Gifts From Estonia

gifts from Estonia
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Heifer International: Working To End World Hunger, One Llama At A Time

bolivian farmerGot an extra $20 burning a hole in your pocket and want to make a difference in the lives of others? Buy a flock of ducks. Eighty-five dollars will get you a camel share, while a mere $48 purchases a share in a “Knitter’s Gift Basket (a llama, alpaca, sheep and angora rabbit).”

Since 1944, Heifer International has provided livestock, and animal husbandry, agricultural and community development training to over 125 countries, including the U.S. The goal: to help end world hunger and poverty by improving breeding stock, providing valuable dietary supplements such as milk and eggs, and creating viable business enterprises for commodity products such as cheese, wool, honey, or crops cultivated by draft animals like horses and water buffalo.

The livestock species used to support disenfranchised communities are diverse, but traditional to their respective regions. They include goats, sheep, honeybees, beef and dairy cattle, water buffalo, yaks, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, camels, rabbits, guinea pigs and poultry.

When I was a kid growing up on a small ranch in Southern California, we used to donate our male dairy goat kids (which, if sold here, would most likely be relegated to dinner) to Heifer. Although the program no longer ships live animals overseas (it’s easier and safer/more humane to ship frozen semen), the concept remains the same: using top bloodlines to improve the quality and enhance the genetic diversity of herds or flocks in impoverished regions.

Heifer teaches the concept of the “Seven M’s: Milk, Manure, Meat, Material, Money, Motivation and Muscle.” These are the benefits livestock animals provide to people in developing nations. With the training provided by Heifer employees and volunteers, the cycle of poverty can be broken, and families and villages can thrive. During the holidays or for birthdays, I like to make animal gift donations in the name of the recipient, an especially valuable lesson for children (who, let’s face it, really don’t need another electronic piece of crap to foster their ADD and lack of global awareness).

Never doubt the power of a furry friend to change the world. To make a donation, click here.

Check out this Heifer International gallery of animals and their proud owners from around the world:

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Gadling Gear Review: Heat Holders Socks

I suffer terribly from cold feet; it’s why I don’t cheap out on socks. It’s also why I have one of those electric heater mats on the floor under my desk (a gift from my mate who sometimes just nails the gift giving with weird yet supremely likeable prezzies). Socks are way low on the scale of glam gear down with quick-dry underwear and refillable three ounce bottles, but they’re essential, and having warm feet can really make the difference between a lousy day or a good one.

Because of my terminally chilly paws, I was keen to see if Heat Holders are any better than the merino brands that stuff my sock drawer (SmartWool, IceBreaker, Dahlgren, and Darn Tough Vermont) at keeping my feet warm. (I am a fan of good socks, you may have guessed.) The short answer? Well, sort of.

I have a strong preference for natural fibers, it’s a “less plastic stuff” thing. I’m not totally naive; I do know that sometimes, the synthetics are the way to go. I’m just not that keen to spend a couple of hours waxing a canvas raincoat because I want to go with heavy cotton over far superior modern materials like GoreTex or PolarTech. Heat Holders are an acrylic poly blend; there’s nothing particularly natural about them.

They feel fine, though. They have a deep pile fleecy inside, they’re kind of cuddly, furry, even, a little bit like the inside or your lambswool slippers. (No, I don’t have those. The husband does and they’re sweet.) Outside, they’re, uh, a little plastic-y. I’ve been spoiled by merino, which I tend to prefer. But it’s the outside of the sock, who cares?

Here’s my issue with these socks. They’re really bulky. All that fluffy really does work to keep your feet warmer, and they’re great for sleeping in. But I couldn’t get them in most of my shoes. I’m not totally sold on the idea that adding bulk is the best way to stay warm. I get it — loft is how you hold heat and the loft that these socks somehow manage to provide, even after a full day’s wear, works. They worked great in my wellies, which are a little big, but I couldn’t wear them with many of my other winter boots. I’m wearing mine around the house and with my rain boots out in the wet, but for travel? Nope, too bulky.

The marketing text on the elaborate packaging says that these socks are “seven times warmer than your basic cotton sock.” That’s probably true. But I’m not sure they’re seven times warmer than some of the wool or alpaca fiber socks I’ve got, and that’s a more useful comparison.
Heat Holders socks come in a few styles: stripey, long, and in a slipper sock. Their original sock goes for just just under $20.00.

Gift Guide for Cold Weather Adventurers

Tis the season to give (and okay, get) good gear. And in the northern hemisphere, tis this season to not give up on playing outside, on traveling even though it’s cold and rainy or cold and snowy or just plain cold. Help the cold weather adventurer on your gift list by giving gear that extends the season. Here are a few picks, all field tested by Gadling gear heads, that make adventures easier when temperatures drop.

Vacuum mug: You’ve got dozens of these kicking around the house too, but how many of them keep your drink hot for four hours, or more? Stanley’s vacuum mug is the bomb. Not only does it keep your coffee at tongue burning temps, it’s nearly impossible to spill, it’s designed to fit in the water bottle cage on your bike, it’s got a grit guard for street spray, it’s top notch. Bike commuter, cross country skier on your list? Get them this. About $26.00.

Warming insoles: Warm feet go a long way towards having a great day out in the cold. No matter how great my shoes, how excellent my socks, I still get cold feet. I really dislike those throwaway single use chemical warmers. There’s an alternative. Thermasoles heated insoles are rechargeable and last for about eight hours, a full day of playing outside. Your giftee might think they’re dorky at first, but one use in wet and cold and oh, it’s all gratitude. About $99.00.

Merino wool underwear: My all purpose packing list includes merino wool long underwear, regardless of climate and destination, great outdoors or urban winter. There are a bunch of brands, SmartWool, Ibex, Icebreaker… I’m not brand loyal, but I am materials loyal. Get merino for your beloved (or yourself) and you’ll have a base layer that lasts for many years. Between $75.00-$100.00 per piece and totally worth it.Snowshoes: Your hiking friend gets cranky when snow curtails the season? Put them back at the trail-head with a pair of snowshoes. There are dozens of brands — look for bindings that are easy to work in gloves and cleats that won’t get choked with snow and ice. I like MSR’s Lightning line and the recreational snowshoes from Crescent Moon. Up to about $200.00.

Down sweater: When you add a down sweater to a rain proof shell, you get to extend your temperature range to “Man, it’s cold out!” Eddie Bauer’s First Ascent line is a great choice and not too shockingly priced. Patagonia makes a pullover version that packs into a tiny stuff bag, that’s a bit pricier. A great gift for travelers in transitioning seasons, a down sweater takes up very little room in the pack. From $85.00-200.00, depending on the brand.

Great winter boots: I’m crazy for my Bogs, they’re great for stomping around in the snow or on cold beaches, they keep my feet warm and dry. Teva makes super cute insulated boots that are great for city wear in cold or wet places. If your giftee is more of the back country kind, try Keen’s Summit Country, recommended and field tested by fellow Gadling gearhead Kraig Becker. Up to $200.00

Four season sleeping bag: If the adventurer in your life doesn’t quit camping when the seasons turn to snow, a good winter bag is something they want — need, really, so they sleep warm when they’re sleeping out. GoLite’s Adrenaline Four Season Mummy was also field tested by Kraig (on Everest, no less) and he swears by it. $475.00

Photo: Snowshoeing in Altaussee, Austria. Courtesy of Nerd’s Eye View

Holiday gifts for food (and drink)-loving travelers

gifts for food loversHoliday shopping is easy if the people on your list like to eat and/or imbibe. If they’re into travel–be it armchair or the real deal–the options are endless This year, think beyond the predictable bottle of wine or pricey “artisan” cookies and give reusable, portable, eco-friendly gifts or small-batch edibles that are the taste equivalent of a trip abroad.

As for where to get these items, look at farmers and flea markets, street fairs, specialty food shops, wineries/distilleries, and boutiques. One of my favorite spots to shop: foreign supermarkets.

For the green at heart

An inflatable wine bag is ideal for wine and spirit-loving travelers. They’re multi-use and work equally well for olive oil, vinegar, or other fluid specialty products.

A logo tote bag (preferably made from recycled materials) from a specialty food shop, winery, etc. is great for practical recipients. A co-worker recently brought me a signature navy blue number from Neal’s Yard Dairy, a famous cheese shop in London. In two months, it’s traveled to South America and across the U.S., doing time as a souvenir satchel, laundry and grocery bag, and all-purpose carry-on. When I don’t need it, i just roll it up and stash it in my duffel bag or day pack. Love it.

Gift a wine key (opener) salad tongs or bowl, chopsticks, or other kitchen utensils made from local, sustainable materials such as wood, antler, bone, bamboo, or shell. Do a quick online search or ask (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: phrasebooks) about the origins of said object. If you have any qualms about the eco-aspect, don’t buy it and let the shopkeeper know why.

[Photo credit: Flickr user noramunro]gifts for food loversDrink coasters are always appreciated. I’ve picked up woven palm versions in Indonesia, as well as purchased colorful Portuguese azuelos tiles for this use. If the country or region you’re visiting is famous for its leather, woodwork, ceramics, or even recycled metal handicrafts, you’ll probably find a nice, inexpensive set of coasters. Again, be sure they’re made from sustainable materials.

Vintage kitchenware–even if it’s not functional–can be a great gift, especially if your intended is a collector. Salt-and-pepper shakers, wine openers, cheese knives, a set of Melamine bowls: hit up antique stores or street fairs, because you’re sure to find treasures at affordable prices.

For the adventurer

A pocketknife or plastic folding knife from a famous cheese shop or winery is indispensable to hikers, campers, foragers, and DIYer’s who enjoy a good picnic while on the road. Just make sure your loved ones aren’t the type who don’t check their bags when they fly. A mini-cutting board of wood/bamboo or slate is also a nice gift.

Know someone who’s into mountaineering or other high-altitude pursuits? Coca leaf tea (or for a less effective but more entertaining option, caramels or hand candy) really works, and it’s legal.

For the locavore

If you have a friend of the “Eat local/Support family farms” variety, a gift from your travels can still fit the mold. Whenever and wherever I travel, I make a point of purchasing local, handcrafted foodstuffs: jam or other preserves, honey, cheese, candy. What I buy depends upon where I am and whether or not I have to abide (cough, cough) by customs regulations or have access to refrigeration.
gifts for food lovers
If customs and temperature aren’t an issue, consider a gift of cheese, charcuterie, or even some spectacular produce (A would-be suitor once presented me with a tiny disc of goat cheese and one perfect peach before I departed on a flight; I wasn’t into the guy but loved the thoughtfulness of his gift).

If you you’re looking for a shelf-stable product, some suggestions: leatherwood, manuka, or tupelo honey (from Tasmania, New Zealand, and the Florida Panhandle, respectively); sea salt (I love the red alaea salt from Hawaii); Argentinean dulce de leche; drinking chocolate; real maple syrup; dried chiles or posole from New Mexico; palm sugar from Indonesia; spices from India or Morocco; Spanish saffron or paella rice–look for Calasparra or Bomba from Valencia; Provencal chestnut cream; Italian tomato paste or canned sardines (canned tuna from overseas is very often not from a sustainable fishery); barbecue or hot sauce; heirloom dried beans; stoneground grits…

I particularly like to buy items grown/produced by farmer co-ops but unless they’re manufactured for export or are a dried good, beware. A jar of manjar (the Chilean version of dulce de leche) I purchased from a tiny bakery wasn’t sealed properly, and was contaminated with mold when opened. Botulism or other foodborne illness is not a thoughtful gift (although I suppose it’s better to give than receive…), so make sure you’re getting professionally packaged goods.

[Photo credits: wine opener, Flickr user corktiques; honey, Laurel Miller]

On a tight budget this year? Make your own edible gifts based upon your recipient’s interests, favorite holiday spot, or ethnic heritage. Check out the below clip for an easy holiday recipe; bonus points if you know where Moravia is.

Moravian Spice Cookie Wafers