Regardless of any lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic means few of us will be enjoying an extended family Christmas this year, and opportunities to meet up with far-flung friends and relatives ahead of the holiday are getting harder to organise safely. I suspect a lot of presents will be ordered online and delivered via mail or courier and it’s entirely possible that our Christmas dinner ingredients will be arriving the same way.
What follows is pretty much what I’d love to be given as gifts if I hadn’t already cracked and bought them for myself because of my out-of-control web-based buying habit. (Many of us have explored new hobbies during lockdown and it seems this is mine.)
I’ve tried to provide something for most budgets, from stocking filler to spendy, all orderable online. This is by no means an exhaustive list and if I can think of anything new I will add to it in the run-up to Christmas. I’d also urge you to buy locally wherever possible, helping support the small independents who’ve stood by us throughout this crisis when big name businesses have sometimes let us down.
Everyone recommended by name I’ve bought from personally. And while I know some of you regard Amazon as the Evil Empire, linking to it is the easiest way to identify certain items. By all means source them elsewhere. If you haven’t already, please check out the new UK Bookshop website, which allows readers to buy online while supporting local independent booksellers. You can read more about it here.
For the record, I’m neither being paid to write this nor have I accepted freebies. This is part one of a two part Christmas gifts post – check back soon for home-made Christmas presents and food for your own table.
Blushing Cook’s floral brownies are perhaps the prettiest edible gift on the planet. Sammi has her imitators – probably inevitable, sadly, with such a brilliant idea – but the original concept was hers and I think she’s still the best. It’s not just about looks: the brownies taste heavenly. From £27 plus postage for someone special in your life.
When I was growing up my mum’s chocolate box of choice was Black Magic. Frankly, it was pretty much that or Milk Tray, and they were notable chiefly for the brooding 007 type who swung through the window to deliver them in the TV ads. Nuff said.
These days we’re awash with ethically-sourced, high-end chocolates, single estate bars which come with notes on terroir and tasting instructions (let it dissolve slowly in your mouth rather than chomping it down is the gist of it). It can be hard to choose. A personal favourite, and not just because they’re based in Suffolk, is Pump Street. Gift boxes from £24.95 and single bars from £6.75. Postage and gift wrapping extra.
OTHER KEY FOOD GROUPS:
For cheese, I like Courtyard Dairy and Neal’s Yard Dairy. Closer to home for me, there’s Fen Farm Dairy, whose mail order items include a quarterly cheese selection and a selection box, and Suffolk Farmhouse Cheese, who in addition to their cheeses sell a selection of meats and hampers.
For charcuterie, I’m a big fan of both Marsh Pig in Norfolk, which in addition to packs of its cured meats, offers a monthly subscription box and a bacon and pancetta home curing kit and London’s Crown & Queue, which also does gift hampers.
If you’d like a night off from cooking in the run-up to Christmas or to send something heart- and tummy-warming to someone who’s isolating, take a look at Truly Traceable‘s award-winning game pies. They’ve set up a mail order service since Lockdown 1: the pies arrive frozen and can be cooked from frozen. Easy-peasy and very delicious. They’re much in demand so the cut-off date for Christmas orders will be December 9. Minimum order £35, free carriage for orders over £85.
TT’s products are also sold online by The Wild Meat Company, which has an impressive range of foods available, including poultry and locally smoked fish as well as game and other meats.
Norfolk Saffron make the best I’ve tried. It’s perhaps more expensive than some but it’s such high quality you don’t need to use as much. Sally’s new season saffron is now maturing, ready to be posted out at the end of this month.
If you’re looking for food-related stocking fillers, Steenbergs offer out-of-the-ordinary spices as well as a wide range of other goodies and if you can’t decide what to send, you can buy a gift card from £5 upwards.
Alternatively, a packet or two of plant seeds is always welcome and easily postable. Choose herbs and tomatoes which can be grown in window boxes or hanging baskets for anyone who doesn’t have a garden. Real Seeds offers heirloom varieties of all sorts for the kitchen garden and they’re not F1 hybrids, so you can harvest your own seed for future seasons. I also really like the wildflower seeds available from Landlife Wildflowers. They’ve got some lovely Christmas gift bags available from £10, mixes aimed at attracting bees or butterflies.
I won’t bore you with lengthy reviews but new or new-ish books I’ve enjoyed this year (as opposed to the enormous numbers of second-hand tomes I have acquired) include Gill Meller’s mouth-watering and beautifully illustrated Root, Stem, Leaf, Calum Franklin’s positively majestic The Pie Room, MiMi Aye’s Mandalay (that duck egg curry), and Lara Lee’s Coconut and Sambal (that mie goreng).
I distinguished myself on Twitter recently by calling Nigella Lawson’s Cook, Eat, Repeat, Eat, Sleep, Repeat, which while an accurate description of my life during lockdown was hardly helpful to anyone seeking to buy it. I am happy to report that Nigella, who is a very kind woman, saw the funny side. It’s a terrific book and everything I’ve made from it has been a winner.
I like the new World Vegetarian series from Bloomsbury: both Roopa Gulati’s India and Christine Smallwood’s Italy are cracking books and just as at home in an omnivore’s kitchen as a vegetarian’s. Sam Bilton’s debut book First Catch Your Gingerbread is crammed with the history of and recipes for gingerbread and other spiced delights; the perfect seasonal gift.
Pen Vogler’s Scoff is a brilliant Christmas book for anyone interested in the history of British food (and class); impeccably researched, it wears its scholarship lightly and made me laugh out loud. And finally, James Rebanks’ elegy to his Lake District fells and farm English Pastoral is heartfelt, sometimes sad, but also hopeful. If you care about UK farming it’s a must-read.
You may prefer to make charitable donations rather than giving presents and if so, you probably have a cause that’s dear to your heart. But can I please suggest that your local food bank would love to hear from you? They need hard cash to keep things running as well as gifts of food (when it’s always best to check first to see what they need most). Nationwide, there’s FareShare and of course the Trussell Trust.
If you’ve picked up a UK published cookery book in the past few years, the chances are you’ll have seen a Netherton Foundry product gracing its pages, probably a Prospector pan. Beloved of chefs, food writers, stylists and home cooks, their range of cast and spun iron and copper pans are made using traditional materials and techniques. They’re a small family firm, so there’s a limit to how many they can make and send out for Christmas, but current stock is listed on their site and they also offer gift vouchers from £25 and up.
Bundt tins are a boon to anyone who enjoys baking, they’re such great shapes they make any cake look good. I like Nordicware, which isn’t cheap but is high quality. Their pine forest tin is a a good one for the season – make a chocolate or dark ginger cake and dust it with icing sugar for an effective alternative to the usual iced Christmas cake. For other tins, Silverwood is my preferred make. They last forever.
If you love well-made kitchen knives, check out Twisted Horseshoe. Sergio Muelle offers make-a-knife-in-a-day courses at his Suffolk forge, or you can make a Damascus steel blade over three days (think Shogun: folded steel of great beauty, like rippled silk). New this Christmas, gift vouchers from £60 upwards, so the recipient can commission their own bespoke knife to be made by Sergio himself.
He often uses found materials in the handles and ferrules, from ancient bog oak to Anglo-Saxon bronze. You won’t be surprised to hear I own three of his knives. My husband did the knife-making course and loved it (even if he did come home with a Bowie knife rather than the chef’s blade I’d been hoping for).
Less exotically, silicone baking mats are always useful and can be used over and over again; colour-coded plastic chopping mats are, yes, plastic but again can be re-used and they’re good if you’re short on storage space or want an easily washed alternative to your bigger chopping board. The ones I’ve highlighted are stiff enough to lift and take to the stove (if you’re careful) to tip straight into a pan.
These mini whisks are handy, whether you’re beating an egg or just can’t be bothered to sieve your flour and baking powder. This scoopy spoon gets into all those awkward corners on jam jars so you don’t waste anything. I’m quite keen on my new garlic press – no waste and easy to clean. And I know it’s woefully prosaic, but this is the best potato masher I’ve seen in years. I like the texture given by a ricer but my husband prefers a stiffer mash. As he’s usually the one tasked with doing it, guess who wins?
This is a very short category as I can’t sew, knit or paint anything other than a wall. But I can’t go without tipping my hat to my friend Liz Evans (lkmakes on Instagram) who hand makes lovely cards, needle cases, cushions, little Liberty fabric hearts and these exquisite angels, made from either musical manuscripts or editions of the Financial Times. Please contact her via IG for prices and availability.
Liz also has occasional barn sales selling vintage china, homeware and furniture as well as her own craft items. She has sourced a lot of the blue and white china I’ve used recently in my pictures. Her next sale here in Suffolk is on December 5 and 6, by appointment only. Again, details via Instagram.