18 December 2015

The people behind a delicious Christmas

By Rose Prince

When Christmas comes not only do the eyes of children shine with joy but also producers of fine food. Shopping for the specialities that make a memorable Christmas table has become as important as finding that perfect gift, and online sales play just as greater part in shopping for delicious Christmas treats. These are foods that have been lovingly made in smaller batches; handmade or hand-reared, the essence of luxury and in some cases, rarity.

Supermarket chains would love to ‘own’ Christmas yet despite all their effort, TV advertising and promise of convenience they are what they are: mass market one-stop shops. Yet a growing margin of consumers now takes a little more trouble to stock their festive larder. It is called pick-and-mix shopping. For example instead of going to Waitrose one might buy smoked salmon direct from a Hebridean island, then a bronze feathered turkey direct from an Essex farm.

Now that my children have reached the age where they sleep in on Christmas morning and are happy with a single present, our Christmas is more about the feast and I dare say we now spend more stocking up on treats for the table than we used to on toys and gadgets. We buy smoked eel, a whole smoked Wiltshire gammon, foie gras to make into a terrine, perhaps a winter truffle, chocolates filled with tobacco flavoured ganache, boxes of lychees, apple brandy from Somerset and more. It takes a little more time to put in our orders but the reward is great, a table heaving with quality – and very contented guests.

There is a secondary pleasure, and that is spending our budget with independent producers. Over the last two decades it has been extraordinary to watch this sector grow. It is no longer about a few mom and pop farms struggling in the face of dominant chains, even though that is where most had their beginning. There are thousands of artisans and a growing captive audience. The margin of Britons who prefer to buy from small scale food shops and online stores stands at 6% (90% shop only at supermarkets though some combine both.)

The Craft Council says that there are over 11,000 craft businesses in the UK, over half in the food and drink sector and all of the most successful of these plan and anticipate one season – Christmas. Their mission is to tempt shoppers away from the supermarkets towards something more authentic, priced at a premium.

It works. Focussing on foods that are key to the classic Christmas meal has seen some of these businesses grow remarkably. Thirty years ago, Claire and Robert Symington bought 100 goslings to rear on their Leicestershire farm. In the mid nineteen eighties commercial goose farms were virtually non-existent. If there was a goose on the table at Christmas it would likely be served by people who reared their own.

The Symingtons sold their few birds locally and increased the flock the following year. They hit upon the idea of adding value to their product by reviving the 3 bird roast. The goose is boned then stuffed with a boned duck and a boned pheasant or chicken, with 3 different stuffings between the meat. This year they reared 5000 geese, and they will as ever be sold out.

The Kelly family have repeated this success with the Norfolk Bronze turkey, taking the breed that fell out of fashion because it is a slow grower whose dark feather stubs spoil its appearance when plucked. In the early 1980’s Derek Kelly toured Britain buying up the last remaining flocks of the rare breed, a total of 300 birds.

The resulting breeding programme produced the Kelly Bronze, a bird with more fat under the skin and a distinct gamey flavour. Today the Kelly family produce over 140,000 turkeys, rearing a proportion themselves and selling poults to farmers all over the UK. Their success has been marked by a palpable cessation of complaints about dry flavourless turkeys.

This now familiar theme, whereby a courageous pioneer takes a rare or unusual commodity and returns it to the mainstream applies to that other Christmas purchase, cheese. Post war the number of artisan farmhouse cheesemakers in Britain was down to just 150 and the craft almost lost.

Again, an entrepreneur sought out the remaining dairy farms who still made cheese. He had a small dairy of his own, in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard where he made yoghurt. Fascinated by the flavours of traditional cheeses made with raw milk, he began selling them in his shop. He once describes the difference in character between a factory made block cheddar in a delightfully unsnobbish manner.

“Block cheddar is an honest, nutritious food but choosing cheese is a bit like buying a hi fi. Every hi fi makes a lot of noise, but a Bose, like a handmade cheese resonates on many levels.” Neal’s Yard Dairy is now an internationally renown company and at Christmas they will be sending truckles of Stilton, cheddar and Lancashire cheese all over the world. The cheese I buy from Neal’s Yard is Stichelton, a raw milk Stilton created by Hodgson and fellow expert Joe Schneider,

When in perfect condition, the dry outer moulds on Stichelton turn the colour of apricot and liquify, adding yet another layer to the many ‘notes’ in the cheese. This is what I love to contemplate, the night before Christmas as I survey the contents of fridge and larder. Every bit of flesh on the goose or turkey, each morsel of smoky ham, perfectly ripe cheese, transparent slice of cured salmon and rye sourdough bread has been painstakingly perfected by people who have worked so hard over the years to return real food and flavour to the Christmas table. We pay more for it but that is a necessity if you want the real thing. it is also not the whole reason why artisans go into business. First and foremost they want to please and my, do they succeed.

Rose Prince is a food writer. Her books include The New English Kitchen: Changing the way you Shop, Cook and Eat, and The Pocket Bakery.