Oh, it’s getting ever so close, isn’t it? You look forward or, more realistically, work towards the Christmas break, for so long; there’s a mighty hyped-up build up (it started earlier this year, no? Do we always say that?) and have various understandably premature Christmas dos and mad-dash Secret Santa exchanges, then suddenly, it’s the last shopping weekend before Christmas…
I know. I was planning to Internet shop this year, too. It was going to be great. I was going to tweet a smug picture of my boxes arriving from Amazon, et al, with a ditty along the sides of “Tick! Now to make the mulled wine!”. But I don’t have a glass of mulled wine in my hand. I have nothing.
And I have no real excuse – being a food journalist I have known pretty much what lovely trinkets to buy (and what to avoid) in the shops since July. It’s clearly a false sense of security. Plus, the sun is shining, there are weird men dressed up as Santa asking you to sit on their knee and Christmas puddings are everywhere. It’s a confusing time of the year.
But, that’s quite enough of my so-called life. I thought I’d help those like me, who have left it a little late (you don’t have to admit it, but I know you are out there), to buy the presents, pick up that lovely Christmas day foodie extra and actually have a nice bottle of something to take round, rather than the last offering in the corner shop. Armed with my shopping list of dreams, not only will I approach my Christmas shopping on Saturday (the best time to make a made dash to the shops anytime of the year…), me and my lucky partner-in-crime will be setting about making hampers to go with the presents. Not actual hampers, you understand, more nice bags with selected homemade goods. In our infinite optimism (mostly mine; he is on the side of ‘toning down’), we are going to make – spoiler alert if you are a family member – Christmas orange shortbread, a spiced beetroot chutney, spiced rum truffles, homemade truffle pasta and marshmallows for the kids. I have popped the recipes for the first three at the end of this blog if you fancy it.
If you’d rather not join me for a pre-Christmas foodie nervous breakdown, maybe just pick out one… and pop it in a bag of bought thoughtful goodies.
Do you wanna build a hamper?
This is basically what I may end up buying if Saturday goes awry. In a dream come true for all of us that are just big kids at heart, Smith and Sinclair has made brought cocktail pastilles to the world. Alcoholic (5% ABV) and not too sweet, you can get several flavours including all kinds of rum, vodka, whisky and gin cocktails. My favourite is the whisky sour. They are available in Selfridges in London, Birmingham and Manchester or online at Not On The High Street. The site delivers before Christmas, as long as you order by 23rd. Click here to go to the site (£16.95 for 12 pastilles in a presentation box).
Bit too artisan for you? Waitrose stocks the lovely Irish chocolatier Lily O’Brien’s Creamy Caramels with Sea Salt, which are wonderful little discs of chocolate, caramel saltiness for £2.50 (120g). For the not so sweet a tooth, my sister loved the Dark Chocolate Stem Ginger Batons (£2.60; 126g), from the same range.
My star-find this year was The Be Sweet Company. Based in Ireland, the chocolatier is owned by two sisters, who were obsessed with beautiful chocolate boxes in their childhood and teens. They now produce their own beautiful, traditional-in-style chocolate boxes with really delicately flavoured chocolates to match. The Pearls of Delight (€23.99; pictured) were my favourites and the perfect gift that needs no extra wrapping. Order here before Monday and if you pick a two-day delivery option you’ll receive it on the 23rd. Failing that, Lidl’s Deluxe Chocolate Truffles (£1.99) are soft, sweet, flaky and creamy, and will do the job, if stocked in your local. The white chocolate versions are great.
Your hamper can also go a little Greek as well as Irish with Odysea’s jar ofStuffed Vine Leaves in olive oil or Okra in Tomato Sauce, both available in Waitrose. And if you want to treat someone to some nice olive oil, the Odysea Organic PDO Mylopotamos Extra Virgin Olive Oil (£6.99; 500ml) is the one to pop in your basket.
As chutneys go, I always think homemade is best, but I can’t really recommend my mum’s. The best I have found or given this year are Lidl’sMulled Wine Chutney (sweet but yummy); Rubies in the Rubble Hot Banana Homemade Chutney (a smooth, really well-balanced piccalilli);Ballymaloe Original Relish (Tesco; Ocado), a deliciously tart tomato mix, great with Parmesan; and Strawberry Negroni Jam (Lakeland) with bitters, gin and vermouth, which goes with anything.
And if you just want to buy a ready-made hamper (cheat), Tesco’s finestSpanish Hamper (£15) really made my July and includes 50cl of dry and almost salty Amontillado sherry with a slab of Manchego cheese and roasted Marcona almonds, which all sing off the hymn sheet together brilliantly. Asda’s rich and creamy Extra special St Endellion Cornish Brie and Ocado Le Petit Berthaut (£3;100g) are also excellent.
Foodie bits and bobs for the big days:
Venison was on the up last year and now it is everywhere in the supermarkets and makes a great little extra to bring on a Boxing day or even as a centerpiece for your Christmas day as an alternative to the big T. Morrisons’ Signature British Rack of Venison (£19.50; 500g-800g; call up your store first; pictured) is as visually stunning as it is tasty and Lidl has a gloriously delicate venison carpaccio (pictured, right), great with 30 year aged Parmesan. If you’ve not ventured down the venison path just yet, you’ll love it if you like really flavoursome beef cuts.
Veal is about to be firmly back on the menu and, to be fair, it’s been a while since the inhumane calf-crate system was banned (1990). Accompanied by very high welfare standards, the delicate meat is slowly dripping back into restaurants, and it’s in Tesco’s Finest range in the form of a Veal Rib with Acacia and Lavender Butter (£20/kg) and there’s sliced veal liver at Lidl’s.
Pigeon breast and partridge are also available on Ocado’s pages and Lidl is stocking frozen moose steaks, frozen ostrich steaks, sliced reindeer in charcuterie (nothing is safe) and venison en croute (again, call up your nearest to see what they stock). All this jazz may be a bit of a push for the guests at your Christmas table, so a much easier point of difference can be found at Asda with its Extra Special Chorizo topped Aberdeen Angus Rump Beef Joint (£14.75), or at Aldi with a Specially Selected Fresh Whole Goose. And Lidl’s development chef and Heston protégé Kevin Love’s ODB Pork Belly with Malt Rub and Ale Sauce is worth its weight in gold.
Still can’t convince you? Okay, for an easy turkey option, Tesco has a British Honey glazed turkey crown with pork, apple and chestnut stuffing (£12 a kg), which is perfect to carve (pictured).
M&S has the handy starter of Lobster and Prawns in Champagne sauce in lobster half shells, all ready to unwrap and pop on the table. Its Scottish Loch Etive-sourcedScotland Beetroot and Orange Smoked Salmon (£9; 200g) is earth and sea combined with a twinkle of citrusy Christmas and keep an eye out in independent shops for the curiously different Irish Burren Smokehouse Seaweed Salmon.
Morrisons has a fabulous seafood offer this year (pictured below) with lobsters in half-shell,prawns, crab meat in mini crab shells and tiger prawns. Sainsbury’s has prepared cooked whole crab, langoustines, ready-to-cook scallop tartlets and easy-cookcracked crab claws, which are also available frozen at Lidl (Wild Bay Devon Crab’s Crab Claws; 375g), as well as whole frozen lobster (350g). There is a quality difference, just because they are a little wetter when defrosted, as can be expected.
Tesco beetroot caviar in finest smoked salmon blini set to assemble 12 Smoked Salmon Blinis(£5, in the finest range). And if you want to go really posh, M&S has just launched real caviar onto its delis (available in 45 stores across the country). You can get Calvisius Beluga (large eggs; £55/10g), Calvisius Oscietra (apparently rich and nutty; £50/10g), Calvisius Tradition(£175/30g) and Calvisius Sevruga (small and delicate; £100/30g).
I know you were on it on Stir Up Sunday, but just in case you need anotherone, Sainsbury’s Taste The Differences Golden Bow Celebration Cake (serves 24; £18; pictured) is beautiful. Just don’t bother trying to say you made it yourself.
Or go Italian with Ocado’s Crosta & Mollica Apricot Panettone (£6.99) or Asda Chocolate-covered Panettone. Asda also has a Black Cherry Alaska Bombe and Tesco’s Chocolate-filled Churro Minis Dusted in Cinnamon Sugarare rather moreish.
Champagne: Wm Morrison Brut Rose Champagne (£20; 12.5% ABV) A steal for the price and very pleasant with smoked salmon.
Ale: Hiver honey ale (£2.30; 333ml; Ocado);Yorkshire Red (£2.40; 500ml), from M&S’s Brewed in Britain range
Spirits: Heston from Waitrose Cherry Bakewell Vodka (£24.50; 40% ABV; 700ml) Heston’s basically Santa now, right?
Port: Douro Valley Special Reserve Port (Ocado), Taylor’s Very Old Single Harvest Port 1964 (Amazon; 20% ABV; £140 and ‘may arrive after Christmas’), but back to reality…
Sherry: Morrisons’ Pedro Ximénez (£6; 17% ABV; 37.5cl). I have a sweet tooth.
Non-alcoholic: Tesco’s Spanish White Grape and English Elderflower Drink
Dessert wine: Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Rutherglen Muscat (Amazon)
Wine: Lidl’s Christkindl Glühwein (£4.49; a litre) is exactly how mulled wine should be.
Boozy gift: Gin & Tonic Carmencita’s Cocktails (all the spices you need to make an authentic G&T), Lakeland
Here are three relatively low-maintenance recipes in four hours.
– Make step 1 of the chutney and simmering for an hour and a half
– Make the chocolate mixture for the truffles and chill it
– Sterilize the jars ready for the chutney
– Make the shortbread and bake for 20 minutes
– Transfer the chutney to the jars and then cool the shortbread
– Roll the truffles
– Ice the shortbread