Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Christmas treats

Need some last-minute Christmas gift ideas for food and drink lovers? Here is a selection of personal favourites.

Paul A Young chocolates
Whether it’s just a bar or a whole box of chocs from this gorgeous shop in Islington, your chocoholic friends or relatives will be delighted. The infectiously enthusiastic Mr Young constantly experiments with ingredients (sweet and savoury) and how they combine with different types of chocolate. The results are spectacular. As unusual as some of the chocolates may be, there is something for every taste. Personal favourites are the salted caramel truffle and his little bars in different flavours and types of chocolate. For serious chocolate lovers, you might want to consider treating them to a chocolate tasting.

Speciality sea salt
Maldon Salt is made up of the most beautiful little pyramid shaped crystal flakes and is perfect for sprinkling. This salt comes from the Essex coast and was prized by the Romans. Lovers of the West Country might be interested in Cornish Sea Salt that comes from the Lizard peninsular and has a really intense taste of the sea and more granular texture. I’ve also been a great fan of French fleur de sel, but a particularly favourite is smoked salt. Halen Môn from Anglesey in Wales is excellent with eggs, fish and poultry and the Maldon Salt people now offer a smoked version.

Since ancient times saffron, from the stigmas of the crocus flower, has been one of the world’s greatest luxuries and weight for weight more valuable than gold. Thankfully, a little goes a long way. Just a few strands of saffron add colour as well as delicious, aromatic flavour to sweet and savoury dishes. Even something as mundane as scrambled eggs can be transformed to five star luxury with a sprinkling of this precious spice.

Maple syrup
This is one the whole family can enjoy. I love honey, but it tastes a bit two dimensional alongside the complex butterscotch and caramel flavours of maple syrup. It’s such a treat and so versatile, and nothing beats pouring it over breakfast pancakes or yoghurt and fruit. Locally, Waitrose and health food shops are good hunting grounds. 

London smoked salmon from Forman and Field
This Billingsgate based family company developed the original ‘London Cure’ for smoking salmon. Two types of smoked salmon are available: a regular smoked salmon and a special wild smoked salmon and the prices differ dramatically due to the rarity of wild salmon. Many other delicacies are available, as are top-notch hampers and the company also offers gift vouchers. They also have a restaurant on their premises in New Billingsgate.

The Wine Society Lifetime Membership
The Wine Society, established in 1874, is run as a partnership, with each member owning shares. In order to be a customer you need to join and the £40 life membership fee entitles you to access a superb range of wine at extremely competitive prices. Members receive a regular newsletter and details of the Society’s frequent events. There is an enormous temperature controlled wine storage facility at their base in Stevenage if you want to lay down wines and don’t have the space at home. Furthermore, there is an outlet in northern France where cases of wine can be bought duty free.

Sample wines at The Sampler
This wine merchant is unusual as visitors to the shop can pay to taste small samples of 80 wines at any given time. They use special wine storage equipment that allows open bottles to be enjoyed over an extended period. Prices for samples start at 30p for fino sherry, rising pretty much as high as you like for rare, classic wines from great vintages and the selection changes every fortnight. To experience these wines you use a Sampler Card, credited to at least £10, and help yourself to wines that take your fancy. The Sampler also organises themed tastings; recent examples include wine and chocolate (£25) and Bordeaux 1996 (£75). Sampler Cards can be used as gift vouchers, as well as for sampling. There is now a branch in South Kensington as well as the original branch in Upper Street, Islington.

Lunch at Le Gavroche
You might have seen Michel Roux Junior on television (recently on MasterChef: The Professionals) and this is his restaurant – one of London’s finest. This is classic French, but with a light, contemporary touch. Dining here is the culinary equivalent to a ride in a Bentley – sleek, smooth and impeccably luxurious, yet if you can get down to Mayfair for their set lunch, for £48 you can enjoy three courses with half a bottle of wine, mineral water and coffee. Note: you need to book a few weeks in advance.

The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
From aardvark to zuppa inglese, this makes for extremely enjoyable, informative reading, either looking up specific entries or randomly dipping into. It is beautifully written, witty and highly authoritative. Alan Davidson’s books on seafood are also well worth seeking out as, like this book, they are absolutely classic reference works.
£40 Oxford Companions

The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
Wine is all about geography and climate, so maps are central to understanding this complex subject. This comprehensive book is updated every few years and, along with the Oxford Companion to Wine (see below), is considered the benchmark work on the subject. It is a beautiful book and would appeal to anyone who loves travelling, eating and drinking.
£40 Mitchell Beazley

Oxford Companion to Wine
This encyclopedia, like the World Atlas of Wine, is regularly kept up to date and could not be more highly regarded. It is compiled by Jancis Robinson (co-author of the Atlas) who draws on her own considerable expertise and from a broad international team of specialists. Used together, these two books will comprehensively cover this enormous subject.
£40 Oxford Companions

How to Drink by Victoria Moore
For a more practical treatment of the subject of what we drink – wines, beers and spirits, cocktails, soft drinks, hot drinks, smoothies, juices – this excellent book by the Guardian’s wine columnist encourages you to get the most out of every sip or gulp. It’s an entertaining and informative read and should inspire you, whatever the season, weather or occasion.
£15.99 Granta

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