Seven of our critic’s go-to gourmet shops for the holiday season
The secret to surviving holiday gatherings is excellent food. Here are my very favourite shops for stocking the pantry
When it comes to Christmas, I’m a sentimentalist. My husband is less charitable: he calls me a sap. The day after Halloween I start playing Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas album, and plan how I’ll string the lights on the house, the theme for the tree and a complex schedule of dinners that keeps the various family factions apart. Twelve years ago, our first holiday season together, we started small with a party we loosely titled Cookies and Booze.
We loaded up the dining room table with platters and tiered dessert stands, and let people graze. I baked Swedish-style ginger cookies (with chunks of candied ginger and extra molasses); pecan and butter cookies, the ones usually served at Mexican weddings (in my books, the powdered sugar coating makes them holiday-appropriate); my maternal grandmother’s rum balls; and a gingerbread house that more resembled a hovel, crushed under the weight of the royal icing and gumdrops on its roof. I found dozens of sizes of star- and dog-shaped cookie cutters at Golda’s, the baker’s supply specialist hidden in a Mississauga industrial plaza. (Nowadays, I make an annual pilgrimage, usually right before the holidays, to stock up on Callebaut chocolate chips and the occasional new kitchen toy, like the pizzelle iron I’ve been coveting.) And because not everyone wants sweets with their booze, I picked up a box of samosas from the aptly named Sultan of Samosas. I’ve tried making my own, but there’s no point—they’re never as tasty as Sultan’s tandoori chicken or fenugreek-and-vegetable versions, baked daily at a store on O’Connor near Vic Park. I arranged a big spread of oozing, stinky triple creams, blues and goudas from the Cheese Boutique, the extraordinary Kingsway gourmet store run by the Pristine family that I never get out of in less than an hour, always trying to persuade myself I need one more bottle of aged balsamic or one more jar of single-source wildflower honey. The main draw is their legendary cheese cave, but at Christmas they carry the type of once-a-year candies for which I have a Proustian weakness: humbugs, barley sugars, jelly babies, pink pigs, rosewater Turkish delight, and on and on. The Cookies and Booze party was a hit and has become an annual tradition.
As a kid, like most kids, I was certain my family was freakishly abnormal in most respects, especially around the holidays. We placed presents under the Christmas tree and all that rigmarole, but the adults plainly viewed the entire month as a sentence to be endured rather than the magical time as sold to me by my kindergarten teacher. The men would sit silently in the rec room watching James Bond marathons, while the women would enforce peace among the cousins. Sooner or later I recognized that we weren’t unique—no one’s family gets along and everyone watches Bond as an avoidance technique. And I realized that, though everyone complained about almost everything, no one complained about the food, which was always excellent. Once I moved into my own house with my patient spouse, I realized I missed those prolonged hours stuck inside with grumpy relatives, in particular the warmth of a kitchen after a full day of cooking and the long evenings around the dining table, every available extension leaf put to use. That’s the part I’ve made it my mission to recreate.
The Italian side of my family would often have lasagna or manicotti on Christmas Eve and sometimes for Christmas Day lunch, depending on who was hosting. They feed a lot of people and are easily made ahead—in fact, they taste better if the flavours have had a day to mingle. My paternal grandfather was Italian, but my grandmother was from an old Ottawa Valley WASP family, so her version was closer to the recipe on the back of a Unico noodle box—the Canadian suburban standard. I loved it as a kid, but I’ve improved on it considerably. As with much Italian cooking, the source of the ingredients is key. I get many of my holiday supplies at Lady York, the idiosyncratic supermarket at Dufferin and Lawrence run for the past 56 years by two Italian families, the Torchettis and the DeRoses. My dad runs a similar grocery in the Niagara Peninsula, where I spent my high school years stacking produce, so I’m a sucker for the narrow aisles, hand-drawn signage, vintage shopping carts and gruffly sweet grandmothers behind the deli counter. In December, Lady York is the best place for panettone in ribboned, glossy boxes; bunches of Christmas grapes (the kind with the pips—more for display than to eat); and the caraway tarali and vinegary giardiniera you need for a respectable charcuterie platter. I’m a fan of the spicy cacciatore, which you’d swear is imported from an artisanal Italian outfit but actually comes from the Caledon company Il Tagliere. For lasagna, they carry dried sheets from the venerable pasta maker Garofalo and four versions of a terrific house-brand marinara that’s thin and pure, with a certain sharpness to it, exactly like the red sauce Italian families jar in their garages every September. Most importantly for lasagna, they bring in fresh mozzarella and ricotta daily from Vaughan’s Bella Casara, and have wheels of well-aged parm on hand.
For Christmas Day dinner, I follow the bird-and-stuffing orthodoxy. A couple of years ago, I tried a goose from St. Lawrence market, but the fat splatter left a holy mess, and white meat fans were left hungry. I now swear by the turkeys at Fresh From the Farm, the specialty store on Donlands north of the Danforth, which are raised on Mennonite farms near Elmira. At $3.95 per pound, they cost about twice as much as what you get elsewhere, but they’re fed only local grain and raised in large barns, and somehow I can taste that they were happier than the average bird. It helps that, before the turkey goes in the oven, I spend a good half-hour massaging its skin with a compound butter (sage, thyme, salt). I try to avoid over-worrying about the time or peering too much through the oven’s window. That happy bird always turns out perfect. I usually make a stuffing with wild boar sausage and pecans, and for the sides, I sweeten my roasted yams with maple syrup and, at the last minute, sauté shredded brussels sprouts with pancetta. I’m not allowed to make the gravy. My husband hails from Cape Breton and, for reasons that could have something to do with a French strain in the family or nostalgia for what was served at the Lick-a-Chick (his hometown truck stop version of KFC), he’s finicky about the consistency. He spends forever simmering the turkey trailings down and pressing the results through a sieve until it’s as silky as custard and ideal for pouring onto leftovers in the days ahead.
The one recipe that defines the holidays for me is kringel, an Estonian bread that my maternal grandmother refers to as “sai,” three letters that are surprisingly impossible to correctly pronounce if you’re not accustomed to a Finno-Ugric chain of vowels. The bread is usually eaten with coffee at the end of a big festive dinner. It’s like challah, but denser and more elaborately braided, flavoured with cardamom, saffron and sultana raisins, and dusted with powdered sugar. I like to toast a slice and smear it with high-fat butter or rhubarb jam from Stasis Preserves on Roncesvalles. My grandmother’s kringel is my pinnacle. She bakes it from memory from Eesti Kokaraamat, a 1976 cookbook that compiled recipes from Estonian expats. Kringel is also very close to a braided Finnish bread called pulla, which you can special-order from the Scandi bistro Karelia Kitchen, near Bloor and Dufferin. Theirs is good, but not as good as my grandmother’s. Neither is the version I’ve tried a handful of times, always hoping for a miracle, from the café inside the Estonian House on Broadview. Lucky for me, my grandmother still makes hers every season and brings one to dinner. Without it, Christmas wouldn’t be the same.
2885 Argentia Rd., Unit 6, 866-465-3299
Sultan of Samosas
1677 O’Connor Dr., 416-285-6565
45 Ripley ave., 416-762-6292
2939 Dufferin St., 416-781-8585
Fresh From the Farm
350 Donlands Ave., 416-422-3276
476 Roncesvalles Ave., 647-766-5267
1194 Bloor St. W., 647-748-1194