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How to Shop Christmas (Like Julie Andrews After A Few Sherries!)

Publisher - Great British Food Awards
published by


Nov 28, 2019
15 minutes to read
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Ready to get your Christmas on? It’s the high street, not the supermarket, that will press your festive buttons, argues Anna Blewett

He did us a favour, our Lord Jesus Christ, by entering the world at a point in the year where the drudge of grocery shopping makes it less desirable than a visit to the dental hygienist. ‘Tis the season for grey skies, zero parking spaces and Black Friday, and yet popular culture insists that choosing our cheeses and picking out unnecessary extras can be the very zenith of Christmas spirit.

o, if the climactic peak of your Christmas grocery shop is bagging a coveted Sainsbury’s delivery slot, it’s time to ramp up the romance. Grab your jute shoppers, fully extened those arms and prepare to stride the streets swinging your culinary finds shoulder high.

Chocolate & bright lights

“I love Christmas shopping; it’s my favourite time of the year and seeing all the festive ingredients just makes feel so hungry,” says Stuart Ralston, the chef patron of Edinburgh restaurants Aizle and Noto.

“There are a few favourite retailers I always go to religiously: Sebastien Kobelt is a master chocolatier in Linlithgow, a little town in West Lothian. Every year he makes the most beautiful advent calendars and hand-dipped chocolates which are stunning – I always buy people his chocolates for Christmas presents. I love going to IJ Mellis Cheesemongers to buy our Christmas cheese plate every year. Then I always get my turkey from the good people at Gartmorn Farm in Alloa – they rear beautiful Bronze turkeys that come in a smart posh box, which makes me feel special.”

An undimmed appreciation for festive retail is shared by chef Shaun Searley, co-author of the recent Quality Chop House (£30, Quadrille) which carries recipes from the iconic Farringdon restaurant. “I popped in to Fortnum & Mason last week – it’s astonishing how well they do Christmas,” says Shaun. “You walk in and think ‘This is too nice.’ I’ve lived in London for over ten years and yes, Oxford Street is hell, but in the bubbles like Fortnums or

Selfridges everything’s just done so well. Their budgets are massive and they’re trying to out-do each other…it’s really good. We’re spoilt because we have our own shop on site, with a butchery, cakes, pastries and wine. But the motivation is to support other local shops too, like La Fromagerie which nails Christmas by enticing you in to buy something that you didn’t know what you wanted in the first place.”

Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)
Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)

Lit windows & gilt lettering

Honing in on your festive fantasies is raised to an art form by chocolatier Paul A Young, whose Soho and Islington boutiques are a mecca for Christmas shoppers. “I always want the feeling to be like you’re walking into a box of chocolates, with lots to choose from, lots of colour, festive music and samples to try – a pretty happy place to be,” says Paul. “At Christmas my shops always have an intense smell of chocolate, including hot chocolate which bubbles away all day. This year snowflakes are the theme we’ll use to dress the window displays.

When I was growing up our closest town was Hartlepool, so Christmas shopping trips were always there. I loved the festive lights, smells and tastes…it just reminds me of happy times and eating lots of Christmas chocolates. “The spirit of this retail fantasy has been crystalised by Eleanor Crow, whose new book Shopfronts of London (see p.84) celebrates the idiosyncratic exteriors of London’s neighbourhood shops.

“I rarely go to the supermarket because in London it’s so much more convenient to walk to your local shops,” she points out. “It’s the beautiful shopfronts that draw you in; the gilt lettering and the beautiful tiling show so much skill and care.”

For Eleanor a beautiful facade is a clue to the shopping experience that can be enjoyed within; well-staffed emporiums built to a scale that snuggles, rather than completely dwarfs, the human form. “I’ve found traditional butchers are one of the most successful types of business because people care so much about what they buy,” she suggests. “With a proper butcher you know you’re going to get something with great provenance. That personal contact – to talk about what you’re buying, to have a conversation – that inspires trust.”

Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)
Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)

Local gems & national treasures

For what food lover could leave something so important as Christmas groceries – the cheese, the cold meats, the pastries – to a chance? “I’m lucky enough to be able to pop to Borough Market, which has all my special Christmas foods catered for under one roof,” says London-based beer expert Melissa Cole, author of The Beer Kitchen (Hardie Grant, £20).

“But the bulk of my Christmas shopping is done very locally at my local butchers R. Chubb’s in East Sheen, Barnes Fish Shop, The Real Cheese Shop in Barnes and Barnes Fruit & Veg. All of that said, I love getting my hands on the Booth’s catalogue for totally unneeded but absolutely wanted extras like some Herdwick mutton and their Christmas nibbles.”

Ah yes, the extras. The illicit off-list pleasures whose kitchen hiding place remains the secret of the shopper. “The best thing about Christmas is that you can overindulge and really not feel guilty because it’s mandatory,” says Norfolk native Richard Bainbridge, head chef at Norwich’s modern British Benedicts.

“There are so many amazing food retailers: at Christmas time I love going to the Norwich market where you’ve got the Cheese Man who has a great selection of local and international cheeses, and Mike Debs and Sons who supply the most amazing quality veg for my Christmas Day roast. Jarrold Food Hall is Norwich’s answer to Harrods at Christmas – the chocolate counters are to die for – and at Christmas Bread Source, an artisan bakery in Norwich and Aylsham, makes the most wonderful chocolates perfect for popping on the tree as decorations.”

Spice & shellfish

A few last tips? Firstly get smart with your scheduling. “For Christmas I always order about four to four weeks in advance as I know my favourites get busy,” says School of Wok founder Jeremy Pang. “If there is something live like lobster or scallops that I have to leave to the last minute I head to the Korean supermarkets in New Malden, as their fish counters are immaculate.” Jeremy and his wife stopped buying presents for friends and family some time ago, preferring to make Christmas hampers packed with herb rubs, spiced oils and other homemade treats from carefully-sourced ingredients. “I absolutely detest shopping in large supermarkets for all this stuff,” says Jeremy.

“I try to make it as pain free as possible, so put more effort into shopping where I enjoy it: Tooting Market for my exotic spices, fish fresh from Fish For Thought, meat from our local butcher in Southfields and all the little extra bits and bobs at our local French deli.”

Another hot hint: keep your energy levels up with a little well-sourced sustenance. “A trip back up north at Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Manchester’s Christmas markets,” says George Farrugia, head chef of London restaurant Fenchurch. “My favourite stall is called Porky Pigs where they sell great big Yorkshire pudding wraps filled with a Sunday roast or roast turkey and all the trimmings…heaven! There’s always a long queue, but it’s definitely worth the wait.”

And finally, if you just can’t resist the queue-busting draw of the online grocery shop just sprinkle a little stardust over the courier van. “I didn’t grow up eating caviar, that’s for sure,” says Shaun Searley, “but I now buy Exmoor caviar online. If you ordered it in a restaurant you’d never get a big enough portion because of the cost, but if you’re willing to splurge a bit, eating it by the teaspoon is the best way to enjoy it.”

Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)
Illustration from Shopfronts of London by Eleanor Crow (Batsford Ltd)

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