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Gift A Feast

Provenance: The Story of Gift A Feast’s California Olive Oil Gifts
By Gypsy Achong

When guest blogger Anna Colibri, a San Francisco writer and digital marketing strategist, heard me share the story of our two newest gifts, For a Feast of Greens and A Feast of California Olive Oils, at a recent small business networking event, she was inspired to take a deeper look at how these gifts came to be.

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gourmet olive oil giftWhen I heard Gypsy share the story of why she decided to pursue gourmet olive oil gifts and how she went about doing just that, I was inspired and impressed by her passion for great food, her appreciation of people and tradition, and her attention to detail and business acumen. When you choose a gourmet food gift from Gift A Feast, you can be sure that Gypsy has gone through an extensive curation process and selected each item in the gift not just because it is delicious, but also because it comes from a unique time, and place and has been produced with a caring human touch.

The Importance of Provenance

“One of the things that is different about Gift A Feast is that every product in our gourmet food gifts has provenance [place of origin, guide to quality and authenticity--author’s note],” Gypsy told me. “With our California olive oil gift, we want people to be able to see what the different varietals of olive oils taste like. Each bottle comes from a specific place, produced by a specific person. Just like wine, there are different varietals of olives grown in different terroirs.”

“Most consumers are just starting to learn about the complexity that exists in the world of olive oil,” she continued. “For a long time we thought that any olive oil that came from Italy was of the highest quality Now we know that there are  olive oils being shipped to the United States and sold as extra virgin olive oil which would never pass an extra virgin olive oil taste test”

“The best olive oils,” Gypsy tells me, “are pressed as quickly as possible after harvest. There is no time for mold to appear, or for fermentation to occur. The oil may taste like ripe fruit e.g. banana, or green fruit e.g. green apple or grass, but there should never be a salty or musty flavor that would indicate rot or fermentation.”

Gypsy decided to pursue California olive oil not only because she loves its rich, clean, and complex flavors, but because she loves to share new discoveries. “I am always searching for something special so I can share it with my family, friends and customers,” she said.

California Olive Oil’s Rich History

When I asked Gypsy about the evolution of the California olive oil industry, she told me that many years ago California was planted with Mission olives, which have very large seeds and produce a woody-tasting oil. More recently, growers started experimenting with different varietals, including the often-planted Arbequina, which grows well in California and makes a delicious oil. Other tasty varietals include Frantoio and Ascolano, both of which found a place in A Feast of California Olive Oils gift. Like every Gift A Feast offering, this one speaks to all the senses.

The trio of mini bottles of California extra virgin olive oil in this gift includes Moon Shadow Grove Ascolano, Rio Bravo Frantoio, and Séka Hills Arbequina. Taken together, these oils represent a rich history and a promising future. Moon Shadow was the first organic extra virgin olive oil in California, while the Rio Bravo blend is produced by the Nickel family who have been farming for over five generations. “The Séka Hills Arbequina is my go-to olive oil. I just love it.” Gypsy said.

To find the best olive oils efficiently, Gypsy turned to California Olive Oil Council tasting panel founding member Nancy Ash, who, with over 25 years of international olive oil and food industry experience, made the process of finding great oil smooth. “Nancy is tasting every high quality olive oil in California and so I tasted from among her favorites.” Gypsy said. “I try never to taste more than seven things at a time. It’s just too overwhelming for me.”

The Bittersweet Truth About Vinegar

A natural addition to olive oil is, of course, vinegar. Gypsy told me something I didn’t know, which is that there aren’t very many traditionally produced vinegars. Today, most vinegar is produced by flushing oxygen through the alcohol so that within hours the wine becomes vinegar. KATZ, Gift A Feast’s vinegar producer, uses the Orleans Method - a slow barrel fermentation which produces a more complex flavor, and is the method traditionally used for producing balsamic vinegar.

“The KATZ Late Harvest Viognier Honey Vinegar,” Gypsy said, “is simply splendid. KATZ is based in Napa, selling only via his website. He has his own bees, which produce the honey in his vinegar. We’re lucky to have his products.”

And we’re lucky to have Gift A Feast. Thank you, Gypsy, for doing the work of finding gifts that are beautiful, delicious, and, in an often rushed world, mean something special.

Specialty Wrapping Paper
By Gypsy Achong

Specialty Wrapping PaperWe have a friend who grew up in India, where paper was precious. Though he has lived in the US for more than a decade, he continues to treat every book as if it is a holy manuscript. His handwriting is tiny, so he can fit as much as possible on each page. And when he receives a gift, he carefully slices through the tape, in order to salvage every scrap of the wrapping paper for re-use.

Here in the US, we tend to take more napkins than we need, use two or three paper towels to dry our hands, and turn down the corners of pages to mark our place in books. But despite this casual relationship with paper, Gift A Feast recipients tend to act more like our Indian friend when their package arrives.

“Just looking at it wrapped like this, I didn't want to unwrap it," said one reviewer. "But, knowing I had to review the items inside, and being curious to see the goodies that make up the 'Feast for Mom' gift set, I slowly unwrapped the paper (which you can personally pick out), making sure not to tear the wrapping paper, so that I could reuse for another occasion."

What's so special about our wrapping paper? We buy it from companies that have a special reverence for paper. One of those companies, Snow and Graham, explains, "We honor the tradition of surface design with a very contemporary sensibility, combining modern designs with supple papers and fine art letterpress printing. This process allows for the design and materials to reveal the pure qualities of each, creating an expression that is memorable and exceptional."

Another supplier, Smock Paper, says, "We believe in the creation of beautiful things…. including  gift wrap made from 100% post consumer recycled paper." At Design Design, "Our designers search the world for what's hot, and on the forefront of the fashion and interiors industries. We bring you bags, ribbons, roll wrap and coordinating tissue paper with an undeniable wow factor." And Jillson Roberts offers one of - if not the - most complete, most beautiful collection of eco-friendly products in the industry. Their “Give Green” packaging is becoming more widely recognized by consumers, and our customers absolutely love it.

Of course, no gift wrap is complete without a ribbon. We chose May Arts as our ribbon supplier, because of their unusually large selection of high-quality ribbons.

At Gift A Feast, you can choose the specialty wrapping paper that best suits your style, your recipient's style, or the season. For the holidays, you can adorn your gift with Christmas paper, Hannukkah gift wrap, or Silver Stars. Our in-house favorite is Rustic Revelry, because it makes us sing, "Brown paper packages wrapped up in string…." And even plain brown wrapping paper has been shown to make people appreciate the gift they're receiving more than they would if the gift weren't wrapped at all.

In addition to the elegant gift wrap, we always include a hand-written note with your custom message, making it seem as if you'd packaged it yourself. And if you want your recipient to believe that's the case, we'll be happy to keep your secret.

Starting your own gourmet food business - inspiration and advice
By Gypsy Achong

In honor of Business Women’s Day, we asked some of the amazing business women we partner with about their experiences starting their gourmet food businesses in San Francisco. Read on for inspiration!Gift A Feast's gourmet food partners

When did you know you wanted to start your own business?

June Taylor, The Still RoomJune Taylor, The Still Room - After two experiences in restaurant work where I was treated poorly I decided that I would not work for anyone in food again. Having a baby brought me to the organic farmers market to buy my food and it became the first place I sold my organic preserves.

Christine Doerr, Neo CocoaChristine Doerr, Neo Cocoa - Always knew it, but didn’t know how to articulate it. I had the typical lemonade stand on the sidewalk when I was 5. I made Christmas ornaments when I was a teenager and sold them at craft fairs.

Catherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee TalkCatherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee Talk - Cousins, best friends, sisterly love, a Hawaiian 50th Birthday Party, and a cherished childhood recipe was the inspiration behind Toffee Talk, our artisan, award-winning confections company.  We both have had successful careers in the Real Estate and Investment worlds, but a trip celebrating Catherine’s 50th Birthday with 12 of our closest friends brought a different sort of flavor and richness to our lives.  Through many long talks, our friends recommended that Catherine use her Godmother’s Toffee recipe to start a new career.    Toffee Talk was born.

Monica La'O, Olamola ConfectioneryMonica La O', Olamola Confectionery - I think it was around age 23. At that time I realized that I wanted to be the brand behind the products. 

Gypsy Achong, Gift A FeastGypsy Achong, Gift A Feast – With the birth of my second child, I wanted more control over my daily schedule. I loved helping companies grow their businesses, and thought it would be a great adventure to grow my own company.

What has been the most difficult part of running your own business?

June Taylor, The Still RoomJune Taylor, The Still Room - The never ending work and keeping boundaries between my work and my personal life.

Christine Doerr, Neo CocoaChristine Doerr, Neo Cocoa - Learning that the thing that drove me to start the business, making the truffles, is the thing I don’t get to do.

Catherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee TalkCatherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee Talk - The biggest challenge for us is how to scale our business and writing that 5 year business plan.  We just can't find the time to sit down and put our plan to paper. Where are we going and how are we going to get there?!  

Monica La'O, Olamola ConfectioneryMonica La O', Olamola Confectionery – Continuously trying to find the right next step. Every experience teaches us something new and we have to be smart and flexible with how to move forward. 

Gypsy Achong, Gift A FeastGypsy Achong, Gift A Feast – Remembering that I cannot do everything today – do what’s most important today and the rest will follow in time.

What is your favorite part of running your own business?

June Taylor, The Still RoomJune Taylor, The Still Room - Creating beautiful and delicious preserves and striving always to do my very best. My relationship with farmers and the community I am in; farmers, artisans, customers and retailers. I have been generously supported by all.

Christine Doerr, Neo CocoaChristine Doerr, Neo Cocoa – Sharing the truffles with people and getting what I call the "euphoric" reaction. That reaction is what feeds my passion and keeps me going.

Catherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee TalkCatherine Hughes, Toffee Talk - From this early age I have always loved entertaining and cooking for friends.   It only took me 50 years to turn my passion into an award winning confection business.  I love being my own boss and having the flexibility to run the business on my own terms.

Ellin Purdom, Toffee Talk - My passion has been networking with everyone we know and learning every step of the way. The first thing we discovered is that we have an amazing product – once people tasted Toffee Talk, it started to sell itself.  Using our Social Media channels has helped us spread the word about our company.  We are lining up orders faster than we ever imagined.

Mindy Fong, Jade ChocolatesMindy Fong, Jade Chocolates - I love it when I sample chocolates out to people who have never tried Jade Chocolates before.  When customers genuinely love the products you create and it brings a smile and to their faces, it's well worth all of the effort of being a small business entrepreneur. 

Monica La'O, Olamola ConfectioneryMonica La O', Olamola Confectionery – We put our heart into our cookies--simply watching customers happily enjoy the product has always been the best part.  

Gypsy Achong, Gift A FeastGypsy Achong, Gift A Feast – All of the amazing people that we interact with. From our suppliers who are passionate about the delicious foods that they create, to our customers who want to create a memorable experience for a special person in their lives. Coming to work is a daily reminder of all of the good in the world.

What do you wish you had known before you started/what advice would you share to someone just starting out?

June Taylor, The Still RoomJune Taylor, The Still Room - Follow your passion and stay focused. be determined, yet patient. Do not accept compromises and have fun - it’s only food!

Christine Doerr, Neo CocoaChristine Doerr, Neo Cocoa – I'm thankful of not knowing many things before I started. I think I would not have started if I had. Advice: If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else. Life is too short.

Catherine Hughes and Ellin Purdom, Toffee TalkCatherine Hughes, Toffee Talk - I had never been involved in a startup but have been mentored by many successful entrepreneurs.  I realized that if they could do it so could I!  However, my career in legal transactional real estate has proven to be invaluable in launching Toffee Talk.  There are so many legalities in starting your own business - I had a good understanding.  Get good legal advice!  

Monica La'O, Olamola ConfectioneryMonica La O', Olamola Confectionery – I wish I had known more about the importance of a proper marketing strategy before carrying inventory. No matter how amazing the product, you need a strong plan to gain exposure and sales. As for advice, determine your team strengths from the beginning and nurture them. For areas of less expertise, always seek advice or mentorship from those with experience. 

Gypsy Achong, Gift A FeastGypsy Achong, Gift A Feast – Everything takes longer than you think it will. Be patient but also flexible. Find ways to talk to your customers and potential customers. Then listen to what they are telling you and incorporate their feedback as quickly as possible.

Cookies From Cake: A Chat with Monica La O', founder of Olamola Confectionery
By Gypsy Achong

Monica La O' - founder Olamola ConfectioneryFor Valentine’s Day this year, we debuted our “Feast of Kisses” featuring Olamola Confectionery’s hazelnut orange meringue kisses. Recently, we caught up with Monica La O’, founder of the family-owned confectionery, to learn more about these delicious treats and the kitchen that created them.

Monica can’t remember exactly when she fell in love with baking, but she did feel inspired at a young age watching her grandmother make croissants. “I told my mom I wanted to be a chef when I was ten,” she said. “But I couldn’t decide whether that meant savory or sweet.” By high school she was selling cakes to friends, and found herself in need of a name. Credit goes to her older sister for recombining the letters of “Monica La O’” into “Olamola,” embodying in one word the playful creativity of her confections.

She considered culinary school, but chose a different focus, a degree in food science at UC Davis. Still, she didn’t give up her dream of baking. A few years later, her chance came: her parents were working abroad, Monica was caring for her younger sister, and she needed a way to work from home. So she resurrected Olamola from her home kitchen, and began selling cakes and treats to friends and family.

The support of Monica’s brother in the kitchen was essential to bringing the cookies to production, and whether inspiring her dreams or making them a reality, her family’s involvement has made the difference. Talking to Monica, it’s easy to sense how much this means to her. The support has been so constant that she struggled to find an answer when we asked if there were any moments that stood out to her. In addition to helping with logistics and morale, she told us her family’s artistic leanings have made them expert taste testers. What a job!

Olamola Confectionery LogoEven her poodle mix, Henri, has done his part. The logo is actually an illustrated take on a photo of Monica and Henri in the kitchen.“He’s my shadow anyway,”she said. “So it just felt natural.”

Eventually, she developed her “bread and butter,”“simple but soulful”cookies made from high quality ingredients. “I’ve always preferred simple quality over crazy flavor combinations,”she said. This philosophy produced her hazelnut orange meringue kisses, the cookies that put her on the map. She told us they began as a birthday cake with ganache spread between each meringue layer, and she liked it so much she condensed it into cookies. We asked if such a cake might eventually show up on the Olamola menu, but Monica explained that cakes have to wait until she moves out of her rental kitchen.

It was hard enough bringing the cookies to production scale. Even with her brother’s help, it took an entire month to solve “the egg white problem”—her home recipe called for beating the egg whites, adding a little sugar and putting the rest in with the nuts, but with a huge amount of egg whites, she had to reinvent the process to achieve the same flavor and texture. She laughed when asked if her food science degree had helped with this challenge. “Every step,” she said, “whether success or failure, has taught me something useful.”

And recently Olamola has been a huge success. Monica plans to open a brick and mortar storefront in the Los Altos/Palo Alto area within the next two years, giving back to the community that raised her, and providing a permanent kitchen space for her production. We’re looking forward to savoring that hazelnut orange meringue cake sooner rather than later.

Conserving Bright Princess peaches with June Taylor
By Gypsy Achong

This Sunday we joined June Taylor's hands-on conserves class at The Still Room in Berkeley, California.  Our Bright Princess peaches had been delivered on Thursday morning, after being hand-picked at Tory Farms in Dinuba.  The fruit was tree-ripened, and several of the peaches bore impressions of the pickers' fingers.  

June dispelled a couple of myths of conserve making for us:

- Washing your fruit waterlogs it.  Instead, wipe the fruit with a damp cloth, or even with your wet hands.  Best to use fruit without pesticide residues.

- No more water baths for conserving high-acid fruits.  Instead, heat your bottles in a 250F oven.  Be sure to bottle with gloves!

We chopped the peaches, making sure to achieve a consistent size, so that the fruit would cook evenly.  Then we mixed everything together - peaches, sugar, lemon juice.   We used a ratio of fruit to sugar of ~5:1.  For the jam we make from our elephant heart plums at home, using a "low-sugar" recipe, the ratio is approximately 1.6:1.  No wonder June's conserves taste like fruit off of the tree - they are!  I can't wait for this year's elephant heart plum jam.

We made three types of conserve: Bright Princess peach; fruit infused with wild fennel; and fruit infused with lemon verbena.  June had reaped the wild fennel during a walk with a friend at the Berkeley Marina.  Her neighbor at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market in San Francisco gave her the lemon verbena.  

We cooked our fruit for approximately 20 minutes in wide, heavy stainless steel pots.  Once all of "the puddles of water" had disappeared, we bottled.

The guide to bottling without a water bath is:

"Hot, hot, hot; Fast, fast, fast; High, high, high" - keep the conserve temperature above 190F throughout bottling process; fill all bottles before putting on the cap; fill bottles to within 1/4" of the rim.

My favorite quotes from June throughout the morning:

"We've forgotten what's it's like to have our feet on the land, in the land"

"Butters are a reminder to slow down in life"

I'm slowing down with some of our Bright Princess peach conserve on toast and a cup of Mumbai-style chai.

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