As those few precious days away from the hurly-burly of work draw closer, here, in time-honoured fashion, are The Gannet’s ideas of what the well-dressed dining table should be wearing this Christmas: top-notch festive food that can be summoned at the click of a mouse.
I’ve long admired the beef at Mark Hix’s restaurants, from Northern Ireland butcher Peter Hannan: his Glenarm Shorthorn wing rib of sirloin was awarded three stars at this year’s Great Taste Awards and can now be bought online from Fortnum & Mason. Beautifully marbled with flavourful fat and dry-aged in Hannan’s Himalayan salt chamber for at least 28 days, it is the perfect centrepiece to a Christmas spread; should any remain (doubtful), Boxing Day sandwiches will never have tasted so good. Just add watercress and a lick of English mustard: ideally, Tracklements Tewkesbury Hot Mustard, laced with horseradish and another three-star winner.
No festive table is complete without a well-stocked cheeseboard, and a place at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales delivers exactly that. The Courtyard Dairy has picked up a hatful of awards, not only for its fine selection of cheeses, but also for maturing them in the best possible conditions – affinage, as the French call it. Try the unpasteurised Sparkenhoe, aged for up to 18 months and much more assertively flavoured than traditional Red Leicester; the creamy, flinty Beenleigh Blue, made from sheep’s milk in Devon; and the superb Tunworth Camembert, made in Hampshire from cows’ milk, and my favourite British cheese of the decade.
The Courtyard Dairy chooses only the wrinkliest Tunworths, in which the scent of meadows and an ethereal hint of mushroom are most pronounced. It also sells a ceramic Camembert Baker – stud a Tunworth with slivers of garlic or black truffle, and serve it oozing from the oven – although purists might prefer just a plate of thin Peter’s Yard sourdough crispbreads, made to a Swedish recipe in Shropshire.
To finish, coffee and chocolates: for the former, none surpasses Gianni Frasi’s flame-roasted beans. His tiny factory in Verona produces as much coffee in a year as Lavazza makes in two hours, and the richly nuanced results attest to his perfectionism – this is coffee to enjoy like fine wine.
For a cocoa hit, R Chocolate is a hugely promising newcomer. I am very impressed by the truffles: 70 per cent dark chocolate – from the Congo’s Virunga Mountains – has its silky qualities reinforced with Glenmorangie and double cream, and is then rolled in hazelnut dacquoise crumble. A wee dram of the aforementioned malt might not go amiss, either; self-indulgent, perhaps, but self-denial can wait until January.