Far be it from the overfed Gannet to suggest that you ever abstain from eating out, but if there is a season when the pleasures of the table are best enjoyed in proximity to one’s own hearth, it is now upon us.
Restaurants at this time of year brace themselves for the onslaught of office parties, raucous affairs in which the aerodynamic qualities of food are at least as important as its flavour. Drab set menus abound, and the experienced maître d’ will leave his best suit in the wardrobe.
Advent, then, is the perfect time to order in the little gastronomic touches that make the season more festive. So here, in time-honoured tradition, are a few of my yuletide desiderata – all easily summoned by telephone or email.
The perennial dilemma between goose and turkey is one you must decide for yourself, but the perfect source for either is the hallowed farm of Johnson and Swarbrick in Goosnargh, Lancashire. Reg Johnson is a poultry purveyor par excellence: try his corn-fed turkey or his wheat-fed goose, both slow-reared, properly hung and dry plucked. Neither will disappoint, as the chefs of countless London restaurants will confirm.
Another supplier whom restaurateurs swear by is Dai Francis of the Severn and Wye Smokery, whose sustainable smoked eel, perked up with some fresh horseradish, would make the perfect starter. His gently smoked Var salmon from the Faroe Islands is easily the finest farmed fish I have tasted: strong, lean and muscular, closer to the silver bullets of the wild than the flabby specimens emerging from most farms.
I shall skip dessert – I have always found Christmas pudding more of a ritual than a pleasure – and move straight to the digestif. Cognac this year, I think, and one can do no better than to try the unique aged varieties from Olivier Blanc, who makes brandy under the Léopold Gourmel name. Blanc, unlike most producers, is passionate about the wine from which his spirits are distilled, and the result is a joy: even his venerable Age des Epices has wonderfully fresh aromas that belie its long years in oak.
And much fun might be had in deciding which of Bart Desmidt’s superb chocolates goes best with it. I recently came across his smart little boutique, B by B, on a backstreet in Bruges, and I found his inventive (but classically restrained) confections irresistible. Try the milk varieties with sesame paste, dark options with star anise and honey, or babelutte (a Belgian caramel) with sea salt. He also makes a range of meringue chocolates called “boobies”, the shape of which I shall leave to your imagination.
All the above would also make rather fine gifts – preferably for someone close at hand. It may be better to give than to receive, but it is better still to share.