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Love bites: Is food the risk-free gift?


Buying a gift for any occasion can be risky - especially on Valentine's Day when you could come across as stingy or overly-keen. Are food and drink the fail-safe options?

Queen Elizabeth I is rumoured to have offered gingerbread men as gifts to visiting dignitaries, each baked to reflect their own likeness.

The letters of William Marshall, an English Medieval aristocrat, record how two metre-long pikes were offered by admiring countesses to the best fishermen at fishing tournaments.

Gifts of food and drink have been exchanged throughout history to help break the ice and forge new relationships, and it is a tradition that shows no sign of slowing down.

Chocolate and alcohol are as popular as ever, with consumers buying 9% more confectionery and 4% more alcoholic gifts in 2012 than they did in 2008, according to research by Kantar Worldpanel.

Gifting small food items has endured far beyond the Middle Ages.

In 14th Century England the proverb "it is better to give an apple than to eat it" was coined, writes Professor Chris Woolgar from the University of Southampton.

Food gifts were often used to bridge distances between lovers or allies, explains Dr Lars Kjaer, lecturer in Medieval history at New College of the Humanities.

A gift good enough to eat:

Edible gifts

Make your own homemade chocolate truffles

Create a colourful batch of macaroons

Bake some feather-light Valentine cupcakes

"We have household accounts of kings and queens constantly sending delicacies to each other, such as wine and fish if they couldn't be in the same area," he says.

When you give food "you're giving the stuff of life", explains Dr Kjaer, whereas material gifts can be more difficult terrain to navigate.

"Ever since the Romans and Ovid's time... there's always been a slight anxiety about giving valuable things.

"You know, does she love you, or does she love the nice jewellery that you bought her?

"But when you give food you avoid some of the dangers.

"Food is temporary, it is there to be enjoyed often together.

"If you spend loads of money on wine or an edible delicacy then neither you or the person receiving the gift feels like they're being bought."

Today gifts of food and drink are popular with consumers looking for affordable luxury without the risk of wasting money, reports Nielsen.

"People are taking less risks within the gift environment, they want something tangible or clear," explains Mike Watkins, head of retailer and business insight at Nielsen.

"Novelty items are less appealing, instead people are looking for things like a box of chocolates for under £10 where they know what they're going to get and what they're paying for."

However even giving a box of chocolates was not always straightforward.

"Romantic gifts of boxes of chocolates carried a lot of baggage in the late 19th Century," explains Alex Hutchinson, head archivist at Nestle.

"There used to be really big, extravagant gifts of chocolates covered in frills and ribbons, but they were really expensive and tantamount to a marriage proposal.

"You couldn't think of buying a girl a box of chocolates unless you were thinking of taking it to the next level."

Black Magic Chocolates Black Magic were the first chocolates aimed specifically at consumer desires

So in 1933 after interviewing 2,500 confectioners and 7000 consumers, Rowntree's came up with a new product called Black Magic. It was designed to be a "baggage-free" box of chocolates in a simple carton, affordable and difficult to misinterpret.

"The marketing campaign was really saying, you can buy this for a girl that you've only just met," says Alex Hutchinson.

"You're not sending any major wedding bell signals, you're just saying 'I quite like you and I'd like you to have this box of chocolates'.

"With Black Magic... buying boxes of chocolates for Valentine's Day became fully commercialised."

Chocolate is still one of the most popular all-year round gift items, reports Mintel, with 62% of people buying it at Christmas, 34% buying it as a birthday gift and 15% of people buying it for Valentine's Day.

In the current tough economic climate people are also looking for more bespoke, handmade gifts and even supermarkets are taking note of this.

The Waitrose Cookery School has launched an edible gifts course, where people can make a personalised box of chocolates, and the taste for a touch of handmade does not stop there.

Love Rosie Cupcakes in North London is one of a number of bakeries across the UK offering Valentine's Day cupcake-making courses.

"I always make all my birthday cards, Christmas, Valentine's. I never really buy things from the shops anymore," explains bakery owner Anika Mistry.

She recently ran a red velvet cupcake course, which is a popular gift choice for Valentine's Day.

Valentine cupcakes Cupcakes are being remarketed as Valentine's Day gifts

"Some people want less girly cakes with sprinkles on top if they're sending it to a man, others want lots of hearts and flowers.

"A lot of requests we get are for personalised messaged on the cupcakes so we put them on little cocktail sticks to go on each cupcake."

Making edible gifts can be construed as meaning a lot more "than actually just buying something from a shop".

"You're actually putting your time and effort in," says Ms Mistry.

"Even if you think you're not very good at making something just give it a go and you'll be surprised by your skills."

But people sometimes get it wrong, says Jane Lyster, author of Edible Gifts.

"A few Christmases ago I made chorizo sausages as a gift for my friends and family.

"My family all ate it without a problem, but some of my friends were really dubious.

"They were shocked that I'd bought pig from a farm and had it hanging up in my kitchen.

"It shows that sometimes it's better to give something that people feel comfortable with."

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