O come all ye foodies

Why should hampers always be a gift? Our Gannet columnist Bill Knott resolves to create the ultimate hamper that’s too good to give away, sourcing festive fare found in Britain’s most fêted restaurants. And every item is available at the click of a mouse

Frank Hederman at Belvelly Smoke House, Ireland's last traditional timber smokery
Frank Hederman at Belvelly Smoke House, Ireland's last traditional timber smokery | Image: Sean Monaghan

For London’s beau monde, once upon a time, Christmas would arrive in a smart green van from Harrods. It still can, actually. If you have the time and the inclination, you can stroll around the store’s Food Hall, pick out anything you fancy and ask for it to be dispatched in the aforementioned vehicle.

I have a cunning plan for my hamper, however. I have asked Britain’s top chefs – the culinary equivalent of the Three Wise Men – to tell me where they source their ready-prepared festive fare for their fêted restaurants. And just to make things even simpler at what can be a frantic time of year, all their suggestions can be ordered online. Here, then, is an idea of what the perfect “virtual hamper” might contain.

Cheesemaker Joe Schneider and Neal's Yard Dairy chairman Randolph Hodgson (right) at Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire
Cheesemaker Joe Schneider and Neal's Yard Dairy chairman Randolph Hodgson (right) at Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire | Image: Andrew Montgomery

When it comes to matters gastronomic, French savoir‑faire is hard to beat. The French, of course, have a slightly different approach to festive feasting: their great spread is laid out on Christmas Eve, but I see no reason why two of their classic yuletide indulgences – smoked salmon and oysters – should not be enjoyed on this side of the Channel as well.

Some of the best smoked salmon I’ve ever tasted was at Bentley’s, Richard Corrigan’s splendid seafood restaurant in Mayfair. That it was Irish was not mere chauvinism on Corrigan’s part: the cold smoked salmon from his then-supplier, Frank Hederman’s Belvelly Smoke House (first picture) in County Cork, is widely acknowledged as some of the finest in British Isles. As Corrigan says, “When I meet a lunatic like Frank Hederman, I know his produce will be outstanding. He’s a real Irish eccentric.” Corrigan recommends “letting the salmon come up to room temperature, then serving it simply with good brown bread and butter and a twist of black pepper. And maybe a squeeze of lemon, if you like, but nothing else.”

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Hederman also supplies smoked salmon (€55 per kg) to other top chefs and restaurants, including Shaun Hill at The Walnut Tree Inn, and Ballymaloe House, the legendary East Cork hotel, restaurant and cookery school. It is also available at Selfridges.

For advice on oysters, I turned to Robin Hancock, co-owner and operations director of Wright Brothers, who has, in a few years, revitalised the capital’s mollusc trade. The company offers one of the widest range in this country, including natives from their own beds in Cornwall’s Helford River.

William Curley truffles
William Curley truffles | Image: www.williamcurley.com

And it’s the perfect time for them. The spawning of summer and early autumn, which makes them rather soft and milky, is long gone. Now firm, sweet and plump, they are the most sybaritic way to start any Christmas meal.

Hancock recommends wild Mersea rock oysters (£18 for a dozen), grown by Richard Haward and his family. “They are superb, very plump and savoury,” he says. And, slightly reluctantly, he suggests the French might have a contender, too: “Gillardeau oysters [£21.20 for a dozen from Wright Brothers], cultivated in Normandy, then finished in Marennes Oléron, are just perfect.”

Manni Oil Per Me (left) and Manni Oil Per Mio Figlio
Manni Oil Per Me (left) and Manni Oil Per Mio Figlio

Another great seafood indulgence over the festive season, and one that no self-respecting table should be without, is caviar. As fanciers of the world’s finest fish eggs will know, however, the past few years have been pretty disastrous for the poor old sturgeon. Thanks to over-fishing, and despite the strenuous efforts of CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – wild caviar is now effectively unavailable. Any you are offered will either be several years old – and, in all likelihood, previously frozen – or it will be illegal and almost certainly of dubious quality.

The good news is that farmed caviar from Belgium, Spain, Italy and France is making up some of the shortfall in supply. For lovers of beluga caviar, though, this may be of scant consolation: Huso huso, the true beluga species, is not widely farmed in Europe.

Richard Haward
Richard Haward | Image: Julian Claxton

Where, then, does the beluga served at J Sheekey, Scott’s and Annabel’s come from? Chef director of Caprice Holdings Tim Hughes buys CITES-approved beluga from Gourmet House (£96 for 30g, sixth picture), which sources it in Iran where the Huso huso sturgeon is farmed: a tricky business, since the species takes over 10 years to mature and consumes a lot of food in the process. The results, though, are very special. As Hughes says, “The eggs are perfect: grey-black, clinging together nicely, with just the right balance of oil and a wonderfully earthy, creamy flavour.”

A word of warning: any tin of caviar is legally allowed to proclaim itself as beluga (or oscietra or sevruga, for that matter) as long as the name of the species is also printed on the tin, but if that species is not Huso huso, it is not – to my mind, at least – true beluga.

Gourmet House Iranian Beluga Caviar
Gourmet House Iranian Beluga Caviar | Image: www.gourmethouse.com

One Christmas tradition that brightens any dining room is a wheel of Stilton on the sideboard, preferably with a decanter of vintage port by its side. My preference is for Stichelton, a rich, savoury and complex blue cheese – a Stilton, in reality, but unable to label itself as such according to the rules governing the cheese, because it’s made from raw, rather than pasteurised, milk. I recently tasted it at chef (and FT cookery columnist) Rowley Leigh’s Le Café Anglais, and it is better than ever: buttery, spicy and the perfect companion for a crisp biscuit. You can buy it online from Neal’s Yard Dairy: appropriately, since one of the owners of Neal’s Yard, Randolph Hodgson (second picture, right), is also Stichelton’s co-creator.

While a wonderful Christmas can be enjoyed simply with the produce of these islands – supplemented with a proper-sized tin of Iranian caviar, of course – there are some luxuries that are more happily produced in southerly climes. Wine is one (although I would make an exception for Coates & Seely’s delicious, raspberry-scented sparkling rosé, produced in Hampshire and stocked by many top restaurants, including The Fat Duck and Chez Bruce) – and another is olive oil.

Brindisa Ibérico Bellota ham
Brindisa Ibérico Bellota ham | Image: www.brindisa.com

For the latter, it made sense to consult Giorgio Locatelli, who is not only the chef proprietor of one of London’s finest Italian restaurants, Locanda Locatelli, but also the co-producer of his own Sicilian olive oil – beautifully grassy and peppery, and available online from Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges.

In the restaurant he always keeps a stock of Manni oil, from Tuscany, as well. “It’s on the wine list – some of our regular diners insist on it. We open the little corked bottle for them – they can use it to dress their food – and then we pack up the rest of the bottle for them to take away.” There are two Manni oils, sold together as a pack: the piquant Per Me (“for me”) and the milder Per Mio Figlio (“for my son”; both in fourth picture). The bottles are tiny at 100ml and the price is extravagant – it works out at about £275 a litre – but the intensity of the oils’ flavours is extraordinary. And, as Locatelli points out, “It makes a terrific gift for anyone who doesn’t drink.”

King's Fine Foods white truffles
King's Fine Foods white truffles

For the truly hands-on gourmet, the ideal present might be one of Brindisa’s Ibérico Bellota hams (£370 for 7kg, seventh picture). Brindisa supplies many of London’s top restaurants, including Fino, whose co-owner Eddie Hart commends them “for being the pioneers of great Spanish produce in London. Monika [Linton, Brindisa’s founder] has perfect taste: I trust her implicitly.

“Ibérico Bellota is one of the great delicacies: slice it as thinly as you can, and let it sit at room temperature until the fat – where much of the nutty, sweet flavour lies – starts to glisten. And don’t forget to make a soup from the bones – it’s amazing.”

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Brindisa’s hams – from free-range pigs that graze on acorns – also come with a stand, a cuchillo jamonero (a long, thin, sharp knife), and a DVD showing you how to carve like a master cortador (from £110 for the set).

Another delicacy is at its best just now: white truffle, perhaps the world of gastronomy’s greatest indulgence. Tuber magnatum pico, to give it its full name, is one of the most valuable types, sniffed out by dogs in the countryside of Piemonte. It is shaved over dishes in top Italian restaurants such as L’Anima and The River Café, and at The Ritz, where executive chef John Williams uses it finely shaved or sliced on a salad of fresh cèpes. “But it’s really important to buy it from someone you trust. There are a lot of truffles now from eastern Europe, but I don’t think they are as good as the Alba ones.” Williams’s main supplier is Laura King, at King’s Fine Foods (truffles cost about £2,175 per kg, eighth picture).

But, he says, keep it simple. Grate your truffle over fairly bland foods with a little fat in them, such as scrambled eggs, a veal chop or maybe even the bread sauce with your roast Christmas bird. “After all, if you’re paying up to £3,000 a kilo for them, you want to be able to taste them.”

More affordable truffles – those made from chocolate – also deserve their place at the Christmas table. I consulted Sara Jayne Stanes, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and author of Chocolate: The Definitive Guide. She recommended William Curley, four-time winner of the Academy of Chocolate’s “Britain’s Best Chocolatier” award and owner of smart boutiques in Belgravia and Richmond, as well as having a concession in Harrods. He also, handily, has an online shop. “He’s one of the leaders of a new breed of highly talented, passionate chocolatiers in London who have changed the way we think about chocolate,” says Stanes. “It’s not just over‑sweet confectionery with minimal cocoa content anymore: chocolate is now a ‘must-have’ product on any self-respecting connoisseur’s shopping list.”

Both his dark- and milk-chocolate truffles (from £14 per 100g, examples in third picture) won gold awards this year. (You might also try his wonderful Jaffa cakes from the Nostalgia range, made with génoise sponge, homemade Seville marmalade and Amedei’s Toscano chocolate. At £3.50 each, they are available only from his boutiques and Harrods.) Run-of-the-mill chocolates use sugar and alcohol to extend their shelf life; Curley’s divine creations, by contrast, have a shelf life of just 10 days, but as Stanes remarks, “Why would you want to keep them? Every one is a Zen moment.”

Thanks to the advice from some of London’s finest palates, I think I now have a holiday hamper to satisfy the most fastidious of gastronomes – and all of it is available simply at the click of a button. The most important creature to make Christmas go with a swing is no longer a turkey – it’s a mouse.

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