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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2007

Season’s Eatings

By Spear's

There’s no time like Christmas for food. Rose Prince chews the fat.

There’s no time like Christmas for food. Rose Prince chews the fat.

Christmas is all about long pleasurable meals, enjoying food that has been traditionally made and stored for months until it is just ripe and just right. As the autumn nights draw in, cheeses are crafted and hams, salamis and sausages cured. Fruits are headed for flagons of wine-scented syrup and duck legs for the confit jar. Truffles are being dug and geese and rare breed beef cattle fattened.

Nearer the day, scallops and caviar are caught and harvested and foie gras producers prepare themselves for a run on stocks. When all these foods are ready to serve, they make for a celebration, a present or just a pleasant surprise. Some of the best festive foods can be bought directly from the supplier or found in the fine food halls across Europe and the US. What are they and, if you’re quick, how can you get them?

At Emmetts in the hamlet of Peasenhall in Suffolk owner, Mark Thomas, cures hams that are the sweetest, most subtle on the market. Cured in local beer, treacle and salt they are shipped all over the UK and Europe. The late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, adored Emmett’s bacon – Thomas’s shop now holds a royal warrant. He produces thousands of hams each year, smoked and cured in an outhouse next to his store. These hams should be boiled before being skinned, spread with mustard, studded with cloves and baked to serve hot with creamy mashed potatoes. +44 (0) 1728 660250

Christmas falls during the truffle season. There are several types of the fungi that must be dug from underground, but two hold the reputation for a stunning, seductive aroma. In Périgord, France, there is the black mélanosporum. In Italy there is the Alba white. Both types are harvested with the help of specially-trained pigs or dogs, but of the five types of white truffle, Alba is the most rare. They are mainly used to flavour dishes like pasta and do not take well to cooking.

Grate the pungent, distinctive flavoured white Alba truffle on to pasta with a good dousing of olive oil, or on to fresh warm bread or toast with liberal amounts of a single estate olive oil. Expect to pay anywhere between £5,500 per kilo for fresh whites in the UK and Europe and up to £9,700 a kilo in the US, although of course you can buy smaller portions. Expensive yes, but, as an alternative to smoked salmon, truffle is hard to beat, particularly if you’re into robust flavours. +44 (0) 870 732 1234

There are numerous animal welfare issues thrown up by foie gras. Production of the fatted liver of the duck or goose has been outlawed in California and there are moves to have it banned in Europe. However, for those who savour the rich, yet clean, taste, the best can be found at good butchers’ shops, such as Wyndham House Poultry on the Fulham Road, in Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges, all in London. The raw liver should be sliced into manageable chunks, and sautéed over a medium heat (do not add any oil to the pan), then served with toasted brioche and a small sweet and sour companion – a pickled half pear is perfect.
Wyndham House +44 (0) 20 7352 7888 +44 (0) 800 123400 +44 (0) 20 7734 8040

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One of my favourite smoked salmons comes from the Hebridean Smokehouse. A small family run business on the remote island of North Uist, this fish smokery has built up a very good reputation and now sends smoked salmon, sea trout and scallops all over the world. Peat is used in the smokehouse and its unusual, sweet, earthy flavour gently flavours both the hot smoked (cooked) fish and the transparent, cool smoked salmon. Because I prefer to eat wild fish over farmed, I always buy the sea trout. +44 (0) 1876 580209

White Park beef cattle are one of the oldest breeds in the UK, medieval-looking beasts with ghostly white hides and long elegant horns. Slow to mature, the cattle are usually slaughtered after 30 months and then hung for a minimum of another month. We are lucky that more small farmers are taking an interest in the rare breeds, realising they can get a premium price for meat that matures slowly. Generally, you can only get White Park beef from small specialist butchers but this year Selfridges in London has teamed up with two Devon farmers, John Lean and Brian Boylan, who have a herd of 60 White Park. Expect to pay about £30 per kilo for sirloin, and less for rib. It’s worth it. +44 (0) 800 123400

Michel Cluizel is one of the rare chocolate manufacturers to process cocoa beans. Assisted by his four children, he makes exceptional chocolates in his Normandy workshops employing 200 people. Cluizel’s priority is to provide high quality chocolate by choosing the best cocoa beans. He has had strong relationships with the planters since the business began just after the War. Cluizel can trace each piece of chocolate back to a particular variety of bean. I recommend the bitter sweet dark chocolate from Madagascar. +44 (0) 870 732 1234

Sturgeon caviar, rather like foie gras, comes with all sorts of ethical baggage. Pitched gun battles have taken place in the Caspian Sea recently as sailors have vied over the bounty the waters throw up. The reason for the fighting is simple supply and demand; the sturgeon is severely over-fished and you should expect to pay a wallet-breaking £2,400 per kilo for Karaburun caviar, collected from the wild black sturgeon fish.

A small but growing farmed caviar industry is emerging. Whichever variety you go for, buy from a reputable supplier like Fortnum & Mason or Harrods in London, or Dean & DeLuca in New York. Be wary of people who offer deals. They are almost certainly selling contraband. Sustainably farmed caviar from the Aquitaine (France) can be bought at Daylesford Organic at £675 for 500 grams, enough to feed four. The Californians are also farming caviar which is available in good food halls in the US and Europe. +44 (0) 1608 731 700 +44 (0) 800 221 7714

English cheeses have gone through a revolution in the past ten years. Industrial block cheddar is a thing of the past and the UK now has some of the finest artisan cheese-makers in Europe. No longer the distant relation to the French, they are exported all over the world and there are now some shops, most notably Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, that only sell English cheeses.

Tasting especially good this year is the Somerset cheddar, Montgomery. It has been made at Manor Farm in North Cadbury, Somerset for generations. The cheddar has different maturation periods and it is worth asking how long each batch has spent in the cloth. Eighteen months produces a full nutty flavour and a drier, slightly crystalline texture. Twelve to fourteen months and the flavour is there but the cheese is wetter. On stripping away the cloth and cutting open the cheese, the most amazing aroma fills the room. For that sensation alone, it is worth buying a muslin-clad truckle. The best are Montgomery or Keens. +44 (0) 20 7645 3554

Candied fruits tend to look prettier than they taste. Many are just artificial tat. Much better to go instead for a fruit whose humble appearance hides a luxurious sweet taste. The Portuguese Elvas fruit is making a comeback. Made in a tiny factory in the Portuguese interior, not far from the Spanish border, every part of the production is taken care of by gentle hands. The fruit – greengages, figs or apricots – are picked unripe, then boiled three times in sugar syrup, before being washed and sun dried. The process is carried out over three months. The conserved fruit is then packed in boxes for the Christmas market. +44 (0) 870 732 1234

So to Christmas Day itself. Thankfully for the discerning gourmand, the days of broiler house turkeys are long gone. You don’t have to buy them and you shouldn’t. The UK produces some exceptional turkeys. Kelly Bronze would be near to the top of the list. The Bresse turkey from the Macon region of France is a bird with deep flavour and good lean meat that has a bit of much welcome chew.

Bresse poultry is the only one in the world to have been granted its own protected designation of origin (appellation d’origine contrôlée). A far cry from the industrialised methods employed by huge producers. The Bresse turkey is raised according to traditional local methods, foraging on grass during daylight hours and slaughtered using an age old technique. Prices for smaller turkeys (feeding at least six) begin at £60 per bird. +44 (0) 870 732 1234

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