Everything but the turkey: Our awards for the best Christmas accompaniments
What makes a cracking Christmas meal? It's all in the details, says Christopher Hirst, who has chomped his way through a mountain of supermarket and specialist food to find the very best trimmings.
Pigs in blankets
Laverstock Park Farm Sausages Wrapped in Bacon (£8.29 for 12) achieve perfect balance. The sweet, pancetta-style bacon doesn't overwhelm the sausage. The thin, high-quality sausage marries happily with the crunchy crispness of the bacon. Abel & Cole Organic Cocktail Sausages in Bacon (£3.50 for 15) are tiny but porky. Stuffed with coarse ground meat, they will go well with turkey. For anyone who wants a proper sausage, Donald Russell's Pigs in Blankets (£6.50 for eight) contain bangers from heaven. Very sausagey indeed, perhaps a bit substantial for the Christmas lunch, but just the ticket for Boxing Day.
Proof of the Pudding's Alnwick Rum Christmas Pudding (450g, £9.50/ 900g, £16.25) won The Independent's 'The Pud, Bad and the Ugly' taste test last year and has scooped the honours again due to its sensationally light texture (beef suet is the secret) and fruit made tipsy with grog. If you want a traditional shape to end the meal in a fiery lake, Daylesford's Organic Christmas Pudding (900g, £16.99) is a light, tasty confection. Fortnum's King George Christmas Plum Pudding (454g, £24.95) does not sit too heavy on the tum despite being richly endowed with four types of fruit including d'Agen prunes.
Elizabeth David maintained that lunch in bed with smoked salmon and white Alsace wine was "a glorious way to celebrate Christmas". It's a safe bet that she would have been very happy with Donald Russell's Gravadlax (£11/£27). Its succulent texture and delicate, refined cure would be memorable whether eaten at table or between the sheets. Unswerving devotees of smoked salmon should go for Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Chestnut Smoked Salmon (120g, £4.79), endowed with plenty of body and a sweet, characterful taste. With a light London smoke, the beautifully presented Fortnum's Royal Fillet of Wild Baltic Salmon would make a fantastic gift for a fish lover (400g, £40).
When freshly cut, Stilton has an incomparable crisp, clean taste: the best blue in the world. Sold by Booth's supermarkets and other outlets, Colston Basset Stilton is creamy, primrose-yellow with tremendous depth and a lingering aftertaste (£10 per kilo over the Christmas period). Tesco Finest Whole Mature Blue Stilton (2kg, £20), made by Clawson in Melton Mowbray, would be hugely impressive on the table but don't be lured unless you're feeding a multitude. Cut Stilton turns dry and salty with time. Harrod's Blue Stilton Pot (113g, £11.50) is a soft, tangy dessert cheese (perfect with Christmas cake or mince pie) in a posh little pot.
The just-cooked whole berries that pack M&S Cranberry Sauce (350g, £2.99) deliver a delicious acid burst in the mouth. It's got the distinctive quality you need on a plate, whether bearing the Christmas feast or the (often more pleasurable) leftovers. Heston from Waitrose Cranberry Sauce with Vodka (200g, £2.49) is a curious jelly-like affair with a fresh, tangy taste, though there is a slight paucity of cranberries. The inclusion of flavour-free vodka is a mystery. Best among long-life versions, Tracklements Cranberry Sauce & Orange Sauce with Port (690g, £6.55) has a sharpness that will cut the fattiness of goose or ham.
A central feature of the British Christmas since medieval times, mince pies are at last returning to former glory. M&S Ultimate All Butter Mince Pies (£2.99 for four) are said to be "hand-crafted" and look it: light butter pastry surrounds a generous filling of fruit. Laverstoke Park Farm Luxury Organic Mince Pies (£10.50 for nine) are very homemade-looking, but the buttery, slightly flaky pastry and juicy fruit combine to enjoyable effect. Daylesford's Organic Mince Pies (£6.99 for six) have a fruity filling containing 23 per cent apple within an unusual crumbly, soft pastry.
Different versions of this traditional Christmas favourite provide an unexpected insight into the British class system. The people's favourite is Waitrose Remy Martin Brandy Butter (150g, £2.65). It's a fairly brash affair but a hefty slug of brandy asserts its authority over sugary butter. Plutocrats should send the Rolls round to Harrods for Limited Edition Brandy Butter (220g, £7.50): primrose-yellow, smooth, slightly salty with a potent alcoholic buzz. Fortnum's Cognac Brandy Butter (210g, £3.95) is another class act. Pale and seductive, it is the English Rose of brandy butters, exhibiting desirable restraint in the sweetness department.
Anyone who still views dates as a mess of stickiness in a box bearing a desert oasis has some catching up to do. Bateel dates from Harrod's (100g, £3.50) claim to be "the world's only gourmet date experience". The meltingly soft fruit convey a distinctly Middle Eastern version of luxury. The ones stuffed with candied orange peel work particularly well. Tesco Finest Stuffed Dates (197g, £5) include Medjool and Deglet Nour filled with pistachio, marzipan and (best of all) walnut. For addicts, M&S Medjool Dates (330g, £4.99) contain 18 classy unadorned fruit, sufficient for several moments of bliss or one massive splurge.
"I love bread sauce, hot with white game, cold in sandwiches." Many agree with Clarissa Dickson Wright about this intriguing emollient, somehow both bland and spicy, that ties the different elements of the meal together. From Booth's Supermarkets, Truefood's Bread Sauce (250g, £2.99) delivers a perfectly judged tinge of nutmeg. Daylesford Organic Bread Sauce (600ml, £3.99) is nicely spiced with discreet fragments of cloves, thyme and bay leaves that enable you to taste distinct flavours. Oniony and more-ish, Heston From Waitrose's Bread Sauce with Truffle (200g, £2.49) does the job in satisfactory manner, as long as you're not anticipating much taste of truffle.
Lightness is the stuff for the Christmas meal. Swaddled by bacon, Morrison's Pork, Apple & Cranberry Stuffing Parcels (six for £2.59) are delicate, moist and fruity. Their ping-pong-ball size is a neat way of serving and the fruit acidity balances richness. Abel & Cole's Organic Classic Stuffing with Apricots and Walnuts (385g, £5.99) also avoids stodginess and has a delightful homemade quality. Complex and fruity, it is obviously someone's favourite recipe. A hefty pork-rich stuffing is best reserved for post-Christmas comfort meals. The citric scatter in Tesco's Finest Pork, Spiced Orange & Cranberry (430g, £2.55) gives it the edge.
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