/lb.) and Stilton from Nottinghampshire ($20.95/lb.). Or you can opt for one of their , ($49.95 for 3-4 selections). The shop ages its selections to perfect ripeness in its own cheese cave and its staff are experts in proper cheese-shipping.
The equally fastidious dairy fanatics at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York have gone even further, equipping their Web site with a spiffy pairing tool that allows you to select cheeses by country, milk type and even beverage. Want an Irish cheese to go with dessert wine? There's ($13.99/lb.). Or some ($6.99 ea.) from New York to match a robust red. Each cheese also has an Amazon-style "customers also purchased" feature, so you can see what your fellow cheesehounds are eating.
Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the masterminds behind Marin County's organic Cowgirl Creamery, now offer their own cheeses — and some favorites from around the world — in their online store. Check out their ($45), featuring their own triple-cream Mt. Tam, plus two cheeses from nearby cheesemakers.
Think it's nuts to mail-order canned tuna? Not if you've ever tried packed in natural juices (six cans for $21). The Seattle-based family company, owned by Steve and Holly Lovejoy, is named for the Lovejoys' boat — from which they fish the north and south Pacific for top quality albacore. Not only do they track down top-quality fish so popular that it's shipped to fans on the East Coast, and even homesick soldiers in Iraq, but how many fishermen keep you up to date with their own blog?
It's hard, though, to find a better way to show affection to an omnivore at holiday time than with meat — and what better “You'd never buy it yourself” gift than a heap o' bacon? Pork lovers who get a shipment from in Shushan, N.Y., will be joyous indeed. The farm's humanely-raised heritage pigs are the source for top-notch ($8/pkg.) and ($8.50/lb.). Should that not satisfy, check out Nodine's in Torrington, Conn., and their ($8/lb.), or maybe the applewood-smoked ($25.95) from Nueske's in Wittenberg, Wisc. For the daring, there's ($17.50/kg.), available at Exoticmeats.com. And the true bacon obsessive is probably lusting for a subscription from The Grateful Palate.
Lastly on the meat front, it's been a banner year for ham lovers. After years of lobbying, the federal government has given the nod to , cured from pigs allowed to roam the fields of western Spain, feasting on acorns. That nutty flavor infuses the ham, considered without equal by the Spaniards and even the most discerning pig aficionados. None available this season, but you can plunk down a $199 deposit for orders to be filled in 2007-08. Better love that lucky ham fan: Whole hams will cost upwards of $800, depending on the euro's valuation. Available from Tienda.com, whose owner, Don Harris, helped negotiate the details that allowed for importation.
Grains and baked goods
Chefs and home cooks alike swear by the rice offered by the Principato di Lucedio, the plantation in Italy's Vercelli province that has been growing top-notch grains since the 15th century. Bags of ($7 and 6 for 500 g., respectively) can be ordered from the newly launched online home of Oakland, Calif.'s Rockridge Market Hall, one of the Bay Area's most comprehensive food haunts.
If grits were hamburgers, Anson Mills grits would be tenderloin of Kobe beef. Stone-ground from Carolina organic heirloom corn, these grits are a whole different breed — totally unique and so lovingly crafted they almost compensate for the sorry, microwavable state of grits these days. Choose between coarse-ground Antebellum Grits or finer-ground quick grits, both in either white (based on Carolina Gourdseed white corn, which dates to the Colonial era) or yellow (using the antebellum-era John Haulk variety). Available from Ann Arbor, Mich., provisioner Zingerman's ($23 for 2 lbs.), or you can order direct from Anson Mills in Charleston, S.C. (minimum of four 12 oz. bags for $3.95 apiece, or $35 for a 10 lb. box, plus shipping).
The same can be said for oatmeal. The Oatmeal of Alford, produced in the Scottish county of Aberdeenshire, goes so far beyond other oats that it can convert skeptics who dismiss the stuff as mere morning mush. These are best reserved for the rare oatmeal addict on a gift list. Certified organic oats are first steel cut, then stone ground into a coarse "pinhead" shape that retains the whole grain and offers far more flavor and texture. Available from Chefshop.com ($8.99 for 1 kg) or direct from the Scottish Highlands via Taste of Moray, located near Inverness.
Speaking of Scotland, you might want some other treats from that side of the ocean. Digestive biscuits, shortbread and buns from such producers as Dalgetty's, Border Biscuits and Shortbread House of Edinburgh can be shipped direct from The Taste of Moray. The Edinburgh products ($12.50-$18) can also be found from New York's Chelsea Market Baskets.
If proper Christmas puddings are your thing, London provisioner Fortnum & Mason now ships its (starting at $45) to the United States. Made with Pusser's British Navy rum and sent in its own ceramic tub, this is the authentic item. You also can now order F&M's classic teas, including its line of organic tea ($10 and up).
Condiments and snacks
Jams and jellies remain a perennial holiday fave, and you'll find no shortage of traditional, farm-made options at the store run by Localharvest.org — from ($4.75) made by Stoney Creek Garden in Swanville, Minn., to ($5.25) offered by Southern Grace Farms in Enigma, Ga. If honey's more your speed, Markethallfoods.com offers from New Zealand ($10-13 for 500 g.).
Specialty olive oils have popped up everywhere online in the past couple years. I remain partial to Sciabica's, from Modesto, Calif. Their flavored ($15 for 12.7 oz.) adds aromatic kick to a salad. Equally exquisite is Bariani's ($10/500 ml.) from up the road in Sacramento. Its delicate texture and fruity tones help make the perfect dressing.
You can go equally nuts searching for vinegars. The most unusual to appear this season is the ($29.99) from Acetoria, a partnership of Italian winemaker Joseph Reiterer and German vinegar producer Robert Bauer, available through Chefshop. So-called "TBA" wine is the rarest available in Germany, made from grapes shriveled by the botrytis mold; when allowed to acidify, it's rich, sweet and concentrated — at 2.5 percent acid, not even technically sour enough to be vinegar. You can use it in salads, on ice creams or even sip a tiny bit straight after a meal.
One friend who just left Mississippi refused to move away without stocking up at the , and it's easy to see why. Who would want to choose between the ($17.95/lb.) and the ($16.95/12 oz.)?
New Orleans foodies chased out of town by Katrina will be able to find many of their favorite products online. The ($6) made by Allison and Jack Cousins in Madisonville, just across Lake Pontchartrain from the Crescent City, can again be shipped nationwide. Ditto the from Blue Frog Chocolates.
Similarly, one-time visitors nostalgic with thoughts of the French Quarter will be heartened to know that Aunt Sally's still offers its famous (starting at $9.50) through its Web site. Better yet, you can order a copy of the indispensible Louisiana cookbook ($20.99), published by the Junior League of Lafayette.
ChocolateFor those with a sweet tooth, few things serve as better stocking-stuffers than good chocolate — and exquisite options abound.
Dolfin is not the Belgian chocolate you know. Founded in 1989 by the Poncelet brothers, it specializes in blending the taste of pure chocolate with everything from fresh ginger and Earl Grey tea to Masala spice. Pure dark bars ($3.45 apiece) offer 88 percent cocoa, while the blended bars are 52 percent. Both come in a nifty resealable pouch. Or order a 24-piece sampler ($7.75), which includes flavors like cumin, anise and cardamom. Available from Chocosphere.
The French are no cocoa slackers either, and two chocolatiers in particular have made it their business to hunt down top-quality cacao beans from specific plantations around the world. Francois Pralus sources his single-origin bars from several continents, all dark chocolate with 75 percent cocoa. You might opt for an herbal, spicy chocolate from Ghana or maybe enjoy "Survivor" reruns with a smoky selection from Vanuatu. Hand-pick your selection of 100-gram bars ($4.99 each), or choose the 10-bar sampler ($46.99) at Chefshop.
Or consider the Premier Cru de Plantation bars from Michel Cluizel, the Normandy-based chocolatier, who makes dark chocolate bars sourced everywhere from Venezuela to Papua New Guinea. If milk chocolate is more your speed, Cluizel's "Mangaro" bar from Madagascar is dreamily rich, evocative of dried fruit and caramel. Bars ($5.10-$5.95) and squares ($13.25-$13.95 per 150 g. bag) available from Chocosphere. Or you can tempt the hard-core chocoholic with Cluizel's Noir Infini ($2.60/oz.), made from a boggling 99-percent cocoa. Sweet it ain't, but as cocoa-packed as it gets.
The folks at eChocolates have a slightly different mission. Their (about $3.50 each) are crafted from Arriba cocoa, a native heirloom variety known as Ecuador's best. Dark bars go up to an astounding 90 percent cocoa (100 percent if you're willing to forego sugar), with bright floral, fruity overtones. The Plantations program is designed to guarantee a fair price for cocoa growers and is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which sets standards for health and environmental quality for farmers.
Ashland, Ore.-based Dagoba produces its own organic from Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica. But the special treat is their ($3) and ($8.60/lb.); the bar blends 74 percent cocoa with chiles, nutmeg and other spices to give the chocolate a mellow but unmistakable kick. The cocoa powder replicates the effect for a sweet-spicy fireside treat.
Finally, for a treat with provenance from a higher authority, consider of Amity, Ore. You can keep it simple with the Fudge Royale ($9.95/lb.), or get fancy with the Chocolate Amaretto truffles ($10.95 for six). Whatever you order, the monks will quietly approve.
MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné once FedExed a whole Alaskan smoked salmon to his parents.