AS A DEDICATED shopper I admit to one serious omission. I indulge by cruising counters and catalogues, but never by surfing the Net. Until a fortnight ago, that is, when I decided I was missing out on a whole world of shopping, and that time had come to make amends.
But instead of being a deeply pleasurable, voyeuristic activity, shopping on the Net is frustrating and cross-making. Take Christmas food shopping. All I needed to do, I thought, was log on, ask the search engine to find "Christmas Turkeys by Mail Order in the UK" and press enter. I did just that - and was presented with more than two million choices, including recondite opportunities to visit Christmas Grottoes in Alaska or go on a Christmas vegan-dining holiday in Morocco. Actual turkeys - none. But I gave up after sifting through 230 of the options.
The problem, so Dean Hall, the Internet project manager at Betty's by Post (see below) explained, is that search engines do not work unless you know exactly what you want. You have to be specific, because they cannot sift information. Call up "Christmas turkeys", and you'll get any site where "Christmas" or "turkey" is mentioned. And as there are more websites than people on the planet (or so I'm told), they have their work cut out. Anyway, Dean says, the search engines only cover 16 per cent of what is out there. You have to rely on traditional media for publicising the sites. So how did I find my favourite traditional Christmas foods on the Web? By ringing producers and asking them for their website addresses. It seems a funny way of getting to this cutting-edge technology, but at present it seems the best method.
Once on site, the actual ordering process had me foxed on several occasions. There were also irritating gimmicks, such as cutesy shopping bags or trolleys that had to be filled up. And I was struck by the lack of information about products featured.
With all these sites, the earlier you order for Christmas, the better. Last-order dates vary according to the supplier, but as a rough guide 5 December may be the last safe date. As for actual delivery, all fresh food items should come in chilled packaging - usually polystyrene boxes with some means of keeping them cool - but it is wise to unpack them and put them straight in the fridge when they arrive. While most fresh food companies offer overnight delivery, others can only deliver on specific days, so it is best to check. As with any mail-order food, do leave specific instructions about where, or with whom, to leave the food if you are out.
TO ORDER a fresh turkey, go to www.kelly-turkeys. com. Winner of the 1997 Good Food Magazine Best Speciality Food Award, their bird was voted "the perfect turkey - full of flavour". It comes from an "improved" old-fashioned breed, is free-range, slowly reared, fed a cereal-only diet. Finally, the meat is hung for plenty of time to increase the flavour. You do have to pay for the privilege - around pounds 38 for a 4kg bird to pounds 66 for a 10kg bird. The pounds 68 Food Lovers' Christmas Turkey box includes a 6kg bird, two stuffings (couscous and spiced fruit, and traditional sausage meat), chipolata sausages and a jar of cranberry relish.
YOU WILL find the best salmon - wild, of course, rather than farmed - at www.ummera.com. The fish are cured and then smoked. The result is a firm-textured fish with unparalleled flavour - a finely judged balance of fish, salt and wood-smoke. Ummera is the name of the rambling country house in Cork owned by the courtly Anthony Creswell. The smokehouse has been converted from various outbuildings. To make life easier for him (but not for us) prices quoted are in Irish punts and range from pounds IR32 for a 0.8kg to pounds IR42 for a 1.2kg fish (ie about pounds 41 and pounds 54) (incl p&p). It is the quality of his salmon and the attention to detail (Anthony works on a very small scale) that makes his product superb. But a word of warning: wild salmon this year are in particularly short supply, so order early to avoid disappointment.
RICHARD WOODALL, another of my favourite producers, is to be found at www.richardwoodall.co.uk. If you have never tried his hams, bacon or sausages, you have a real treat in store. Cumberland hams weigh between 6 and 9kg for a whole ham on the bone, half hams are also available, and you can order them either cooked or uncooked, smoked or unsmoked. Prices start at pounds 6.94/kg for an uncooked, unsmoked version and rise accordingly. These hams are magnificent meaty affairs, dry-cured for about a month and then hung to mature for a further two months. The taste is punchy, the texture firm with biting promise and they make a fine centre-piece for the Christmas table.
PAXTON & WHITFIELD's website is at www.cheesemongers.co.uk. Order from there and you can avoid the queues at their shops in London, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon. Each month they have a cheeseboard selection, December's comprising Smoked Red Leicester, Ragstone, Shropshire Blue and Petite Rabalin (sic). As there were no tasting notes provided on any of the cheeses, you may prefer to play safe and order a classic Stilton. Whole cheeses, weighing 8kg, cost pounds 85, half cheeses cost pounds 45, baby cheeses weighing 2.3kg cost pounds 29, and 500g and 250g ceramic jars cost pounds 15 and pounds 11 respectively. All prices include p&p. Their Stilton is nicely matured, truly creamy with even veining and a fine mellow flavour.
BETTY'S BY Post at www.bettysbypost.com celebrate Christmas with a traditional fruity, vegetarian suet Christmas pudding laced with Old Peculiar Ale. This comes in sizes from mini to large. No actual weights were given, but a Medium pudding costs pounds 9.95 (plus p&p). Cakes range from the traditional rich fruitcake crowned in royal icing made from unbleached flour, butter, muscovado sugar and vine fruits steeped in sugar (an hour is spent by the confectioner decorating each cake, so the Snowy Iced Christmas Cake costs pounds 20.50), to the louche Italian cantucci (almond biscuits) at pounds 5.98 or chocolate covered panforte, pounds 7.95. Prices exclude p&p.
OF VARIOUS other food specific sites to visit, including www.village- bakery.com and www.organicsdirect.co.uk, www.lobster.co.uk is perhaps the newest. With Sir Rocco Forte as chairman, the emphasis is, not surprisingly, upmarket, with caviar, foie gras and cooked lobster trumpeting the festive season. They do stock some British regional specialities such as McCambridges soda bread or Cartmel sticky toffee pudding, but as I have not tried any of them, I cannot vouch for their quality.
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