Food & drink: Crystallised aubergines, anyone?

The stores are stuffed to bursting-point with a dazzling array of exotic foodstuffs. December is the month for decadent dining.
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The Independent Culture
IN A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is led by the Ghost of Christmas Present through the streets of London on Christmas morning. He looks into the half-closing shops and sees them bursting with brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, baskets of chestnuts and filberts, gleaming carp, spices, sweetmeats, tea and coffee. The air is thick with the anticipation of eating so many delicacies. One hundred and fifty years later, you can still experience the same bustling excitement.

Step into a delicatessen and the scent of ripe Stilton, subtly blended with the aroma of ham, marinated olives and fresh bread will thrill a Christmas shopper. The butchers are packed with jostling, last-minute customers, keen to buy their goose, turkey, sausages and game. Supermarkets may have replaced many greengrocers, but they too are piled high with every conceivable fruit and vegetable. Everywhere there is gastronomic temptation, for December offers a cornucopia of goodies for the astute eater.

The range of exotic fruit on sale is dazzling. Luminescent Sharon fruit nestle by pomegranates, passion fruit and their sweet-tasting sisters, grenadillos. Luscious pineapples jostle for space with boxes of sticky dates, custard apples and piles of rosy lychees. If all that were not enough, you can also buy kumquats, physalis, grapes, clementines, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and chestnuts, as well as juicy British apples and pears. Now is the time to broaden your taste buds with strange new imports. If you feel timid about buying an unfamiliar tropical fruit, follow the basic rule of choosing produce that is heavy for its size and free from bruises.

There is something deliciously decadent about loading an after-dinner table with outrageous displays of fruit, nuts and sweetmeats. Lovers of crystallised fruit might like to dive into Selfridges' London Food Hall as the Lebanese counter sells pretty little sugared apples and pears, along with baby aubergines. The latter should be tried before purchase as they have a distinctive taste. Alternatively, you can contact Carluccio's mail order (0171-240 5710) for their Cestino di Frutta which contains, among other things, crystallised chestnuts, strawberries, mandarins and angelica (160g at pounds 14.00 plus p&p).

The best vegetables are British at the moment. Aside from fat roots like beetroot, celeriac, parsnips, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and carrots, you can buy onions, shallots, leeks and garlic. Who needs imported mangetout and broad beans when you could be eating home-grown celery, spring greens, Brussels sprouts, and red, white and Savoy cabbages? Traditional British herbs like parsley, bay, thyme, rosemary and watercress are also good now, although most are grown abroad in the winter to ensure that they are blemish free.

Fishmongers try hard not to be outdone at Christmas. Their displays are bedecked with seaweed-strewn Native oysters, scarlet lobsters and glittering farmed carp - the latter remains a popular European Christmas dish. Smoked salmon also sells like hot-cakes during the festive season, but if you are concerned about eating wild, or for that matter farmed, salmon, you should consider organic. Kinvara in Ireland have produced some with a fine oaky flavour. It comes quite thickly sliced, perfect for hearty sandwiches on long journeys (mail order 00 353 91 637489). If you feel the need for something akin to a salmon, look out for the gorgeous, silvery Icelandic Arctic char (available from Waitrose). Closely related to trout, this fish is farmed in Iceland, although it can be caught wild from Lake Windermere in the summer. Apparently it became trapped there during the last Ice Age. Treat like sea trout.

December is a prime season for cured meats as traditionally we have always eaten spiced beef, glazed hams and brawn at Christmas. Given the extended holidays, it has also become a favourite time for indulging in a proper breakfast. These days most of the supermarkets sell dry-cured bacon, which has a far lower water content than wet-cured.

This year, Duchy Originals, have brought out a particularly fine example with their Organic Dry Cured Back Bacon (selected branches of Waitrose, pounds 3.99). It comes from the pigs that gambol in the meadows of Home Farm at Highgrove. Sausage lovers might also like to note that they can now order some utterly yummy Eastbrook Farm Organic Pork and Welsh Leek Sausages (pounds 6.04 per kg). If you are in the mood for something spicy, then you should also try their Organic Merguez Sausages (pounds 7.64 per kg) which won first prize in the sausage category of the Soil Association's Organic Food Awards earlier this year.

Game, of course, is always popular in December, consequently, partridge and pheasant are widely sold in butchers and supermarkets. Woodcock and snipe appear to be enjoying a resurgence of interest this year, certainly among food writers. All four are in season until the end of January. As to the ubiquitous turkey, only a Bronze will do, according to the foodies - although my sources tell me that goose is the Christmas fowl this year.

No holiday season is complete without a good cheese or two. Many hard cheeses like Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire and Stilton have been carefully matured to reach perfection for the Christmas holidays. However, according to Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal's Yard Dairy, you can only get the very best from a hard cheese if you buy a segment from a large truckle, rather than a mini-truckle. "Cheeses are a little like a compost heap," he explains, "they need the bulk to fully mature their flavour." A sentiment I feel sure Scrooge would share, as buying part of a cheese is considerably cheaper than purchasing a small designer truckle.

Eastbrook Farms Organic Meat will arrange home delivery for their meat: delivery charges vary according to size of order (01793 790460). You can mail order set selections of British cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy, 6 Park Street, Borough Market, London SE1 9AB, (0171-407 1800), e-mail: