A Coronavirus Christmas #1

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.

CHOCOLATE:

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. 

Pic: Ros Atkinson

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.

Adrienne Eiser Treeby of Crown & Queue

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.

BOOKS: 

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.

Nigella’s Norwegian Pork Ribs

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.

HELPING OTHERS: 

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. 

KITCHEN KIT: 

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. 

My Netherton frying pan

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).

Sergio Muelle

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?

CRAFTS: 

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.

Pic: Liz Evans

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.

21 thoughts on “A Coronavirus Christmas #1

  1. What a terrific post! The Scoff book is high on my Christmas list already.
    Thank you for some brilliant ideas.
    We have already vowed that whatever the ‘situation’ at Christmas there will be champagne and lovely food in this house!

    • Thank you, Penny. I’ve really enjoyed Scoff, hope it ends up under your tree! And I quite agree about Christmas – I’m determined to enjoy it come hell or high water. 🙂

  2. The brownies look an absolute delight. How did you discover those?!
    Pity everyone I know is on a diet, and my Dad has fallen in love with a new brownie I’ve begun making for him: dark choc brownie with a vanilla cheesecake topping!
    I’m with you on Silverwood, Nordicware and Netherton Foundry. I’ve got loads of Silverwood tins – the best is the adjustable with the slots. But it’s a sod to assemble! You need a degree in maths & physics to put it together!
    May I make a wee suggestion for *your* Christmas list: Roger Phillips’ “Wild Food” and (if you’ve not already got it), River Cottage John’s “Hedgerow”. I know you like a bit of foraging, and you’re in the right area for it. I’ve used both books quite extensively for wild food cooking, which I far prefer to supermarket grub.
    (An underappreciated mushroom you may be interested in is the Jew’s Ear (https://www.jta.org/jewniverse/2015/why-this-weird-looking-mushroom-is-called-jews-ear) – available all year, on dead elders, and although people avoid them due to their texture, if cooked down well, they’re very tasty. And not poisonous – as you may remember, I have a propensity for putting dangerous things in my stomach 😂. Just make sure they’re well soaked because all manner of biddies lurk in the folds. Then again, a woodlouse is a bit of protein 😉)
    Have a wild Christmas!

  3. Linda, this is amazing. So helpful and descriptive. Makes me wish I lived in the UK to shop at these places. We cancelled a trip back home to see my family so I’ll be purchasing online. A very different holiday.

  4. Ps. I bought a cookbook yesterday….one more. A Taste of Persia. Mostly because if the stories written in between recipes. It lends me the feeling of travel.

  5. Hmm. Has my post vanished into the ether again? 🤬
    I wrote a flipping long comment about a prezzie you might like to put on your Christmas list.
    Oh well…
    I love the look of those flowery brownies. Have you tried them? Are they as good as your own? Have a bash at the “vanilla cheesecake brownies” on Jemma’s Cupcakes channel on YouTube. They’re out of this world (but don’t make the mistake of using Mascarpone cheese instead of Philly, like I did).
    If you’ve been a good girl this year, Father Christmas might bring you Roger Phillips’ “Wild Food” or River Cottage John’s “Hedgerow” as I remember you enjoy a spot of foraging. I’ve made a few things from these foraging/recipe books.
    And I’m definitely with you on Silverwood, Nordicware & Netherton Foundry equipment. The Silverwood adjustable cake tin is incredible – but a bugger to set up! I need four hands to get it sorted out properly! Do you have that one?
    I love my tins from these companies – although the NF bread tins are a pfaff to clean at times…I’ve had to scrub rust off a few times when I’ve not dried them properly.
    Thank you for an interesting post 😊

    • Hi Alison, sorry, had to rescue you from the spam folder! You are now restored to your rightful place. In answer to your questions, I discovered the brownies through my photographer friend Ros Atkinson, though I’d seen them before on Instagram; yes, I have both of those books, they’re really useful; love NF and Silverwood but don’t have the adjustable tin, it’s quite tempting; I have eaten mushrooms similar to the ones you pointed out when I was writing a chapter for a friend’s book on a collaboration between a chef and a forager. The chef said they were a bit cartilaginous, like ‘ chewing on a mouse’s ear’! All adds flavour, though, I suppose. Take care and thanks for taking the time to comment. Lx

  6. Wonderful post. I wish I lived in England! In actuality, I refer to Amazon as “my local deli.” It’s a wonderful source of products and foods that I can’t buy locally, and with free shipping?!

  7. What inspiration. I’ve whiled away the afternoon clicking on every link and now I’m hungry and extremely covetous. On the other hand, I also have some superb ideas for gifts and a couple of suggestions for my own wish list. Not committing myself to anything until I see #2 though!
    Good job Mrs P.

  8. A wonderful collection of ideas in Linda’s informative and inspiring feature – and I’m honoured to be included!

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