It was supposed to be something beautiful. Something magical, even, as if chocolate were a fruit—juicy, ripe, delicious and decadent all at the same time. This was the stuff of myth and of fairy tales—food for the gods when they didn’t have to settle for something so coarse as ambrosia. This is what I spent 30 years looking for. This is what they told me a sugar plum was. They lied. Beginning as medicine in Arabian apothecaries and once gracing the tables of Tudor feasting halls, the world’s oldest candy begets the bigger lie. Far from a heavenly vision to fill the dreams of yuletide hopefuls all snug in their beds, in reality the sugar plum presents as little more than a purplish-red hard comfit—like the ones grandma used to give out from the old tin on the mantle. The same ones that ended up sticky and gathering lint, discarded half-consumed under the couch. In search of something sweet to get the taste of this bitter medicine from my mouth, Gulf Gate brings a world of sweets to our doorstep.

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1  Italy—Piccolo Italian Market & Deli 

Over at Piccolo Italian Market & Deli, owner Antonio DiRende stays true to the flavors and traditions of the Old Country, with the holidays being no exception. Each year, he and his kids whip up a bunch of customary Italian sweets, such as pitizzeles—thin and crispy, anise-flavored waffles, pressed and sprinkled with powdered sugar—and struffoli—doughy “honey balls” covered in sprinkles. Always sprinkles, says DiRende, though the liqueur added to the batter will vary by region. He keeps his a secret. “There’s always something,” he says with a grin. “You add a little bit of this, a little pinch of that.”

2   England—The British Corner Shop 

There exists no shortage of yuletide traditions across the pond, and owner Lionel Cohen mans his post at The British Corner Shop to bring them right to Sarasota. Plum puddings fly off the shelves, prepackaged in the traditional basket-and-bag combo, as well as brandy butter—an intoxicating concoction warmed and drizzled on top—but the homemade mince pies really bring the downhome holiday feel. Cohen and his family begin making them in November, creating a combo of beef suet, dried fruits, brandy butter and spices to ferment for at least six weeks. As the holiday nears, the crew makes some flaky pastry shells and gets ready to bake. “Absolutely delicious,” says Cohen.

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3  Germany—Thomas German Bakery & Café 

And it isn’t Christmas in Germany without the Christmas stollen, according to Thomas Heyne, eponymous owner and baker over at Thomas German Bakery & Café. A doughy, delicious mass full of fruits, nuts, almond paste and butter, back home, the process of making the year’s stollen begins in September, giving all the flavors plenty of time to interact. “Every week it will be better,” says Heyne. Raisins play a central role, as do almonds soaked in milk. Citron and orange lend a citric tinge, but the butter brings the decadence—making up roughly 40% of the dough. Last year, Heyne sold hundreds from his Gulf Gate bakery, creating around 16 kitchen tables-worth of dough. 

Piccolo Italian Market & Deli 
6518 Gateway Ave., Sarasota, 941-923-2202. 

The British Corner Shop
42236 Gulf Gate Dr., Sarasota, 941-346-6004. 

Thomas German Bakery & Cafe  
2126 Gulf Gate Dr., Sarasota, 941-925-8100.