Here we are again on a time-travel mission. As we swelter in the summer heat, it only means one thing for consumer journalists: it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
This year was frantic - and early for some reason, with some supermarkets (Waitrose, it's been noted) introducing their festive wares via one and two-day press shows ahead of the usual annual schedule in mid-June. A lot of the shows fell on the same day at opposite ends of London as well, making it a hurried Christmas in July (maybe in an attempt make it as close to the real December experience as possible, but probably because the main supermarkets won't communicate). Anyway, enough of the negativity - it's time for some Christmas cheer...
Tradition, but not as we know it
We seem to have come out of the Heston-heavy years of fancy, sometimes scientific ingredients, and are well and truly back to a traditional Christmas, with cranberries, oranges, parsnips, figs and Brussels sprouts hanging from the rafters, although Ocado's team still dressed up as mad scientists and handed us drinks in test tubes at their event. There's a back to basics –albeit with the extras of modernity – theme in the air in general with all the supermarkets, not least of which is Co-op’s branding reverting to it's original launch 20 years or so ago.
That’s not to say that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the produce at the July Christmas shows. The main aim that seemed to run throughout the individual press events was to show flair with traditional ingredients or dishes. It’s the kind of thoughtful innovation that has gone into Marks & Spencer's Collection British Beef Rib With Porcini, Morrisons' Salted Caramel Parsnips and Sainsbury's Brussels Sprouts Gratin. It’s a nod to the past, with an extra zing, and complements the chosen natural, folk (expect lots of copper pans and kitchenware), modern, retro and glitz (Tesco is bringing gold- painted 'golden olives' into our lives this year) furnishings and themes, which also dominate.
Although turkeys (and occasionally cockerel and chicken) were firmly in the limelight, as you might expect with a traditional Christmas, duck is well established in the festive comfort zone now, and venison is the new duck - got it? Good. My point being, the usual pairings for these meats are making a splash and a firm listing in the high-end retailers. Think cherry, blackberries, sloes, plum, orange and juniper. We are going to be very familiar with these flavours come December.
A time for exotics
Another traditional element of the shows was a lean towards exotic fruit and vegetables. It’s been a big summer offer in supermarkets, with M&S particularly leading the way with a full range of chilies and fruits such as papaya, dragonfruit and mangosteen, and Christmas is set to continue the trend for top-end, niche product. As in days of old, Ocado presented exotic fruit like gift ideas at its show. “Christmas is a time to trade up on fruit,” one fresh produce buyer told me, indicating refillable baubles, filled with physalis and kumquats, to decorate the Christmas tree. “It’s not just a time for cake and chocolate. Exotic fruit makes a great centrepiece or an impressive gift when you go round to someone’s house.”
Amongst the granadilla, pomegranates, fresh figs, dates and mangoes, Ocado was counting Fuji apples, Concorde pears (sourced from Ravenhill Farm) as part of the exotic offer, as well as a mixed citrus gift box - an element Sainsbury's is trading on again this year too, although its version is just some beautifully turned out clementines rather than a mix.
The star players
Again, there's no amazing new variety or relatively unknown hybrid making waves (I really hope flower sprouts get to shine next year), but there are some clear hero products across all of the supermarkets. They are (and in no particular order): celeriac, beetroot, passionfruit, Brussels sprouts and truffle. Now there's the Christmas smoothie sorted.
In what some may think was an unusual move, celeriac was being showcased in the development kitchen at Tesco's show. Slicing it raw in salads, putting it in stuffing and roasting it whole in a salt dough case (which is later discarded) then serving it as a vegetarian main, expect to see more of the vegetables formerly known as “the ugly one”. Geek chic is hitting fresh produce and readymade celeriac dauphinoise is now a thing (at Sainsbury's).
Along with the flower sprouts, I thought I'd see red Brussels sprouts more this year. Although Waitrose does plan to store the red ones during the festive months, Brussels sprouts are green, traditional and everywhere in 2016. More interesting offers include Iceland's frozen Grilled Sprout Mash side; Aldi's luxury side of Sprouts, Beans, Peas, Bacon and Pomegranate; and Asda had new ambassador chef James Martin knocking up some sprout-a-mole on toast for hungry food journalists at its show. Avocado is so yesterday.
We're all about to go to Iceland
I'm not sure how many people have noticed Iceland, slowly but surely, raising its game. To my mind, since the appointment of ex-Morrisons’ executive chef Neil Nugent, we’ve seen greater inclusion of fresh produce in stores and Christmas is looking pretty snazzy. Particular highlights in the fruit and vegetable department, despite aforementioned mash, were carrot balls with fresh orange and asparagus wrapped in bacon and frozen. I'm not sure how they did the latter... A modern-day Christmas miracle, maybe.