Happy Xmas (Summer is Over). Well, you could forgive food journalists for feeling that at the end of July as the month is a funny and confusing time of year for us. It’s that magical window where you’re just as likely to get sunburnt at an outdoor music festival as enjoy a fake snow fight with carol singers. Because now is the time that anything Christmassy that is going to get into the pages of the festive weekly and monthly magazines and newspapers, it needs to be seen.
You may think I exaggerate but these are not random happenings, folks. The Christmas previews all occurred last month, and as well as full roast dinners, Christmas drinks and buildings tied up in a big gift bow (okay, that was last year at Morrisons). All manner of unseasonal events took place just so the Christmas pages can be written and wrapped up around October, in time to be printed and on the shelves for consumers to pick up come November.
From Sainsbury’s to Asda, Lidl to Aldi, various PR houses with multiple clients and food boards such as Bord Bia and companies like Merchant Gourmet, set up their wares in the likes of Somerset House and Kettners to give journalists a glimpse into the future trends and what this year’s Christmas will look like.
When it comes to fresh produce it would be easy to think that there wasn’t much going on, with sprouts and roast spuds still sitting pretty on their sturdy thrones. But innovation is everywhere, and Christmas is as good a time as any to let the creative juices flow.
Like the summer holidays, whether abroad or in the UK, Christmas is one of those special occasions when people spend the time and money to treat themselves and those around them. Looking beyond the festive feasting though, it’s also when food trends inspire what we’d like to eat for the rest of the year and just about the only food occasion left when it’s deemed okay to eat out of season.
Set in a stately Charing Cross townhouse at the Waitrose Christmas event, Berryworld’s strawberries, raspberries and blueberries were in abundance. Well, they appeared in a cocktail glass roughly the same size as me, to be exact – although obviously the soft fruit available at Christmas won’t be from UK growers.
Online retailer, Ocado had some very exciting black raspberries, served with its whole Iberico ham leg offer, which will pretty much feature in every retailer this Christmas. Prices are decreasing by the moment – currently the cheapest is Asda’s 18-month matured Serano ham leg, knife and stand for £40.
Ocado showcased various countries as its theme this Christmas. Its vegetable offering was all from Italy, featuring items such as romanesco broccoli (which, you may remember, made waves a few years ago and was hailed as the next big thing before it promptly disappeared), fresh horseradish root and different-coloured beetroot.
Purple Brussels sprouts were a big launch for Asda last year, but the reddish counterparts of the Christmas-dinner must-have were nowhere to be seen on 2015’s Christmas wish list. Instead, Asda featured a lovely ready-to-serve starter of asparagus mousse with a smoked salmon topping, which was, to my knowledge, exclusive to the retailer. I phrase this purposely because, despite not communicating with each other, the multiples do often manager to mirror each other at these Christmas events.
Christmas tree flavouring has moved on from Heston Blumenthal’s bubbling development kitchen at Waitrose (sprinkled mince pies launch, last year) to Marks and Spencer’s Scottish smoked salmon, served on vibrant-looking pea blinis and sold ready made. Scandinavian flavours will be less popular this year, albeit still around, with dill, lemon, pickles, cured fish and sea salt featuring heavily on starter platters.
Anything pepper- or chilli-inspired seems to be in for 2015. Fresh sweet peppers, pickled Pepperdew peppers and chilli pepper pearls were dotted throughout the shows, with Tesco welcoming chillies into its ‘roulette’ theme with chilli roulette olives (155g; £3). Some olives are filled with pimento and some are hot chilli peppers, so not one for the kids or Granny, perhaps. Tesco also featured a beetroot caviar in its starter section, as part of a blini pack for now, but it probably won’t be long until it’s available solo.
Back over at Ocado, truffle continues to sneak through to mainstream. Its 250g Sottocenere soft cheese and fresh truffle centre (£6) was also right on the retailer’s Italian vibe this year. Sainsbury’s also sported more exotic or cultivated mushrooms than its usual offer, including eryngii (otherwise known as king oysters) and golden enoki. And while there was little food at Amazon’s event (despite it being tipped as the next big thing in grocery), there were catering-jar proportions of dried wild mushrooms.
One product that was pretty much a running theme throughout all of the shows was samphire, especially when it came to M&S. And the sea veg wasn’t just being served with fish, it was used in starters, with meat main dishes (lamb in particular) and as a garnish in general.
A product developer told me that new product development with samphire, which traditionally grows on seabeds but is now being commercially cultivated in the UK, has been almost silently waiting on the periphery for about five years but now retailers feel consumers are ready to welcome it into their everyday lives, or, at least, occasion times.
Heston’s old head chef, Kevin Love, who is now executive chef at Lidl, was busy injecting chickens with spices and spatchcocking mulled ducks, over at the discounter’s event at Carousel. Samphire was also prevalent, over at the fish and seafood counter and in garlic butter, but also with belly pork. See my interview with Kevin here
Could samphire be next for the kale effect? Possibly not quite yet, but this long-standing luxury product (some may remember Selfridges started selling it brined in jars around 10 years ago) is definitely going to become more accessible. From a taste and versatility point of view, it also has a lot more going for it than the purple sprout.
Seasonally, samphire is a summer product but now Worcestershire-based Westlands Wow is growing it, and currently stocking it as a main salad line on the shelves of Tesco, there is year-round availability. So, it looks like samphire will definitely be ‘Christmas 2015’s kale’ at the very least. And talking of kale, Waitrose is pushing forward the baby version of the brassica for the festive period.
Just when you thought you couldn’t possibly eat any more kale…
Now on to your side dish veg staples, and ready-to-roast winter root vegetables. The offers are pretty similar to last year, with the exception of a few supermarkets popping sweet potato into the mix. Beetroot is now a firm Christmas offering, and Aldi has a lovely pairing in a chilled parsnip and Parmesan mash.
And if kitchenware retailer, Lakeland has anything to do with it, a lot of us will be getting a vegetable ‘spiralizer’ for Christmas. It enjoyed much attention at the Somerset House event where courgettes, carrots, cucumbers and any veg they could get their hands on were spiralised for dishes of ‘healthy spaghetti’ et al.
It just goes to show, once again, that it’s not the fresh produce, it’s the gimmick. But I’m not knocking it, it’s definitely on my Christmas list. You still have time to buy it for me, don’t worry – as I type this last sentence, there are 142 days and 13 hours to go.