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Food and Drink

Food and Drink: Gifts good enough to eat: Emily Green profiles a selection of specialist food shops and suggests tempting additions for the cheeseboard, sideboard and stocking

There is no better gift than food. I do not mean Quality Street, I mean quality. And at the right specialist, shopping can be pleasurable. This is true of Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden. Founded in 1979, it has been at the core of the revival of interest in British and Irish farmhouse cheeses. It handles 60 cheeses, with perhaps 40 in stock at any one time. They are turned daily for even ripening. The 'mini' or 'baby' cheeses, perfect for gifts, include lancashires from Beesley Farm, near Goosnargh (4lb, about pounds 15). There is Duckett's caerphilly from Wedmore, Somerset (2lb, about pounds 8.50) or stilton wedges in ribboned blue boxes (2lb, pounds 12).

In north London, my favourite shop is Brian Mansfield's tiny Cheeses. Among the Christmas mini-cheeses are natural-rind double worcesters (1lb, pounds 4.60) and mini- cotherstones from County Durham ( pounds 4.95). There is also a good French selection.

South London has the excellent Richmond cheese shop, Vivian's, and now there is a branch in Chelsea. There are small bonchesters (12oz, pounds 4.15) from Easter Weens farm in the Scottish borders, where the Curtis family keep 21 Jersey cows.

The Fine Cheese Company in Bath, best known as a West Country restaurant supplier, opened a shop 18 months ago. Here are baby wellingtons, a cow's milk spenwood (2lb, about pounds 10.50), made for the Duke of Wellington's estate and aged in estate cellars. Another baby spenwood, this time from sheep's milk, costs pounds 8.95. Baby stiltons, now fully ripe, are sold in halves or whole ( pounds 3.60/lb, about pounds 10- pounds 20).

Delicatessens are the next best suppliers of cheese. But then there is the temptation to buy olive oil, wine, pate, chocolates and expensive Double Zero pasta flours. Marcus Zauner reckoned Stoke Newington, north London, could do with just such arousing, so he responded 18 months ago by opening The Cooler.

You could go overboard at The Cooler buying jars of boiled sweets that seem rather over-packaged and over-priced. But there is a brilliant selection of wines, including the delicious Alsatian Tokay Pinot Gris from Turckheim ( pounds 5.45) or the Salice Salentino ( pounds 4.75). And few would sniff at a bottle of the organic olive oil L'Estornell from Lerida in Spain ( pounds 4.55, 375ml).

Like The Cooler, O'Keefe's in the West End combines delicatessen with cafe. It may be more tempting just to make yourself a present of lunch - say, pumpkin ravioli with sage, daubes of beef, wild mushroom soup. This deli is the place for cured hams and bacons from Heal Farm in Devon, or real balsamic vinegar such as Five Barrels ( pounds 11.50, 100ml).

When I last saw Susan Elston, she was worried about how new hygiene laws would affect Humble Pie, her shop in Burnham Market, Norfolk. It is not unclean, quite the opposite, but it is earthy. She favours British farmhouse cheeses, such as raw-milk leicester, as well as ewe's milk baby swaledales ( pounds 5- pounds 6). Or there are special parfait jars with runny and set honey ( pounds 6.25/kg).

The gift options are endless at Mortimer & Bennett in west London. Dan Mortimer has been a bit intrepid on our behalf. He dried and now sells this season's haul of porcini from the New Forest (from pounds 1.60- pounds 4.90/oz). When in Siena, he was charmed by a local baker and arranged to import the fruit cake, panforte, and a large range of biscuits including walnut and aniseed, hard and soft almond. In a shop near Calais he spotted salami-shaped chocolates which now dangle from his ceiling.

The dangling salamis at Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh are real enough. The proprietors reckon they have the next rage: fermented fruit vinegars called espretti ( pounds 7.89, 250ml). This is also the place for gift packs of Italian wines, perhaps the red Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 1990 Cornacchie ( pounds 6.59), flowery, dry Pieropan 1991 Soave ( pounds 5.99) or Mionetto Prosecco ( pounds 5.99), with which to mix bellinis on Christmas morning.

CENTRAL LONDON: Neal's Yard Dairy, 17 Short's Gardens, WC2 (071-379 7646). Open 7am-7pm next Mon-Wed, 7am-3pm Christmas Eve.

O'Keefe's, 19 Dering Street, W1 (071-495 0878). Open 8am-6pm Mon-Fri; 9am- 5pm Sat.

NORTH LONDON: Cheeses, 13 Fortis Green Road, N10 (081-444 9141). Open 9am-5.30pm Mon-Sat; 11am-3pm tomorrow.

The Cooler, 67 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 (071-275 7266). Open 9am- 9pm Mon-Sat; 10am-3pm Sun.

WEST LONDON: Vivian's Chelsea, 360 King's Road, SW3 (071-351 3180). Open 8.30am-8pm Mon-Fri; 9am-6pm Sat; 9am-4.30pm Sun.

Mortimer & Bennett, 33 Turnham Green Terrace, W4 (081-995 4145). Open 8am- 7pm Mon-Fri; 8.30am-5.30pm Sat; 10am-1pm Sun.

SOUTH LONDON: Vivian's Richmond, 2 Worple Way, Richmond (081-940 3600). Open 9am-7.30pm Mon-Fri; 8am-6pm Sat; 8.30am-12 noon Sun.

BATH: The Fine Cheese Co, 29 Walcot Street (0225 483407). Open today 9am- 5.30pm; 8am-7pm Mon-Wed, 8am-2pm Christmas Eve.

NORFOLK: Humble Pie, Burnham Market (0328 738581). Open 9am-5pm (closed 1-2pm) today; 9am-5pm Mon-Thurs.

EDINBURGH: Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row (031 556 6066). Open 8.30am- 6.30pm today and 8am-8pm Mon-Thurs.

(Photograph omitted)