Buying handcrafted souvenirs while travelling not only gives you a story to bring home but also allows you to support the local community. Here are six upmarket gifts for which, while you’ll find other versions internationally, are best when bought in their home countries.
Masks from Venice
Elaborate masks have been a fixture at the springtime Carnevale di Venezia (Carnival of Venice) since the 13th century; today, Venetian masks are also a staple of any self-respecting masquerade ball.
There are numerous types of masks, beginning from the grotesque and mouthless Bauta; and half-masks which only cover the top part of the face so you can still eat and drink. Most masks originate from recurrent Italian theatrical characters, although the long-beaked Medico Della Peste imitates a cover worn by 17th-century French plague physicians. In the modern-day Carnival, a prize is awarded annually for the most beautiful mask.
Traditional mascherari (mask makers) originally utilised Venice’s other fabled product, glass, along with leather, papier-mâché and porcelain. The best are now hand-painted with gesso (a white paint mixture) and gold leaf. Still making them to high quality is the Ca’Macana workshop, which supplied Stanley Kubrick’s controversial movie, Eyes Wide Shut. Expect to pay anything upwards of €35 (S$55.94).
Silks from Thailand
While India and China are also famed for silks, only those from Thailand adopt a homely style called “mud mee”, characterised by pearlescent colours and fuzzy-style edging.
Now over 3,000 years old, Thai silk production is done by hand, from silk-worm harvesting to dyeing – each piece is unique. There are several expert ways to search out pure Thai silk; the easiest is to simply judge by cost: in a good store, 100 per cent silk items won’t cost below 600 baht (US$20).
In Bangkok, Jim Thompson’s many stores are known for their impeccable quality. They sell beautiful scarves, cushions, ties, bags and much more. For cheaper prices, head to the weekend-only Chatuchak Market, and be prepared to bargain. Alternatively, head to silk-making village Ban Sakool in north-eastern Thailand. Buying here ensures makers receive full payment for their skilful efforts.
Rugs from Morocco
Each of Morocco’s 45 Berber tribal groups has distinct design and embroidery styles. Every zerbiya (Arabic for rug) is painstakingly shaped on a loom for as long as six months. To distinguish a pure-wool rug versus something synthetic, hold a flame to its tassels: the real ones won’t catch fire. If shop owners immediately protest, take that as an ominous sign.
Thick, heavy-pile versions retained warmth for those sequestered in the snowy Atlas Mountains, while flat-woven rugs kept users cool in the sweltering Sahara Desert. The best rugs are found in the labyrinthine medina of Morocco’s ancient capital, Fez. Guides will take you to their friend’s shop under promise of commission rates, but ask instead to visit Coin Berbere (67, Haddadine Talaa Kebira). Pay around 800 dirhams (US$85) for small rugs, and anything from 3,500 dirhams for bigger ones.
Caviar from Russia
Despite being one of the world’s ultimate status symbols, caviar is surprisingly commonplace in Russia; every supermarket sells some. For the best, though, make for a trusted outlet like Moscow’s Gum department store and accompanying Beluga Caviar Bar.
Which kind to get? Black caviar, the real stuff, is the roe of sturgeon from either the Caspian or Black Sea. Lesser red caviar comes from other fish, like salmon. Each type or blend of proper caviar – i.e. sterlet – refers to a different sturgeon species, with Caspian beluga the most esteemed and expensive. At Gum, a 10g tin of beluga caviar costs 2,200 rubles (US$35).
Caviar is best served in small dishes atop plates of ice, which soften it. Vodka is a good accompaniment, but never champagne. If the caviar is good and fresh, the grains won’t stick together; but nor should it seem too watery.
Leather jackets from Argentina
Argentina’s vast numbers of livestock explain its two fortes: meat and leather. Capital city Buenos Aires is a mecca for the latter, but the choice can be dizzying. Material-wise, calf skin is commonest but toughest; most in-demand are lightweight lambskin and goatskin, or carpincho – made from capybara hides – which is what the local gauchos (cowhands) wear.
How to tell good from bad? Check that the stitching is the same colour as the main leather, ensure the material feels soft and supple, and sniff for that distinct leather pong. To be ultra-safe, book a bespoke shopping tour with Shop Hop.
Otherwise, ignore the myriad touristy boutiques on Calle Murillo and head instead for a quality tailor like Bettina Rizzi (above). If it’s for a friend, send their measurements in advance; turn-around time is usually in 24 to 36 hours once you’ve settled on the style. You’ll pay roughly 6,000 pesos (US$350).
Comté cheese from France
Comté cheese boasts a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the European Union, which stipulates that it must be made within the Franche-Comté region of eastern France. Made from unpasteurised cow’s milk, it is sometimes – confusingly – called Gruyère de Comté, despite being much milder and more versatile than proper, Swiss gruyère.
Handily, each comté cheese is awarded a score out of 20 by inspectors; those accruing 15 or more points receive a casein label – demonstrated by a green bell logo. Aged comté at 24 to 36 months old is finest, having developing a fine taste, redolent of truffles. It travels well when vacuum-packed.
The Jura town of Poligny is considered comté’s capital. You can visit traditional fruitières (small village cheese dairies) and maturation cellars in surrounding mountain villages like Plasne, or simply buy from a venerable Poligny fromagerie like Vagne (above). You’ll pay about €10 (US$12) per kg.
This article was first published on Silverkris.
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