The 50 Best; POST-PRANDIAL: HERE'S CHRISTMAS ON A PLATE

Mail-order Christmas food
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The Independent Culture
By far the least stressful way to stock your cupboards with tasty Christmas goodies is by mail - and now is the time to put your orders in. Jenni Muir asked the experts where, and what, we should be buying...

THE EXPERTS

Shaun Hilll is the chef-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant The Merchant House in Ludlow, Shropshire (01584 875438). Lorna Wing is a writer for Sainsbury Magazine and the author of Party Food (Conran Octopus pounds 18.99). Caroline Yates is a teacher at Leith's School of Food and Wine and the owner of the Confident Cooking school in Wiltshire (01380 812846). Claire Clifton is the author of Edible Gifts and a food writer specialising in comparative tastings. Simon Hopkinson is a chef, co-founder of Bibendum, and the food writer for The Independent's Saturday magazine. Sybil Kapoor is an award-winning food writer for The Independent's Weekend Review. The list also includes winners of the recent Great Taste Awards, an annual event designed to recognise the best in fine foods.

1

FARM MEATS

Ordering Heal Farm's "wonderful" meat is fun, according to Sybil Kapoor, because you can ask about the precise breed of animal you'll be getting. Shaun Hill adds: "They do good Bronze turkeys and very nice Christmas hampers of rare-breed meats." All the cattle are humanely reared and slaughtered. For 1999, Heal Farm has reinvented the celebratory multi-bird roast (quail in chicken in turkey, etc), each one a sumptuous menu in itself.

Where from: Heal Farm Meats, Kings Nympton, Umberleigh, Devon (01769 574341). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 6.50-pounds 8.33 per kilo (turkeys); pounds 97.55 (five-bird roast, feeds 30-plus) plus p&p.

SWEET PICKLED HAM

This fantastic black-skinned ham with deep-pink flesh is soaked in a pickle of Guinness and treacle. Simon Hopkinson says: "Emmett's is just a local village shop in Peasenhall, but they have a Royal Warrant for ham from the Queen Mother." Each Christmas they cure more than 1,000 hams on the premises for similarly devoted customers. They're available cooked and uncooked, in whole and half-leg portions. There's also cider-pickled and mild-cure hams, plus the "Vintage Velvet", which includes port.

Where from: Emmett's Stores, Peasenhall, Saxmundham, Suffolk (01728 660250). Last orders: 14 Dec. How much: pounds 3.25-pounds 3.50 per lb plus p&p

CHRISTMAS PUDDINGS

Chef Joyce Molyneaux devised her delicious Christmas pudding around 30 years ago while working at The Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath. "It's the best one," says fan Simon Hopkinson. "It's based on an Eliza Acton recipe, but has Joyce's stamp on it." Her tricks include using fresh apple instead of dried, and replacing currants with muscatel raisins. The Carved Angel restaurant kitchen, now run by chef David Jones, doubles as the factory for these 2lb puddings.

Where from: The Carved Angel, 2 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon (01803 832465). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 15 incl p&p.

CHUTNEYS

Bright colours, magical aromas and distinctive ingredients are the hallmarks of these chutneys, described by Lorna Wing as "the best ever". Sybil Kapoor agrees, adding: "They have a really rich, strong flavour." Produced by London's ritzy Indian restaurant Tamarind, they're beautifully packaged in gold, and make a great gift. "It's nice to have good Indian chutneys rather than bog-standard English varieties," says Lorna. And they're not just for curry. "Serve them with hams, spiced beef or a piece of good Cheddar."

Where from: Tamarind, 1-2 Rutland Gardens, London SW7 (0171-590 1616); also Bluebird (see Nos 30 & 42), The Fine Cheese Co (see Nos 18 & 28). Last orders: 17 Dec. How much: pounds 2.99 per jar plus p&p.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLES

It's hard to distinguish some truffles from trendy brands of bath soap. But those from The Chocolate Society (purveyors of quality confectionery) are superb, and consistent winners of gold Great Taste Awards. They are made from premium chocolate couverture and cream, naturally flavoured, and covered with the lightest cocoa crust. "I adore their raspberry truffles," says Simon Hopkinson, who once left the Society's London shop in a huff because they didn't have any in stock.

Where from: The Chocolate Society, Clay Pit Lane, Borough Bridge, Nth Yorks (01423 322230). Last orders: 17 Dec. How much: pounds 7.50-pounds 39.70 (100g- 820g) plus p&p.

GOOSE

Fresh goose is available only from Michaelmas (29 Sept) to Christmas, and if you want one, you'll have to order it very soon. According to farmer Judy Goodman, demand is "going beserk", as more people appreciate that this bolshie bird "is the one thing left in the whole food industry that is still seasonal and free range". Regular customer Shaun Hill concurs, adding: "Simple roast goose is best. Just braise some green or brown lentils with bacon and onion to go with it."

Where from: Walsgrove Farm, Great Witley, Worcester, Worcs (01299 896272. Last orders: 20 Nov. How much: pounds 48.95 (5.5kg) incl p&p.

WILD SMOKED SALMON

The best salmon may come from Scotland, but, according to Shaun Hill, the best salmon smokers are to be found in East London's Jewish firms. "Forman's large sides of smoked wild salmon are a treat, like caviar," he says. "Most of the supermarket stuff is flavourless sandwich filling." Chez Lorna Wing, it would be served for breakfast with scrambled eggs and toasted bagels. "Forman's smoked salmon has a distinctive but not obvious flavour, and I love its velvety texture," she says.

Where from: by Forman's at Morel Bros, Unit 7, 129 Coldharbour Lane, London SE5 (0171-346 0046); also Mortimer & Bennett (see No 10). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 55.80 per 910g side plus p&p.

VACHERIN CHEESE

Peeling away the top crust of Vacherin and scooping out the rich, creamy filling is an essential winter ritual for cheese connoisseurs. "The arrival of new-season Vacherin remains an event in a way that most cheese seasons no longer are," says Shaun Hill. Jeroboam's Vacherin Selection pack contains a 500g pine-boxed cheese plus a pack of Wheat Wafers, a savoury cracker that provides a good counterpoint to the unctuous, resiny sweetness of the cheese.

Where from: Jeroboam's Mail Order, 8-12 Brook St, London W1 (0171-727 9792); also The Fine Cheese Co (see Nos 18 & 28). Last orders: 16 Dec.

How much: pounds 22.50 plus p&p.

TRACKLEMENTS CONDIMENTS

William and Guy Tullberg, father and son, have built a thriving company on their simple desire to find things that go well with roast chicken. They have won several Great Taste Awards for their efforts, including a prize this year for the strong horseradish with cream, a delicious partner for any festive beef. Tracklements is also top choice for cranberry sauce, piccalilli, mincemeat and brandy butter. There's a six-jar minimum, so order a mixed case to suit your requirements.

Where from: Tracklements, The Dairy Farm, Pinkney Park, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wilts (01666 840851). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 1.85-pounds 2.25 per jar plus p&p.

PANFORTE

Panforte is sometimes described as a cake, but it's really a sweetmeat, a rich mass of dried fruit, nuts and s pices, and one Christmas indulgence suitable for vegans. "It's great if you don't want something teeth-grindingly sweet," says Claire Clifton. "It seems expensive, but you only need a small piece." Her favourite is made by Marabissi, a small artisan bakery near Florence, and available in Mortimer & Bennett's. "It is just terrific, with a good balance of flavours".

Where from: Mortimer & Bennett, 33 Turnham Green Terrace, London W4 (0181- 995 4145). Last orders: 10 Dec.

How much: pounds 1.95-pounds 8.95 (100g-500g) plus p&p. 11

ABERDEEN ANGUS BEEF

Donald Russell's Aberdeen Angus beef cattle are raised the way you wish all animals were - roaming freely and eating a natural diet. "It's beef like it used to be," says Lorna Wing. "When I served it to my father he thought he'd gone back in time 40 years." She would make spiced beef from it for Christmas, and match it with Tamarind's chutneys (see No 4). "It's very lean, with good marbling, an impeccable texture and incomparable flavour," she says.

Where from: Harlaw Rd, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire (01467 629666); also Marchant le Franc (see No 33). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: around pounds 36.18 (1.8kg) plus p&p. for a whole fillet serving 8-10.

SMOKED VENISON

The Supreme Champion of this year's Great Taste Awards was cold smoked venison from Rannoch, a Tayside smokery that sources wild red deer from the Highlands. Owners Leo and Sarah Barclay, who also took the bronze medal for their hot smoked barbary duck, seem to be on a campaign to prove that there's more to smoked produce than salmon. They also offer two varieties of marinated venison (one with herbs, the other with mushrooms), a hot smoked version, plus smoked chicken, grouse, pheasant and lamb.

Where from: Kinloch Rannoch, Pitlochry, Tayside (01882 632344). Last orders: 14 Dec. How much: pounds 4.50 (100g) plus p&p.

SPECIALITY CHRISTMAS PUDS

It was frequent customer enquiries that lead Siobhan Walsh, a baker in Co Tipperary, to develop recipes for gluten-free and diabetic puddings. Demand has increased dramatically in recent years, yet even she was astonished to see them beat off all contenders (including her own luxury pud) in this year's Great Taste Awards. "The judges didn't realise they were speciality puddings, and were amazed they'd come so high in the marking," she says. "Now we've proven they're suitable for everybody."

Where from: My Own Foods, Kilmurry Lodge, Ballyneale, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary (00 353 51 640489). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: gluten- free pounds 5.63 (380g) plus p&p.

MUSTARD FRUIT CHUTNEY

Mixed candied fruit in mustard-seed oil and syrup may sound a strange combination, but this classic hot North Italian chutney is a sophisticated match for baked ham. "It's also very good with leftovers," says Claire Clifton. "There are several types and brands available, but I've never had a bad one." This version, by Merchant Gourmet, is made in the traditional manufacturing region of Venice.

Where from: The Teesdale Trencherman, Startforth Hall, Barnard Castle, Co Durham (01833 638370). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 2.75 (260g) plus p&p.

FRUIT CAKES

"We'll never be millionaires, but we do love our cakes," says Julie Duff of Church Farmhouse, referring to her refusal to expand production because it would compromise the quality of her traditional fruit cakes. "We stir in the fruit with a wooden spoon, and never cook more than 11 at a time." She has just won two Great Taste Awards, including gold for her Rich Brandy fruit cake, which comes boxed and beribboned. "It's a victory for really honest cake-making."

Where from: Church Farmhouse, Croxton Kerrial, Grantham, Lincolnshire (01476 870150). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 19 & pounds 28 (900g & 1.8kg) plus p&p.

GAME SAUSAGES

Nigel Dauncey began breeding boar around 15 years ago - now they're so popular that his business is also supplied by neighbouring farms. "Barrow Boar make exceptionally lean, flavoursome sausages," says Caroline Gates, concurring with judges at the Great Taste Awards, where the wild-boar variety won the gold. "They can be served with turkey on Christ-mas Day or with mash at a posh dinner party." She also recommends the partridge and venison sausages as partners for the Christmas bird.

Where from: Barrow Boar, Fosters Farm, South Barrow, Nr Yeovil, Somerset (01963 440315). Last orders: 8 Dec. How much: pounds 3.50-pounds 3.90 (450g) plus p&p.

SMOKED EEL

A recommendation from Simon Hopkinson, this rich, succulent smoked eel is also the choice of Raymond Blanc and the prestigious Ivy and Le Caprice restaurants. The fillets are hot-smoked over oak, a process that cooks and flavours the eel at the same time. Serve it simply as a starter with bread, or in a leafy salad with crisp bacon. Simon advises that Severn and Wye also makes a very fine wild smoked salmon.

Where from: Severn and Wye Smokery, Chaxhill, Westbury-on-Severn, Glos (01452 760190). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 2.75 (100g) plus p&p.

CASHEL BLUE CHEESE

Cashel Blue, made by the Grubbs in Co Tipperary, is Shaun Hill's preferred alternative to the traditional Christmas Stilton. "It's slightly less crumbly than Stilton, but sharp like a mountain Gorgonzola," he explains. "Although you can plan to have a cheese board as part of the Christmas meal, 70 per cent of people don't want it by the time it arrives, so the majority winds up being eaten as `cold cuts'. Cashel Blue is a cheese that suits both occasions."

Where from: The Fine Cheese Co, 29 Walcot St, Bath (01225 448748; www.finecheese.co.uk). Last orders: 17 Dec. How much: pounds 3.43 for 250g pieces or pounds 13.70 per kg plus p&p.

Also from: Jeroboam's (see No 8)

PICKLED WALNUTS

There is not, according to Simon Hopkinson, a cold meat that pickled walnuts do not go with, making them an essential larder item for the festivities. "Eat them with ham and turkey - any meat you have around," he says. What the industry would rather not say is that, barring a couple of backyard producers, most brands of pickled walnuts are exactly the same because (in the nicest possible way) a family company in Kent has a monopoly on the crop.

Where from: Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-465 8666). Last orders: 8 Dec.

How much: pounds 3.75-pounds 8.95 (250g-540g) plus p&p.

CARLUCCIO'S CHOCOLATE LETTERS

"Now is the time to celebrate", as the Carluccios thoughtfully translate on this gorgeous box of bitter-chocolate letters filled with gianduia, the Italian chocolate praline. They combine to spell "nunc est celebratum", a phrase that can be conveniently applied to Christmas or New Year. "This is a nice but amusing alternative to all those millennium products with 2000 written on them," says Lorna Wing.

Where from: Carluccio's, 28A Neal St, London WC2 (0171-240 5710). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 29.50 plus p&p.

FARMHOUSE BACON

Roger Keen began curing his own pork 12 years ago in order to ensure that authentic Wiltshire bacon was not lost for ever - factories had been debasing the product by injecting the meat with brine rather than leaving it to soak for the requisite three weeks. "This bacon is the most wonderful I've ever tasted," says Caroline Yates. "When frying, the smell is divine, and not a drop of water seeps out." You'll find Sandridge bacon is for life, not just for Christmas.

Where from: Sandridge Farm, Bromham, Chippenham, Wilts (01380 850304). Last orders: 14 Dec.

How much: pounds 2.65-pounds 4.40 (500g streaky/back) plus p&p.

PATES

Although Patchwork Foods has moved to state-of-the-art premises, this family company still makes pates as though it were cooking in the shooting- lodge kitchen in which it began. There is never more than 4lb of pate in the oven at any one time, and this commitment to artisan manufacturing has resulted in many Great Taste Awards - this year for their duck-liver and apricot pate, smoked-salmon mousse, and vegetarian mushroom and garlic terrine: all good Christmas buffet choices.

Where from: Patchwork Foods, Lon Arcwr, Ruthin, Denbighshire (01824 705832). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 4.90-pounds 5.35 (230g) plus p&p.

PLUM PUDDING

The Duchess of Devonshire is renowned for discernment when it comes to food, and this light, crumbly Christmas pudding from her Chatsworth House estate has recently been recognised with a Great Taste Award. "It's made very much as one would at home," says Sandy Boyd of the estate farm shop. "The recipe dates from the 1800s, and the emphasis is on the fruit. We use fresh oranges and lemons, and we don't stint on the beer or brandy."

Where from: Chatsworth Farm Shop, Stud Farm, Pilsley, Bakewell, Derbyshire (01246 583392). Last orders: 15 Dec.

How much: pounds 3.25-pounds 18.50 (150g-2.2kg) plus p&p.

TURKEY MOLE MIX

The best thing to do with leftover turkey, or indeed pheasant or chicken, according to Claire Clifton, is to turn it into Mexican mole (pronounced mow-lay), "one of the great dishes of the world, and good for a dinner party". It's probably most famous for being a savoury dish that includes chocolate. The Cool Chile Company's Holy Trinity mole pack contains three varieties of dried chile, a tin of ground spices and seeds, some Mexican- style cocoa and, of course, the recipe.

Where from: The Cool Chile Company, PO Box 5702, London W11 (0870 902 1145). Last orders: 15 Dec.

How much: pounds 8.90 plus p&p.

TURKISH DELIGHT

Turkish delight is made in an astonishing number of rather un-Eastern locations, including Norwich and Bedford. Fortnum's offers the real thing, manufactured in Istanbul and available in a mixed box of rose, lemon, pistachio, almond and apricot flavours. "The only Turkish delight I've ever had that's really any good is the Turkish one," says Claire Clifton. The wood packaging makes it great for gift giving, and leaves no doubt that you have selected the genuine article.

Where from: Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-465 8666). Last orders: 8 Dec.

How much: pounds 10.75 (454g) plus p&p.

FOIE GRAS D'OIE

"It's got to be goose," says Shaun Hill on the subject of foie gras, because these birds provide better flavour than intensively reared ducks. Geese obstinately refuse to breed more than once a year, so the season for their fattened livers only starts in early winter, coinciding nicely with Christmas. Avoid the mass-produced brands from Normandy, and look to the traditional producing regions of Perigord and Gascony. Morel Bros gets its foie gras direct from the south of France, and offers a competitive price.

Where from: Morel Bros, Unit 7, 129 Coldharbour Lane, London SE5 (0171-346 0046). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 20.40 (180g)-pounds 33.70 (300g) plus p&p.

POULTRY-AND-APRICOT PIE

Mr Topping (yep, it's his real name) is an old-fashioned family butcher in Doncaster, whose hand-raised pies have recently been receiving national attention since taking gold and bronze prizes at this year's Great Taste Awards. The top-placed poultry-and-apricot pie is a succulent layering of large chicken and turkey pieces with pork-pie mince, cranberries and sage-and-onion stuffing, all covered with apricots. Topping's rich mixed- game pie with cranberries and pate would be a great seasonal choice.

Where from: The Topping Pie Company, Unit 18, Wheatley Hall Business Centre, Wheatley Hall Road, Doncaster (01302 738333). Last orders: 10 Dec.

How much: pounds 9.50 (2lb 12oz) & pounds 26.50 (7lb) plus p&p.

BLACK-WAXED CHEDDAR

"Well-made Cheddar is unbeatable," says Caroline Yates, "and Chewton Mendip does nothing but make Cheddar of all strengths and all sizes." Her favourite cheesemonger is The Fine Cheese Co in Bath. Its charming owner, Anne-Marie Down, recommends Chewton Mendip's 500g black-waxed baby truckles (small barrel-shaped cheeses) for Christmas because, unlike others, they are cut from a thoroughly matured 56lb cheese. "They offer a huge amount of flavour and strength in a small cheese, and will out-perform a truckle from anyone else," she advises.

Where from: The Fine Cheese Co, 29 Walcot St, Bath (01225 448748). Last orders: 17 Dec.

How much: pounds 4.95 (500g) plus p&p.

MOORISH OLIVES

Cumin, coriander and cardamon combine with olive oil to form the delightful Moroccan-style marinade for these Kalamata olives. They are Caroline Yates's favourite product from Olives Et Al, and the company agrees that the Moorish recipe, picked up on their extensive research travels, is probably their best. "These olives are fat and mellow, great as pre-meal food or as presents," says Caroline. Economical refill packs are available for the stylish Kilner jars.

Where from: Olives Et Al, Unit D2, Quarry Fields, Mere, Wiltshire (01747 861446); also The Fine Cheese Co (see No 28). Last orders: 13 Dec.

How much: pounds 4.75 (275g) & pounds 10 (790g) plus p&p.

LEBKUCHEN

The authentic Nuremberg Lebkuchen is like a big, soft, spiced honey cookie, and typifies a European Christmas. "It's very spicy, with a lovely nuttiness and warm festive smell," says Lorna Wing. Her choice this year is Schmidt's square version (they're normally round or heart-shaped), which comes packed in a cardboard box traditionally decorated with pictures of German kings. "If you left some out for Father Christmas, he'd know he'd come to a really stylish house."

Where from: Bluebird, 350 Kings Rd, London SW3 (0171-559 1153). Last orders: 17 Dec.

How much: pounds 4.75 plus p&p.

OYSTERS

"Flat oysters are a highly seasonal delicacy, with bags of flavour, and best around Christmas and early January," says Shaun Hill, who likens this perfect alignment of availability and event to eating strawberries at Wimbledon. His favourite supplier is Michael Kelly of Gallway, who successfully posts fresh oysters throughout Europe. "He's the original and best - all the rest get their stock from him." Unlike the rock oysters available year round, these flat native oysters are best eaten raw.

Where from: Michael Kelly Shellfish, Aisling, Tyrone, Kilcolgan, Co Gallway, Eire (00 353 9179 6120). Last orders: 20 Dec.

How much: pounds 8 per dozen plus p&p.

OSCIETRA CAVIAR

Even if the beluga is not technically an endangered species, there aren't many about, so the responsible caviar choice is the tobacco-coloured oscietra, which tastes of Brie. Importers agree with Claire Clifton that the best source is Iran. "There is no point in being mingy with caviar and ordering less than 500g," she says. "Have it piled on toast for breakfast, and you won't care what happens at Christmas lunch." On large-ish orders, Caviar Network is significantly cheaper than London's food halls.

Where from: Caviar Network, 2 Hambledon Place, London SE21 (0181-693 8033); also Mortimer & Bennett (see No 10), Morel Bros (see Nos 7, 26, 40 & 47). Last orders: 19 Dec. How much: pounds 385 (500g) plus p&p.

CALISSONS D'AIX

Whisking out a plate of petit fours is an easy but impressive way to help guests forget any technical errors in your meal. Calissons d'Aix are tiny cakes of orange, melon and almond covered with icing, a speciality of Aix-en-Provence, where the family company of Roy Rene has been making them for several generations. "I normally don't like this sort of thing, but these are unforgettable," says Lorna. "They're great with coffee, and nicely packaged for gift giving."

Where from: Marchant le Franc, PO Box 100, Fareham (0870 900 2900); also from Bluebird (see Nos 30 & 42). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 15.99 (270g) plus p&p.

SPICED HEDGEROW JELLY

A succulent mix of damsons, blackberries and elderberries plus Christmassy spices, Emily Ridley's hedgerow tribute is made in Wales, not by old Em (the daughter-in-law of Essex brewer Thomas Dixon Ridley) but by Dio Jones, who has been producing quality condiments since 1966. This year, his attention to detail - making small batches by hand in open copper pans - has been recognised with a gold Great Taste Award. The jelly is great with plain roast meats and cheese sarnies. Try, also, his range of curds, preserves and condiments.

Where from: Ridley's, Pwllheli, Gwynedd, Wales (01766 810983). Last orders: 10 Dec.

How much: pounds 3.50 incl p&p (minimum order 6 jars)

VALHRONA BONBONS

Valrhona is acknowledged worldwide among chocolate buffs as being the triple-platinum chocolatier - the label alone is guaranteed to impress any recipient. The company's fresh, handmade, French-style bonbons are a rare treat, and Sybil Kapoor's choice of a desert-island luxury. "They're truly exquisite, sheer bliss," she says. "They have such a delicate flavour, but one that develops as you eat them."

Where from: The Chocolate Society, Clay Pit Lane, Borough Bridge, North Yorks (01423 322230). Last orders: 15 Dec. How much: pounds 10.99-pounds 41 (70g-600g)

MUSK'S SAUSAGES

As if Lorna Wing's recom-mendation were not enough, the Queen Mother has also given these famous sausages, served at Newmarket racecourse, her seal - or rather Royal Warrant - of approval. "Musk's are for people who like meaty sausages," says Lorna. "They're plump, herby and have a great texture." Owned by the Earl of Ronald-shay, Musk's use natural pig casings, but the spicy meat mixture is also available uncased and is a brilliant choice for any Christmas stuffing.

Where from: Musk's, 4 Goodwin Business Park, Willie Snaith Rd, Newmarket, Suffolk (01638 662626). Last orders: 21 Dec. How much: pounds 1.99 (450g) plus p&p.

SMOKED TROUT TERRINE

A "pond-to-plate" business is how Caroline Yates describes Mere Fish Farm. They grow their own trout, do their own hot and cold smoking, make products from the fish, and deliver them to your door. "The smoked trout terrine includes yogurt, butter and lemon juice, and is positively addictive," she says. "Served with brown bread or crisp toast, it's a very simple but classy way to begin a meal." The minimum order is pounds 25, but all Mere's products freeze well.

Where from: Mere Fish Farm, Ivymead, Mere, Warminster, Wilts (01747 860461). Last orders: 13 Dec. How much: pounds 6.65 per 450g plus p&p.

CARLSBAD PLUMS

Sticky and succulent, these traditional preserved plums are less sugary and have a richer flavour than crystallised fruit. Sybil Kapoor says they're ideal served with nuts and clementines after the main meal, when you're onto the cigars (ideally Havana Cohibas). "They feel like a Christmas treat, but are not as filling as plum pudding," she adds. From an esteemed German producer, Fortnum's Carlsbad plums come in an attractive wooden box.

Where from: Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1 (0171-465 8666). Last orders: 8 Dec. How much: pounds 17.95 (250g) plus p&p.

CARLUCCIO'S CHRISTMAS CRACKERS

Make a big bang at your big bash with these crackers for serious foodies. Each one is about a foot long and conceals a piece of the Italian nougat torroncini or a tiny bottle of limoncello liqueur. "The packaging is richly festive, with scarlet paper and gold lettering," says Lorna Wing. "You know something divine will be inside, and you're not disappointed."

Where from: Carluccio's, 28A Neal Street, London WC2 (0171-240 5710). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 5.50 (limoncello) & pounds 7 (torroncini) plus p&p.

KELLY BAGS WITH PRALINES

What little girl (or big one, for that matter) would not be thrilled with these bag-shaped boxes in Schiaparelli pink and Fauve mauve, filled with top-quality French caramelised almonds? "They're completely `Ab Fab'," says Claire Clifton, "and so pretty as a table gift. Keep a stash to use as last-minute presents." The pink-boxed almonds are coated in milk chocolate.

Where from: Morel Bros, Unit 7, 129 Coldharbour Lane, London SE5 (0171- 346 0046). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 6.10 (150g) plus p&p.

WHOLE SEA BASS

Sea bass is plentiful during December, and traditionally served at Christmas in Italy. "Because it's a large fish, it gets better as it gets bigger, and so, as a festive item, has the quality of a whole roast bird," says Shaun Hill. "A 3lb-4lb bass will serve four people, and look very imposing when it comes out of the oven." Quayside gets its fish fresh on a daily basis from small boats fishing off the Cornish coast.

Where from: Quayside Fish Centre, Harbourside, Porthleven, Helston (01326 562008). Last orders: 15 Dec. How much: pounds 4.90-pounds 5.50 per lb plus p&p.

WHITE-TRUFFLE SALAMI

One of Lorna Wing's top tips for successful parties is to buy lots of fabulous food that you don't have to muck about with. "This salami is amazing," she says, "an absolute treat, made from real truffles, not truffle essence." Simply slice it and put it out with some good, plain bread.

Where from: Bluebird, 350 Kings Rd, London SW3 (0171-559 1153). Last orders: 17 Dec. How much: pounds 33 per kilo plus p&p.

NEAL'S YARD CHRISTMAS CHEESE BOARD

"I like Stilton," says Sybil Kapoor, "but I also like to serve a soft, creamy cheese to provide balance. To be honest, I go to Neals Yard, and usually just bow to their judgement." Those of a similarly trusting bent can order Neals Yard's Christmas cheese board. Along with Stilton and Cheddar, you'll get the triple-creme cows'-milk cheese Finn, a rind-washed mini Gubbeen, and an ash-covered pyramid of Tymsboro', which is made from goats' milk.

Where from: Neal's Yard, 6 Park St, Borough Market, London SE1 (0171- 407 1800). Last orders: 14 Dec. How much: pounds 47 incl p&p.

PHILIPPE STARCK'S `OAO' ORGANIC HAMPERS

Philippe Starck's organic hampers are a curious mix of Italian staples (olive oil, basilic sauce) and hippy chic (oat-and-rice drink, rice cakes). Designed by the man himself, they're ideal for anyone with a siege mentality, whether stockpiling for unexpected guests or the anticipated Y2K bug. As Lorna Wing says: "When everything breaks at the turn of the millennium, it's nice to know you have Philippe Starck by your side."

Where from: Planet Organic, 42 Westbourne Grove, London W2 (0171-221 1345); also Bluebird (see No 30 & 42). Last orders: 17 Dec. How much: pounds 35-pounds 100 plus p&p.

HANDMADE CHOCOLATES

"Andrew Hart is a retired chef who could not keep out of the kitchen," explains Caroline Yates. "He makes every single chocolate by hand." New this year are fresh dates filled with amaretto chocolate mousse and enrobed in dark chocolate, plus tiny packs of three chocolates to hang on the Christmas tree. "The boxes are so pretty you don't want to throw them away," Caroline adds.

Where from: Andrew Hart, 2 Chapel Cottages, Bowerchalke, Salisbury (01722 780019). Last orders: 20 Dec. How much: pounds 6.95-pounds 39.50 (200g-700g) plus p&p.

ROMNEY MARSH MUTTON

The lush seaside grasses of Romney Marsh give a distinctive salty edge to the meat of sheep grazing there, which has been prized since Roman times. According to Claire Clifton, local butcher Jamie Wickens can always be trusted to provide the best mutton available. "He goes out of his way to get something special." The meat is from animals of three to five years old, and is hung for three weeks for optimum flavour.

Where from: J Wickens Butchers, Castle Street, Winchelsea, Kent (01797 226287). Last orders: 7 Dec. How much: pounds 2.40 per lb (leg), pounds 2.80 per lb (chops) plus p&p.

SALMON COULLIBIAC

For Christmas Eve supper and any entertaining around Midnight Mass, a fish dish makes a good contrast to the meat-fest customarily held the next day. Claire Clifton suggests coullibiac, a pie of salmon and rice, because it's culinarily interesting but easy to serve. Morel Bros' 2lb version gives a contemporary twist to the traditional Russian recipe, and is stylishly finished with shrimps and lemon.

Where from: Morel Bros, Unit 7, 129 Coldharbour Lane, London SE5 (0171- 346 0046). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 13.85 plus p&p.

ORGANIC INGREDIENTS

Anyone wanting to make their own puds and cakes need to do so ASAP to give them time to mature, and Rushall Mill can get all the ingredients - even organic mincemeat - to you within days. "Rushall Mill was organic way before it became fashionable," says Caroline Yates. "Their flour is amazing. It's so pure, and tastes nutty and oaty."

Where from: Rushall Farms, France Farm House, Rushall, Pewsey, Wilts (01980 630335). Last orders: 18 Dec.

How much: various ingredients, including pounds 1 (1.5kg flour) plus p&p.

MEAUX MUSTARD

Genuine Meaux mustard is a passion of Shaun Hill's, who loves using it in cooking. It's also a popular traditional Christmas gift, though getting hold of the authentic article is surprisingly difficult these days. Ironically, the best source of classic, additive-free Meaux is the Wiltshire-based Tracklements, which imports direct from a French moutardier. "They are advocates of fine, pure food," says Caroline Yates. "Their products are delicious, consistently good and well packaged."

Where from: Tracklements, The Dairy Farm, Pinkney Park, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wilts (01666 840851); also Bluebird (see Nos 30 & 42). Last orders: 10 Dec. How much: pounds 1.85 per jar plus p&p (minimum order 6 jars)

ROSE & VIOLET CREAMS

An award-winning writer on British foods, Sybil Kapoor has helped revive interest in almost-forgotten delicacies such as rose and violet creams. "They look very pretty on the table in a little silver dish, but it's also wonderful to curl up on your own with a big box of them," she says. And the best manufacturer? "It has to be Charbonnel et Walker. I've never found anyone else to match them." They also wrap to order.

Where from: 28 Old Bond St, London W1 (0171-491 0939). Last orders: 21 Dec. How much: pounds 6.90-pounds 20.70 (125g-500g) plus p&p.

Forman's Wild Smoked Salmon from Morel Bros (No 7); Merchant Gourmet produce from The Teesdale Trencherman (No 14); Hot Smoked Duck from the Rannoch Smokery (No 12)Merchant Gourmet produce from The Teesdale Trencherman (No 14)

Chocolate Letters from Carluccio's (No 20)

Musk's Original Recipe Sausages (No 36)

Valhrona Bonbons from The Chocolate Society (No 35)

Merchant Gourmet produce from The Teesdale Trencherman (No 14)

Onion Marmelade from Tracklements (No 9)

Morel Bros' Foie Gras d'Oie (No 26)

Chutneys from Tamarind (No 4)

Goodman's Geese (No 6)

My Own Foods' Christmas Puddings (No 13)

Organic Nut Spread from Philippe Starck's Survival Kit (No 44)

Everything you need for Turkey Mole, from The Cool Chile (sic) Company (No 24)

Morel Bros' Salmon Coullibiac, top right (No 47)

Buy fruit cake from Church Farmhouse (No 15) or make your own with organic ingredients from Rushall Farms (48)

Condiments from Tracklements (No 9)

For the cream of chocolate truffles, try The Chocolate Society (No 5)

Donald Russell's Aberdeen Angus Beef (No 11)

Above, Piccalilli from Tracklements (No 9); below, Sea Bass from Quayside Fish (No 41)

Schmidt's Nuremberg Lebkuchen from Bluebird (No 30)

Farmhouse Bacon from Sandridge Farm (No 21)

Charbonnel et Walker Violet and Rose Creams (No 50)

Organic Olive Oil from Philippe Starck's Survival Kit (No 44)

Neal's Yard Cheeses (No 43)

Organic Biscuits from Philippe Starck's Survival Kit (No 44)

Organic Tomato Sauce from Philippe Starck's Survival Kit (No 44)

Church Farmhouse Fruit Cakes (No 15)

A selection of treats from The Chocolate Society (No 5)

Liquid Sugar from Philippe Starck's Survival Kit (No 44)

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