Is it really Christmas?

It’s odd, when you’re a food writer, to discover that Christmas is finally here. It’s 10th December and I’ve suddenly realized that I haven’t opened any of the doors on my chocolate advent calendar – my Sainsbury’s Freefrom Advent calendar, just so you know. To be fair to myself, I was given the advent calendar in July when all the media Christmas shows started (did you think we could just see into the future?), but in a mark against me, it has been right in front of me, on top of the microwave ever since… 

Giant snow globes are a lot of fu

It very much feels like I have two Christmases a year, as all the supermarkets and various brands and companies go all out in July to show you what’s going to be on our Christmas shelves come December. Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas (see above; thanks Morrisons) and I am excited; but it began in May for me with some very forward planning recipe development, so it all feels a bit surreal now – and I keep doubting that it properly is proper Christmas. So, after checking and re-checking the date, I thought I’d share a few things I liked.

The main stars this year is set to be game (venison particularly; it’s the new duck), whisky (that’s the new sherry; but sherry is the new wine) and crab and lobster (picture is Tesco and you buy it frozen) take some of the limelight from smoked salmon, at crazy cheap prices.

First things first: the meat. Once that’s sorted – apart from you’re vegetarian – everything else seems to come together, especially if you are feeding the five thousand this Christmas. Game is definitely on the up for 2015, with Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s introducing permanent fresh meat game lines this autumn just gone. Ironically for all those reindeers flying overtime to deliver our presents, venison is the flavour of the month this December. M&S is offering a Venison Rump with a Pickled Cherry & Red Wine Sauce, but most butchers will be able to order in a rump for you to cook from scratch yourself. My butcher (Kilburn High Road, London) charged about £8 for 500g and I coated it in cracked black pepper and cocoa powder, then seared and roast it, eventually serving it with a Prosecco jelly (one of my latest food obsessions) and deep-fried kale. But, if you’re looking for impressive convenience, Asda’s Extra Special Venison Wellington is one to look out for (paired with cherry again – in the stuffing this time). Or you could go way back to basics and go for M&S’s rather startling Aberdeen Angus beef Tomahawk joint (below; allow 5 days when ordering), which wouldn’t look out of place on the Flintstone’s Christmas table.

, this year, M&S is doing a limited-edition Devonshire free-range dressed bronze turkey, which has been reared on The White Hills Farm and hung for seven days. Personally, a bronze turkey has been my chosen bird at Christmas for the past couple of years since having a chat with Paul Kelly about his three-generation family farm in Danbury, which has been breeding bronze free-range turkeys for 30 years a slow farming method. The bronze birds are bigger and stronger tasting than the white turkeys we have become accustomed to in the UK, but they do have slightly off-putting black feather nips still in their skin. These can easily be removed once cooked, but do look a little like pine needles, and have the same effect on your mouth. If the cook is on the lookout though, it shouldn’t be a problem. You can order one for home delivery here (and they even delivered in May for a Haywards shoot).

Toffee cheese, anyone? Toffee is everywhere this year and quite literally. It’s on top of your gammon (Tesco) in your cheese (M&S), and basically the Heston Blumenthal effect is slowly trickling down the gastronomy tiers, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is very much down to individual taste. I love M&S’s savoury jelly shots with consist of beetroot jelly, horseradish cream and hot smoked salmon or tomato jelly, ricotta cream and pesto – they look great and are in handy little shot glasses you can hand around and pretend you ordered in, but I have quite a few friends who would be stopped in their tracks calling it an affront to their senses and taste buds…

The Creamy Wensleydale with Christmas Cake Fruits in M&S is also a revelation for fruity cheese fans camembert_bakerand would make a really interesting cheesecake, if you can stop nibbling on it. My personal favourites this year are Colston Bassett’s stilton and Shropshire Blue (available here), Kentish Blue and Appleby’s Cheshire. Sainsbury’s is also doing a cute and cheap whole mini mature stilton (above, right), which would look great in a gift basket, as would one of my favourite finds, Ouse Valley Elderflower Gold Jelly, which also looks ace on a plate. As to baked Camembert with toppings, the simplicity of The Co-operative’s version with pancetta, introduced last year, still does it for me. You can put one together yourself with these pretty camembert bakers from Lakeland (pictured, right) – or you could just envelope it in baking paper.

It’s time for the fish course… Whether it’s at breakfast or as a Christmas meal starter, smoked salmon is pretty commonplace now, but as family-run smoked salmon business, Fortman & Field’s Lance Forman tells me, there are a lot of cheap copies out there because of that. If your smoked salmon is tasteless and watery, then it may well have been injected with a smoked flavour rather than actually smoked. Go to the East London docks (or online) for Fortman & Field’s light, soft and fluffy, delicate smoked salmon – and you can see it all happening in the factory there if you want. There’s no flavoured cures or bows to be found, just really good-quality fish, done well. Another great place to look up is the traditional artisan Burren Smokehouse, out in County Clare, Ireland.

In the supermarkets, smoked salmon is getting really fancy, with Asda’s Extra Special Buck’s Fizz Smoked Salmon and M&S’s Scottish Smoked Black Treacle Cured Salmon, “steeped” in black treacle (pictured) to mention a couple. There are also quite a few whisky-cured smoked salmons around (Morrisons does a nice Scotch one), making for a sweet and smoky pairing.

Cooked whole lobster and lobster tails, as well as crab (pair with Aldi’s white wine Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura), are a standard offering from the supermarkets this year, with Morrisons sporting a particularly impressive fish counter. Of course the most specular fish counter will be at your local fishmonger, which can order most things in if you commit to asking.

Alternatively, if you are looking for something a bit different in your starter, Clonakilty black pudding and white pudding (Waitrose, Tesco and Morrisons) could be for you. Made in Clonakilty, West Cork since 1880, this black pudding has a century of black pudding making behind it. It’s light and fluffy, with a real spice kick and fabulous poached. Yes, poached. Just, boil for 15 mins, then cut it out of its sleeve and serve it on a bed of watercress with a mustard and fresh chilli vinaigrette and bread. It’s not for everyone, mind – know your Christmas dinner table audience…

Last but absolutely not least… Sherry. A good couple of Sherries at Christmas is essential in my book, and not just mine the sherry pairing book The Perfect Marriage: The Art of Matching Food & Sherry Wines from Jerez (published by Simon & Schuster; buy here) – look up the unlikely deep-fried watercress recipe.

My flatmate and I drink sherry on a daily basis – dry for an aperitif, sweet for after dinner (we pretend it’s the 1930s). We couldn’t stop drinking this fabulously syrupy, yet refreshing 20-year-aged Fortman & Mason Cream Sherry VOS (£15; 375ml; 18.5% ABV) – it’s a real treat for sherry lovers. Although, Morrisons’ eight-year-aged Pedro Ximenez was almost as good, yet lighter (£5.99; 375ml; 17% ABV).

More where than came from:

Bought-in nibbles… Asda’s Extra Special Steamed Bun Selection – pretty and tasty; red or green Thai marinated chicken filling. Moorish White Bean & Semi Dried Tomato Smoked Dip (Waitrose, Booths, Ocado).

Veggies… Red Brussels sprouts or ‘Brusselberry sprouts’ grown in Lincolnshire (Asda), a new grape selection from Waitrose with three particularly unknown grapes: Sweet Mayabelle, Sweet Samphire and Sweet Globe. Kale and fennel lines are set to soar, and Morrisons will have salted caramel baby parsnips and some never-seen-before white Chanentay carrots on offer (tasty, but no good for building snowmen, obviously).

Serious charcuterie… Pure iberico breed from Juan Pedro Domecq (Selfridges) is melt-in-your-mouth amazing. Lidl has a slightly less expensive fennel salami in stock and you can find British salami and the likes online at Deli Farm Charcuterie, where its black truffle salami stands out. It also sells cheaper packs of salami “knob ends”, which is great, if only for comic value. In what might be a step too far in a description, Sainsbury’s has some ‘chestnut-fed’ chorizo, this year.

Wines… Delightfully oaky, Hardy’s Eileen Chardonnay (about £20) holds up well to game and turkey – I always feel like it’s a red wine hiding in a white wine’s body. Aldi is the place to go for interesting and well-priced wines: namely the Malbecs and the Pinot Noir, and The Co-operative has a nicely priced Chilean red, Casillero del Diablo Carmenere 2012, which has a white pepper taste and goes well with smoked salmon and game.
Aperitif… M&S’s completely more-ish Spiced Apple Martini (gone in one night, I’m afraid).

Whisky… Asda is doing a Extra Special Blendy Whisky 25 year old (£30) and 30 year old (£60) – there’s only 1,000bottles throughout the stores though, so keep an eye out. I haven’t tried that one, but my favourites at the moment are Glenfiddich Rich Oak (great for cooking with) and the sweeter and vanilla-like Auchentoshan’s American Oak, which is good in a hot chocolate and with jelly beans! (All Scotch. Sorry, Dad.)

Beer… O’Hara Irish Red (an amber ale).

Champagne… Champagne Venua Monsigny by Philizot & Fils from Aldi. It’s the best Champagne on the block supermarket-wise at the moment and it’s £9.99 (12% ABV; whilst stock lasts). A part of its ‘buy it while you can’ push, Lidl has the lovely Spansh sparkle, Cava Gran Cuvée from Catalonia (11.5% ABV) for £7.49, which tastes of apricots and is crisp and clear enough to go with anything.

Minced pie… Riverside Lifestyle Christmas Mincemeat with Lavender.

Shocking filler Sainsbury’s Chocolate Scottie Dogs; not sure about the reasoning behind the theme, but they are chunky and satifying and go well with the Spiced apple Martini… And Heston Blumenthal Precision Digital Instant Read Thermometer by Salters at around a tenner (you won;t get if you don’t ask…).

What I’d like for Christmas… Make Your Own Marshmallows Kit (Sainsbury’s, again).

Book to buy… Well, mine, of course: The Great British Pepper Cookbook. It’s very good, honest.