Product trial: John Lewis Christmas trug hamper

johnlewishamperJohn Lewis seems to have entered the British psyche when it comes to Christmas – whether the television advertising delights or annoys you, there’s no getting away from the fact that the retailer’s become synonymous with seasonal provisions.

The arrival of a hamper from the store has become a mini-tradition in our household too so when John Lewis asked if I’d like to try out their latest offering I was intrigued to see what would be different about it.

And so here we are, in November having a bit of an early festive treat to share with you.

Packaging
The most obvious thing to notice first is there’s no traditional wicker basket. Instead this ‘trug’ hamper comes in smart, contemporary leather bag.

Of course the creak of leather and the flicker of candlelight in front of the fire can be just as Christmass-ey as the more usual wicker picnic-basket style of annual treat and, depending on your decor, this upmarket packaging might just be a better fit with your modern festivities.

(I think it might well end up as our kindling basket – unless the cat takes up residence in there first!)

Contents

johnlewishamperThis a selection of store cupboard luxuries rather than dinner table essentials for the big day so there’s plenty of those treats which everyone loves. Turkey and sprouts will have to be catered for elsewhere because this hamper is all about those little extras which can help the fetivities go with a little more spice and sparkle.

On the booze front, there’s a rich, deep bottle of Sangiovese Poggio della Quercia IGT Rubicone. Great with the cheese board or just as a tipple in front of the fire.

And the cheeseboard gets some further attention with some of the savoury items including the smooth Cairnsmhor Crushed Black Pepper Crackers and Claire’s Handmade Red Onion Marmalade from Cumbria which is now a firm favourite for sandwiches, goats cheese and anything else that needs an intense flavour.

For the sweet-toothed, it’s all quite chocolate focussed. There’s light and buttery Edinburgh Preserves Chocolate Chip Cookies and Fudges Belgian Milk Chocolate Florentines but the stand-out treat are the moreish Ferdia Milk Chocolate Salted Caramels with their intense soft centres.

Verdict
It’s certainly got the wow factor with the different appearance from the packaging and the treats inside will suit most tastes. At £65 it’s at the lower end of what hampers can cost when you order them online like this (the most expensive hamper offered costs an eye-watering £800!) but the value of the goods wouldn’t really stack up if you bought them individually. It’s really the novelty of the packaging and excitement of exploring it that you’re sending as a gift – a special treat for a style conscious person who likes to entertain in the run up to Christmas.

* The goods from the John Lewis Christmas hamper were provided free of charge for review purposes. Please note, if you wish to provide goods for review, they are accepted on the understanding that good, bad or indifferent, this blog’s product trials section strives to say it as we find it.

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Recipe: Paprika and pesto chicken and squash lasagne

chickenlasagneFor my latest recipe over at Farmer’s Choice, I’ve been experimenting with aromatics, this time of year seems to lend itself to them some how as we speed towards Christmas.

The lasagne turned out to be a full-on flavour from using both paprika and pesto and helps use up some of those seasonal squash that’s so abundant just now.

Get the recipe here – I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to hear how you get on.

Not long now…..sorting out that Christmas dinner meat order


How do you select your meat for the Christmas feast? The signs are up in the shops; ‘order now to be in time for the big day’, ‘one free elf if you buy 2,000 sausage rolls’ you know the sort of thing………

And then there’s the scramble at the supermarkets and the gnawing fear of finding the shelves as empty as the bagged sugar aisle after a news flash about a potential power cut.

Are you ready? Picture: Kevin Dooley

No way, the thought of seeing those sharp elbows heading into the chipolatas means I’m going to be clicking my way to the dinner table this year.

Buying food online is nothing new and during this year particularly I’ve discovered all manner of services and products where the convenience of having stuff delivered has not only freed up some precious time but also reduced the amount of cash handed over to the faceless supermarket chains. It’s also made me a more adventurous cook – having to find something to create with what arrives in the general veg box often means thinking out new things and, when suppliers have something new to offer, it seems much easier to hear about it.

Whether it’s the weekly basics box or something a bit special for a dinner party (and yes OK, I admit it, I have served up the occasional dish that’s come through the post) the lure of the hassle-free choice of clickable food is now an everyday experience.

So I was interested to hear from the people at Farmer’s Choice. Not only is one of their producers (Yorkshire Game) just down the road from me, which adds a local dimension to the whole shopping on the Internet thing, they’ve been operating online for many years and there’s a couple of things that make them a bit different.

Everything they sell is free range and traceable plus they cater for exactly what you want because they cut the meat to order. As their spokesman told me:

“We cut to requirements to order in exactly the same as what you’d get from over the counter at a butchers..if you just want two lamb chops, then we’ll just cut you two lamb chops.”

I think Christmas calls for a bit more than that but……you take the point.
Taking a look at the Christmas dinner offer , it’s not just the turkey.

There are the free range traditional birds there but also more exotic fare including a couple of extra special three bird roasts like goose, chicken and pheasant, all rolled together for an indulgent feast. And if you really can’t face any of the shopping, just order in the veg as well for the whole experience direct.

There’s not enough of a family for us to get stuck into the specialist hamper – but even if your household does resemble something like The Waltons, it doesn’t look like they’d go hungry with that lot arriving.

Doing the traditional annual thing seems to suit cooks who have a highly-organised sense of timing. I once met a women who had a printed list of every task timed down to the last minute and it started the night before with exact times for each thing to be done……imagine;

– 9am – wash Brussels sprouts
– 9.15 – peel carrots
Etc. etc.
I jest not, this list was even laminated for easy to clean re-use each year!

While I admire the dedication, my approach tends to be a bit more, erm, approximate and this Farmer’s Choice site got me clicking round to see what else is in store and thinking about conjuring up something a bit different.

Curry goat for Boxing Day anyone? Great looking recipe from north west chef Simon Rimmer here.

Five stocking filler books for the foodie in your life

I’ve picked out the following five food related books as they all have some sort of northern connection and have been featured here on the blog. The links go to pages where the books can be ordered. Any suggestions for more? I’d love to compile a wider list of books so please do feel free to get in touch with more.


At the top of the pile is Prashad Cookbook: Indian Vegetarian Cooking
which has some easy to follow recipes and is a must-have for curry lovers unable to visit the Bradford restaurant.

2. Fancy a Cuppa?Written by a north Yorkshire duo, the continuing adventures of the cuppa series could be the ideal stocking filler for the travelling tea tippler.

 

3. If you’d rather read about cooking that do it, try Manchester’s Sweet Mandarin: The Courageous True Story of Three Generations of Chinese Women and Their Journey from East to Westto understand more about the journey of those behind the Northern Quarter eaterie.

4.
Get a glimpse of what inspires some of the dishes with another Manchester restaurant, Ning with this colourful cookbook – Malaysian Food: A Collection of My Favourite Dishes and the Inspiration Behind Them

and finally…..The Thrifty Kitchen: Wartime Lessons for the Modern Cook
which is sold to raise cash for the charity Independent Age and includes a donated recipe from your truly!

Perfect turkey: Quick, unstuffed and upside down

turkey
The proof: Perfect turkey

There was a lot of scepticism around my friends and family when the ‘mini cookbook’ was retrieved from the rather lavish box the turkey was handed over in.

A 5kg turkey that cooks in two hours 15 mins??!!!

Queue tales of food poisoning, of people eating Christmas lunch at 5pm or getting up in the middle of night to ensure it started early enough.

Over the past few weeks I’ve received all sorts of advice – stuff with sausage meat, rub with goose fat, a strange brine bathing ritual, wrapping in foil, place on celery sticks and put water in the pan et. etc. but it was all in vain. I ignored them all.

In the end it was simple and here’s what I learned.

  1. Cook without foil.
  2. Put the bird upside down until the final 30 mins.
  3. Only stuff the neck end – I used chestnut puree.
  4. Put a peeled onion in the other end.
  5. Rest it a good long time. I wrapped it in foil and tea towels and rested for about an hour.

The resulting bird was moist, cooked all the way through, hot and delicious!

Thanks to the farmer at Burtree House Farm for the excellent Kelly Bronze bird and these reliable cooking tips. I will not fear the Christmas lunch again.

Also quick thanks to other providers; Carricks fishmongers for the salmon, cheese from various locals providers but especially Hunter House Farm, Teesdale for the exceptional fresh goat’s cheese and finally, TheLastDetail.Co.uk for the elegant table settings complete with sparkly table confetti.

That’s it for another year then, a lesson learned. How did your big lunch go?

Free range turkey in demand despite credit crunch

Despite the fact most people in a recent survey claim they would be eating a free range or organic turkey this Christmas, it’s possible that there might not be enough for sale on the shelves to satisfy demand.

Earlier this week, Farmers Weekly Interactive reported a survey which claimed a whopping 86 er cent of those polled would be forking out for premium birds.

And I’m told that supermarket buyers have been caught on the hop believing that Britons would be having credit crunch Christmas lunches and turning their back on the more expensive poultry.

One turkey farmer in the north east of England told me that buyers have taken to ringing round organic and free range farmers across the UK to buy up any birds left over after failing to put in sufficient orders when the hatching began at the start of the year.

The survey of 1,791 was carried out by Goldenriverfarms.co.uk and its findings welcomed by a spokeswoman for ChickenOut, the campaign to promote free-range and organic poultry production.

“Obviously, in the present climate a big concern is people cutting back on their spending and considering free-range or organic to be too expensive” she said.

While the average price difference between an organic turkey and a standard turkey is between £15 and £20, the survey results suggest this is a price most are willing to pay. Of those asked, 62% only buy organic meat all year round, the remaining 24% are prepared to spend the difference at Christmas, but not throughout the year.

What do you think? Is the higher price worth it?

Christmas dinner extras

One of the best things about Christmas lunch is all the extras so I thought I’d get prepared and gather together some of the recipes for all the accompaniments for the main course.

First mince pie done, now for the cheese board

First mince pie of the year. Warm, crumbly with a splodge of clotted cream………..mmmm lovely! In a couple of weeks time, the words, “would you like a mince pie with that?” will no doubt take on a daunting one-more-mint overtone and induce an inward groan, but the very first one of the year still retains the  promise of a magical Christmas.

This first mince pie came courtesy of another of those festive traditions – a hamper full of goodies. There’s something special about getting a hamper through the post, opening it to see what’s packaged within so I’d like to say a big thank you to the people at Interflora for sending this Christmas Festivities Hamper

Well what is inside?

At first view this looks like a parcel for the sweet-toothed. Alongside The Old Chapel mince pies there’s a whole host of sweetie goodies (see the full list below) but digging a little deeper and there’s also some savoury treats – Duchy rosemary and thyme cheddar cheese nibbles and Bromley’s sticky onion chutney.

As most of my expected Christmas lunch guests are big cheese fans, I’m still making up my mind on what cheeses to offer.

While everyone expects the usual Stilton, brie and cheddar, North Yorkshire is blessed with plenty of fantastic regional cheeses and I’d like to introduce them to guests coming from across the UK, so in the name of research, today I re-visited a couple of old favourite’s which will most certainly make it onto the final cheeseboard.

The fresh, flavour of semi-hard, unpasteurised  Cotherstone which hails from a small dairy in the nearby Teesdale village of the same name is quite a complex cheese. It’s not of the strong or stinky variety, instead it has a lightness which is almost the essence of the grasslands.

The other (in the green rind) is the well-known Wensleydale from the Hawes dairy. This was the mature version – dense, deeply flavoursome and crumbly – a complete contrast to its northern cousin.

The acidity and sharpness of the sticky onion chutney made a perfect companion for the Wensley although was perhaps a little too strong for the delicate Cotherstone which is better with no relish.

A plate heaped up with the Duchy nibbles (which are just that – little bite sized nibbles which are too cheesy to be topped with cheese) provides a fragrant rosemary kick which can liven up the cheese board.

It’s these little extras which I think make receiving a hamper a pleasure, there’s quite a few things in there which I wouldn’t have thought to have put on the shopping list, but thinking up different ways to incorporate them is part of the festive excitement.

Plus I’m a bit of a sucker for wicker baskets – and now I’ll have something left over which can hold its own on picnics next year.

* The other items in the Interflora Christmas Festivities Hamper (£70) were; Twinning tea selection, two bottles of wine (a white Macebo 2008 and red Tempranillo 2006), clotted cream fudge, clotted cream biscuits, fruit cake topped with sugar crystals (Maxwell and franks), choc chunk shortbread, Foxhill strawberry jam and cranberry sauce, milk and dark selection of chocolates from Beech’s and of course – Christmas pudding (Maxwells & Franks).

(Note: The cheese, salad and Devon clotted cream pictured are my own additions. The hamper was supplied free-of-charge for review purposes).

Panic!!! Christmas is five weeks away

turkey
The soon-to-be scene?

With just a month to go of course it’s time to panic. The Observer food monthly may be smugly telling me there’s heaps of time left to bake up some “cheese straws that are as easy as keeping goldfish” to go along with my (as yet unrealised) craftily conjured Christingles, all accompanied by beverages made from ingredients sourced laconically from the summer hedgerows of Dorset plus of course pickles which utilised that imaginary allotment over supply which I’ll effortlessly pull from the pantry – in one months time!!!

(And if you believe that, then a fat man in a red suit will surely be forcing his way down your central heating this winter.)

It all seemed a good idea back in August when the invites went out. Then, my mind’s eye conjured up the niece and nephew singing carols with their cherubic features all aglow in the candlelight as the snow gently pattered against the seasonal window displays, the adults sipping sloe gin or whisky macs by the fireside after indulging in a satisfying display of culinary excellence from yours truly.

It was to be the Christmas of all Christmases – no tantrums, domestics, indigestion or nausea. No, it would be the softly lit, haze of family warmth which all the supplements and magazines assure us is perfectly achievable for the faultlessly organised modern woman.

But the reality has been a heavy workload for the past quarter of a year so, as of this minute, that vision remains firmly where it started – in the mind’s eye.

OK, I’ve ordered the turkey (but what if the post goes missing?) and there is a container of something intended to be sloe gin festering in a corner of the living room which remains undecorated in both the seasonal, and DIY, senses of the word. Merry Christmas everyone!

Plus I’m not sure any of the nine -12 people expected (and just why exactly can’t they confirm exact numbers at this late stage? Waiting for a better offer?) realise I’ve never actually done a Christmas dinner.

No, this is a debut performance on the most hyped up eating day of the year. No pressure there then.

To help me get through this season of plenty, I’ve decided to blog about it here – consider it a form of therapy if you will.

And while I get to grips with all that entails over the next few weeks, the first challenge is purely one of logistics in suddenly increasing a two person household to something resembling a vaguely more stressed and worn version of The Waltons – with added baggage.

So first dilemma of the festivities – is it acceptable in the world of domestic goddessery that the season demands to ask guests to bring their own plates to be filled?

Making sloe gin for Christmas

Pricking the sloes
Pricking the sloes

According to the sloe forum (strapline, there’s no biz like sloe.biz!), the August fruits from the blackthorn bush are too early for picking to make the traditional gin drink.

But, having been presented with a carrier bag of the little black beauties, along with a handy bottle of mother’s ruin and a bag of sugar this week (thanks mum) it would seem foolish not to give it a go.

So today saw my first attempt at ‘making’ sloe gin. It all appears to be straightforward enough.

1. Wash and prick all the sloes with a fork.

2. Half fill a container (mine was 1.5 litres) with the sloes.

3. Add a wine glass of sugar.

4. Fill container with gin (this made a delicious gurgurly glugging sound as the liquid filtered through the fruits).

Sloe gin: Day 1
Sloe gin: Day 1

The mix has since settled into layers of a, sugar and fruit, b. fruit and c. gin which will gradually meld together over the coming weeks.

The experience left me with with black-stained hands and a vague whiff of the distillery about me. In fact, for the first time in my life I feel like a true Daily Mail housewife!

Now all that remains to be done is to ‘agitate’ the mix every week.

Having only ever tasted sloe gin once before (a lingering memory of delight) I shall be relying on my Christmas dinner guests to pass judgement. In the meantime, any tips to ensure it’s success most welcome.