The “buy local” movement has no greater advocate in San Benito County than Kathina Szeto. Ten years ago she founded Bene Gifts Hollister and has been promoting goods made in the county with a wide selection of home decor items, self-care products such as soaps and lotions, children’s books and toys, jewelry and seasonal gift ideas.
Located at 615 San Benito Street in Hollister, the shop also sells local and California-based food products including oils and vinegar, Mansmith spices, gourmet popcorn, pasta and bottled sauces. There is even an old-fashioned candy counter where unusual varieties of Marich chocolates are available in bulk.
“We started as a place to showcase local artists and artisans,” Szeto said. “We have had a lot of makers come in to introduce themselves and our inventory has grown a lot since we began. We believe all our local items are excellent because the makers put so much work and heart into their products.”
With the holidays coming up, Bene Gifts is a source for last-minute ideas or more elaborate presentations.
“For an easy gift, we have a wide variety of California olive oils that are infused as well as balsamics that are very flavorful,” she said. “We can also work with customers to create personalized baskets that we can ship as a gift if they want something special and different.”
Szeto has a knack for putting together complementary products in new and unusual ways. At our tasting, the first thing she served was lemon olive oil mixed with coconut mango balsamic vinegar and served over ice cream.
The flavors were unpredictably amazing and the idea of blending different infused oils and vinegars together opens up a new repertoire of tastes that beg to be used in cooking. Wild strawberry vinegar with basil olive oil would be a great salad combination. White raspberry vinegar with lime olive oil would be amazing over steamed fish. Once you get started making combinations, it’s difficult to stop and every one of them conjures up interesting uses.
Szeto has created a line of San Benito Bene food items, sourcing around the state but focused on local tastes. There are infused balsamic vinegars, infused extra virgin olive oils, simmer and BBQ sauces, and more.
The “Bene” in the name is a throwback to the original name of the shop, San Benito Bene, and a nod to “beneficial,” as it’s Szeto’s desire to focus on organic and sustainable products.
“When we meet with creators who want us to sell their work,” she said, “We have a discussion about their products and how things can work out for the both of us. We are always interested in certified organic foods and in our tastings, we try to include and promote local produce.
Szeto’s curation of her inventory and pride in what San Benito County has to offer has paid off in return customers and growing business.
“I am so grateful for our customers,” she said. “They teach me about our rich equestrian, agricultural and ranching history. I love being able to share stories of our talented artisans and their creations.”
The shop is normally open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. but will be opening on Sundays as well starting Nov 28. Items can also be ordered on the shop’s website.
The foods of Bene Gifts Hollister
Bene Butter Chicken Simmer Sauce (12 oz, $15) There is a distinct authenticity to this rich, thick Indian sauce, with chopped onion and tomato puree accented by turmeric, garam masala, ginger and garlic. As might be expected from the cuisine, there is a bit of heat to this sauce, but not enough to be out of reach for most people. While intended as a 10-minute simmer sauce for chicken, it could be warmed up and spooned over string beans or roasted potatoes, mixed into stuffing, or even used as a condiment on a turkey-croissant sandwich.
Bene Korean BBQ Sauce (12 oz, $15) Similar to a teriyaki sauce, this sweet BBQ sauce has fruit notes from Asian pears and a medium spicy kick from chilis and black pepper. It has a broad, deep flavor with soy sauce and ginger front and center. A little bit of this goes a long way, so I would not use it for a marinade. But it would work well as a basting sauce or drizzled over any kind of meat or green vegetables—Brussels sprouts come to mind.
Bene Meyer Lemon Olive Oil (8.5 oz, $15) The lemon comes through strongly, with a slightly bitter tone of lemon peel in the finish that compliments the oil’s slight burn. Lemon oils, to me, can overpower a dish and I would save this for salad dressing or mixing with a lighter, sweeter vinegar, as Szeto did with the mango coconut vinegar.
Bene Basil Olive Oil (8.5 oz, $15) Basil olive oil is one of my go-to’s in the kitchen because of its remarkable versatility. This is a nice one—the pure, almost sweet, flavor of the basil comes through strongly and it tastes like you just ate a basil leaf. There is a little burn at the end but otherwise it’s mild and balanced. One of my favorite things to do with basil olive oil is to use it to saute a little garlic, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and mix it with pasta it can cling to, like radiatore. This is also my must-have oil to use in dipping sauces.
Wild Grove Mango Coconut Balsamic Vinegar (8.5 oz, $16.65) This vinegar was the surprise hit of the tasting. The mango and coconut mingle without one dominating the other. The acid of the mango and the vinegar are softened by a firm base of coconut, one flavor riding on top of the other. I think this would pair well with a wide variety of foods: drizzled on Katsu chicken, used instead of malt vinegar on fish and chips, plated with cheesecake, or as a dip for egg rolls.
Bene White Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar (8.5 oz, $15) The tartness of the vinegar marries with the tartness of the raspberries for another treat and another bold flavor. Like the coconut mango, the experience of trying this vinegar sets your mind off on ways to add it to food. Szeto suggested pouring this into sparkling water or yogurt. I could see it as an ingredient in mixed drinks with perhaps some tequila as a bright refresher.
Bene Wild Strawberry Balsamic Vinegar (8.5 oz, $15) The bountiful taste of this vinegar took me back to memories of the strawberry preserves my grandmother used to make. The flavor is more of a strawberry reduction than strawberry puree, so the tone is a little darker and less sweet. I think it’s a must-have for baked desserts like cakes or cookies and would add a springtime freshness to salads. Szeto had me try it on plain Greek yogurt, which worked nicely—any of the fruit vinegars would work well that way.
Marich Dark Chocolate Ginger (5 oz, $6.50) One of the signs of my rapid decline into adulthood is a growing preference for spice and darker flavors over sugar and sweetness. This was my favorite of the chocolates, with the bitter dark chocolate giving way to the sharp heat of the ginger. Not a candy to eat compulsively, but an eye-opening treat.
Marich Peppermint Bark Caramel Popcorn ($5.50 for 5 oz ) Caramel popcorn kernels are dipped in dark chocolate then coated in peppermint flavored white chocolate. And if that doesn’t intrigue your sweet tooth, nothing will. These are larger than the other chocolates, two or three bites’ worth. They have a good crunch and brisk holiday flavor.
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