Foodstuff Worth Smuggling Home

The frequently undeclared (and often unpasteurized) souvenirs of culinarians.

Illustration by Spencer Olsen

Not all of the tastiest things in the world can be bought on Amazon Prime. This means that there are still rare treasures that must be sought out and brought back the old-fashioned way: wrapped in a dirty T-shirt in the bottom of your luggage where the dogs (hopefully) won’t find them.


Despite the long list of horrible side effects that provide the epilogue to most drug commercials, the FDA is still resolute in defending Americans against the true danger: unpasteurized cheeses less than 60 days old. Does that mean that the Brie, Camembert and Époisses that you’ve been buying and enjoying domestically are frauds? Unfortunately, yes—at least partially. While pasteurized versions that are made specifically for export can be delicious in their own right, they often lack the depth of flavor and complexity of their original, unpasteurized brethren. So despite the pungent aroma, they are prime candidates to find their way into the discerning cheese lover’s luggage.

Cured Meat

If you’re interested in acquiring the best cured meat products in the world, you’re going to have to go to Italy. While other countries certainly have their fair share of exceptional products, it is Italian salumi that is king. Understandably, this makes the lack of availability of many of the most famous of types in the United States all the more frustrating. Back in the 1960s, the USDA banned some of the pork products coming out of Italy because of fear of contamination with swine vesicular disease (though this was largely reversed in 2013). While the disease isn’t harmful to humans, it can decimate pig populations and survive the long curing typical in salumi production. Compounding this problem, many renowned artisanal producers are not capable of producing quantities large enough to effectively export, hence they don’t even attempt to jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops. But the first sample  of prosciutto D’Osvaldo, made in the northeastern city of Cormons by a single family, is like tasting the prosciutto that would be served in heaven only on holidays and special occasions. Culatello di Zibello, made from the muscular part of the hind leg and dating back to the 15th century, can only be produced in an area where the Po River bends just so, enshrouding the production zone with cold fog that is thought to bestow its characteristic sweetness and fragrance. Lardo di Colonnata is aged pure white lard coming from an area in Tuscany that is famous for its marble quarries. It’s the porous quality of the local marble in which the lardo is aged that accounts for that “special something” that can’t be found elsewhere. May we suggest Loksak’s odor-containing Opsaks for your new acquisitions?

Olive Oil

Freshness is absolutely crucial when it comes to olive oil, and the sad fact is, most of what’s on the shelf is already decidedly past its prime. Further complicating the problem is the startling assertion that up to 70 percent of commercially available extra virgin olive oils are adulterated in some way. This happens by mixing extra virgin oil with lower-quality oils, diluting them with cheaper oils such as canola or soybean oil, or even adding chlorophyll from other sources to “enhance” the flavor. A fresh bottle of quality olive oil from a producer you trust is precious stuff indeed.


We are lucky enough to live in a golden age of odd liquors. The renaissance of classic cocktails has exhumed a variety of obscure libations that were unheard of a decade ago. And that’s a glorious thing. But it only takes a couple of stamps in your passport to realize that there are still so many left to discover, enjoy and understand. Around every corner there seems to be yet another untasted amaro or unheard-of mezcal. The sheer number of interesting distillates found in some random negozio di liquori or licorería are enough to boggle the mind at times and inspire kid-in-a-candy-store feelings. Shop to your heart’s content—the good news is that you’d have to bring in a ridiculous amount of booze with you to arouse suspicion, since alcoholic beverages are comparatively inert and free of the dangers of microbial contamination.

If you’re looking for either a trophy or a special gift, alcohol is a great option, as are any of the above products. Of course, before you consider importing them, ahem, “on the DL,” you should probably pay a visit to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website to learn all about it.

Also, we never had this conversation.