Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lifting the lid on more hampers...

Just when I thought I’d fantasised about the perfect hamper enough over the last couple of weeks, what do I spy on the printer at work today but a Selfridges voucher with the magic words ‘exclusive Anya Hindmarch-designed Christmas Hampers’ catching my eye. Well, I thought it was worth a little glance at their website!
And on checking it out I was struck by Anya’s quote:

“I have always been fascinated by hampers, their history and Britishness, but am always disappointed by yet another basket whose contents I don’t actually want to keep. When Selfridges asked if I wanted to design a hamper, I leapt at the idea of not only designing a hamper but choosing what I would really like to receive in one. The sort of ‘hamper you would really like hamper'”.

And she has really gone to town on the humble hamper. The yellow accents are very Selfridges for those not in the know and the big bow and A and H and so very Anya Hindmarch, generally emblazoned across her handbags. The range start with ‘Mother’s Ruin’ a tongue-in-cheek one for the mother-in-law containing a bottle of gin and a little cakes iced with the letters H I and C!

The top of the range is the £1000 Ultimate Girl’s, which contains amongst other things, forty bottles of nail varnish. Sadly it seems I can’t be anywhere near being the ‘ultimate girl’ because as much as I always have painted nails, they are always painted in the same colour – black! Well, it keeps things simple! There is also an iPod Nano, a Dolly Parton CD (?), Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Pretty Woman DVDs and the rather wonderful little Luxe travel guides. But surprisingly the only edible thing nestling amongst all the nail varnish, cleansers and tweezers are the (obligatory frankly) Charbonnel et Walker pink champagne truffles and hot chocolate, Anya Hindmarch designed Biscuiteers biscuit tin (with one hopes some biscuits contained therein) and raspberry marshmallow fluff. So the ultimate girl likes to tweeze, anoint and polish, entertain herself by reading etcetera but doesn’t really like to eat! However as Anya Hindmarch is the legendary handbag designer there is also a yellow cracker which well pulled could turn into a designer handbag – bonus! You can even customise your gift with an especially engraved yellow leather luggage tag.

I guess if nails aren’t your thing you could plump for the ‘Glutton’s hamper instead. Here you’ll find the more standard hamper fare, mint thins and chocolate coins, panettone, afternoon tea bags, Gentleman's Relish, coffee, Christmas pudding , brandy butter, ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' DVD and A.A. Gill’s ‘Breakfast at the Wolseley’. And there is still the opportunity to win a fine handbag to go with your hamper.

There’s also a rather quirky Best of British hamper containing such iconic treats as Black Jacks, marmalade, Harrogate Toffee in a tin, Marmite (ughhh!), a tin of Colman's mustard powder, golden syrup, HP sauce, Monty Python 'The Meaning of Life' DVD and even a little Selfridges black taxi.

I thought before I closed the hamper catalogues for this year I should also check out Harrods though. Their top-of-the-shop most extravagant is the Chairman’s Choice at £5000. This is most exclusive as only eight have been made and in the handmade basket you’ll find a side of salmon, Brie de Meaux, truffle ham and Beluga caviar. And rare gems like a 30-year-old single cask Macallan 30 from Douglas Laing and a bottle of the dry Y de Château Y’quem. The seem to be a very distinct lack of nail polish and the cashmere fripperies so adorned by Snow Queens but there’s plenty of gourmet tuck! It seems that Harrods like to add to the air of mystery – lucky dip approach to hamper buying as they don’t like all the components. For example an individual item you can purchase is a box of luxury silver Pear Tree crackers which for the princely sum of £299 you can delight your guests with “a handmade crown for him or her, a booklet brimming with humour and trivia, a superb individually wrapped gift and a traditional snap”. But what sort of gifts could you expect; I guess there’s only one way to find out. Though I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be one of those little metal puzzles or a cloth tape measure.

After due consideration I am still firmly in the Harvey Nichols’ and Fortnum and Mason’s camp and would just adore a few choice Harvey Nix goodies with a touch of F&M Snow Queen magic applied. If you haven’t seen the verbal drooling over their hamper offerings this year click here. But to be frank, as I have been privy to several conversations on this subject; especially regarding the wanton excess of the Snow Queen hamper – a princessly £25,000 don’t you know (and that’s not too many noughts!) If I had a spare £25k, one would assume I would live in a place palatial enough to house such enormously plump hampers but if by some extraordinary incredible and totally unlikely luck I was to be suddenly a proud possessor of such a fine assortment of magnificence, I’d probably have to move out. I don’t think there’s room for both me and a Snow Queen in my current abode. But a diva can dream can’t she?

And Fortnum’s if you are reading this, well done for just so fabulously trouncing all the other hampers providers in the unashamed luxury and sheer unadulterated opulence stakes this year with your Snow Queen - you are spoiling us. The Harrods’ Chairman Choice just isn’t even a contender.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Holiday, celebrate...

Yes again, it’s a crazy finish to get my plates together for the blog party, but it seems to be a regular occurrence now and if I not tearing in at the last minute, and quickly slipping off my coat and sneaking my dishes amongst all the early birds' offerings it almost seems wrong!
When the ever brilliant Stephanie set this month's blog party as 'holiday' I did wonder if that meant Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other holiday you fancied - am I the only one who celebrates Coco Chanel's birthday? But that's August 19th so she can't have possible had that particular 'holiday' in mind! It seems too early to be thinking festive (D would probably say December 24th is too soon to be in ‘that’ frame of mind) and I don’t really do Thanksgiving but I love a holiday so I’m sure I can conjure up something sparkly. I guess my fellow bloggers from across the pond will be doing the Thanksgiving thing in anticipation of the special feast next Thursday but apart from if our favourite Texan brings us in her fabulous pumpkin pies (hint, hint) I don’t indulge so I thought I’d think ahead to next month.
My first thought was a bit of smoked salmon, as so many of our festive meals have started with smoked salmon. And for the holiday twist I thought I’d cut the granary bread bases in a Christmas tree shape, however once topped with cream cheese, curls of pale rosy salmon and then chives, they lost their form a little. So I left a tiny unadorned tree to show they were indeed Christmas tree shaped under all that tastiness. It did cross my mind to try and cut the salmon into the tree shapes but honestly, that would have meant I was another week getting this posted and would have missed the evening all together!
Next I was determined that some beautiful rare beef fillets would form one of the holiday canapés and the wonderful sea salt and cracked black pepper Crips I bought from the Good Food show last week made the perfect vehicle. Crips are as it says on the packet ‘lovingly baked’ in the oven so are more like crackers than crisps and considerably lower in fat, but more importantly taste really good.
These salt and pepper Crips I topped with a little feisty horseradish cream, stacked with the slices of the rare just seared at the edges beef and then dolloped with a little fresh pesto. Well, maybe the pesto wasn’t as fresh as it should have been and delicious as it was didn’t make me feel too hot later, but let’s not dwell on that slight error!
It didn’t seem right to not do something with turkey but I can’t really get my head around turkey pieces. Yes if you put some effort into a turkey, buy a good one, brine it à la Nigella and carefully lift up the skin from the flesh and stuff full of yummy goodies you can end up with a dish to be proud of. But let’s be honest, so many turkeys are sadly bred for quantity and not for quality and turkey breasts, I think they exist solely to bulk out the egg whites for the ‘body is my temple’ types. So some happy, organic chicken got stuffed with soft cheese and chopped jewels of cranberries to make these hot nibbles spiked with the diamond cocktail sticks to keep them under control.
Okay that’s the savoury corner dealt with, next the sweet treats. I have never really got Christmas pudding but I thought I might be able to scale them right down to make quintessential festive bites with balls of warm Christmas pudding, anointed with icing and topped with a little more sparkly gems of dried cranberries. And I thought they were the nicest Christmas pudding I’d tasted.
And for the drink I was inspired by the Olive festive drink clementine fizz and decided to continue with the theme by dipping some clementine segments in the deepest darkest Valrhona chocolate.
So that’s my first throws of holiday contemplations. I picked up a wonderfully sparkly mat to set of the diamond studded martini glass I made for my birthday celebrations. I spotted this bit of silver loveliness in an elaborate table display in John Lewis but I couldn’t find them for sale. There were stacks of gold ones but the only silver I could find was in the display, so the elegant table setting got slightly rearranged – sorry John Lewis, but it’s gone to a grateful home. And I am hoping if the inimitable Coco Chanel helping me celebrate a holiday tonight, she would approve of the glamorous styling.
Happy holidays everyone - whichever holiday you want to celebrate! And see how the other earlier partygoers make the occasion here when posted...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hamper Heaven!

As I’ve mentioned before here, I am very susceptible to a fine hamper. And it’s not just the wicker ones, with several china (and they do have to be china) plates strapped inside their lid, folded red napkins, chequered table cloth, a battery of corkscrews, cheese and bread knives and a dinky salt and pepper mill. But I also love the baskets crammed with all manner of exotic cans, packets and bottles nestling amongst straw or heaven forbid those infuriating polystyrene chips that the moment the basket/box is open my natural static electricity tendencies causes them to leap out of the box and adhere to every available surface. I’ve had this fascination with hampers as long as I can remember; from my first doll sized hampers to the fine specimens I have today. And I have to admit to owning more than one.
Many years ago I received a couple of hampers from my then employers with a heartfelt handwritten note from the chairman thanking me for some arduous task I’d completed. And I was just beside myself. To be honest the scarily lurid green basket immediately became the property to one of my more appreciative neighbours and the goodies therein were occasionally curious and ill advised, but it was a hamper and a lucky dip and just filled me with a strange joy.
Each year when the purveyors of such wicker goodies start plying their wares, I do take a particular fascination in their extensive catalogue and pour over them making the choice of which I’d like to receive most for myself. So last week when both the elegant Harvey Nichols’ and Fortnum and Mason Christmas hamper catalogues plopped on to my doormat much studying was needed and virtual hampers were constructed.
In the pale blue corner there is Fortnum & Mason, they have a stylish slightly remiscent of flock wallpaper fronted catalogue the iconic F&M stencilled on to the exterior of their wicker hampers. They have classic baskets stuffed with sides of smoked salmon, oozy cheeses and cooked hams. They have names like Windsor, St James’, Imperial, Connoisseur, Burlington and the Glorious Three Hundred (a nod to the impressive age of the pale blue foodie emporium). The pinnacle of their hamper menu this year is the Snow Queen at the eye watering price of £25,000 – no your eyes aren’t deceiving you. It may have been a long time ago, but I paid less than that for a house, well strictly half a house as it was a maisonette! And if you’re wondering how you can get your hands on one for the Snow Queen in your life, sadly it’s only available from the UK site, perhaps it would require its own private jet.
But just in case you are wondering how much extravagant food one can fill a single hamper with, the Snow Queen seems to be an array of white hampers just oozing with glamorous items. As well as every epicurean delight you can possibly think of - (think foie gras en croûte for 25, truffles both Champagne laced and chocolate dusted and also rooted out by an obliging dog (I hear pigs are so passé) from around Perigold, Beluga caviar, lashings of bubbly, Snow Queen vodka (naturally) huge meringues and even chocolate mice), there are softer treats. There are cashmere doodads to envelop every part of a snow queen, from slippers to robes, wraps, scarves, gloves and even a hot water bottle cover. There are silver picture frames, candlesticks, plump satin cushions, Champagne flutes, a Champagne jug and leather knick-knacks; it's just a bounty of diva-tastic adornments. Those Snow Queens certainly know how to live it up, check the full contents here.

I must admit the thought of a Snow Queen always seemed a little alluring, I know she’s the baddie but she gets to swan around in fabulous fur trimmed hats and cloaks tended by minions, permanently surrounded by snowflakes and sat regally in her chic white sleigh whilst plying young boys with Turkish Delight (oh no that might be white witch cavorting around Narnia in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) and then swooping off to her icy palace near the North Pole. The bad ones always get the best lairs!
Such an indulgent, extravagant, aspirational and entirely unattainable hamper it may but I bet whoever put it all together had a ball. Hmmm I wonder if hamper consultants need a new recruit.
Then in the black and white corner we have Harvey Nichols. Firstly Harvey Nix doesn’t favour the large wicker basket, fastened with leather strap as Fortnum’s do. Not that these are not really lovely but I do ponder as to what the serial hamper receiver would do with all that wicker. Maybe there’s one to take the cat to the vet, one to house all those food magazines they haven’t brought themselves to recycle yet or of course replenished with picnic sweetmeats and hoisted to the nearest grassy knoll. But if you truly did receive one every year, and frankly I am enormously jealous, what would you do with them all? My town is very aggressive with recycling, we have the paper, cardboard, glass, cans, plastic and food waste collected, but no one has ever mentioned what to do with a surplus of wicker baskets. Maybe Harvey Nix considered that or more likely wanted to continue their sleek photographic image theme onto the packaging and eschewed the basket, instead a glossy box adorned with ladies feasting on spaghetti or old Italian men looking a little grumpy will protect the enticing goodies therein.
This time the hampers (some say boxes) are called Epicurean, Connoisseur again, Fashionista, Festive, Contemporary, Indulgence and their top prize – the Ultimate at £2,500. I actually read the Harvey Nix catalogue first so was thinking of the wild excess that is until I turned the pages of the F&M booklet.
The Ultimate is not chock full of cashmere and crystal fripperies but instead has every distinctively designed packet, tin and box you can think of. There's the infamous image of the pig's snout on the mushroom and truffle sauce, the large operatic diva on the pandorinos, the chocolate besmirched boy on the coasters, the beach bums on some biscuits and my favourite the Baci woman on placemats, cups and sweet treats. There are also some rather fetching Peugeot salt and pepper mills, the obligatory Champagne flutes with some fabulous Krug rosé to christen them with, a spice grinder, truffle slicer and a rather splendid Wusthof knife block set. For the full list, click here. Though out of the twenty four hampers I am not sure if this is what I would plump for, if pushed to select a favourite as for example I has some wonderful knifes already and how many knife blocks does one very compact kitchen need? No I’d picked 'Indulgence' – not just because I love the name but as I’m fully knifed-up but don’t yet possess the espresso cup and saucer set that frankly every coffee hater needs. And there still an abundance of little goodies to admire, and I do so adore their packaging – I know it shouldn’t matter but it just does!

To compare the hampers from Fortnum and Mason with those from Harvey Nichols is almost not possible as they are just so different, but if I was selecting my own ingredients for my perfect hamper – The Diva let’s call it, I would have a mixture from both. In the Fortnum’s one you have the making of a full gourmet meal, I’d want the foie gras en croûte and the fresh white truffle of course, the Beluga just because and the smoked salmon. I would have to have the sublime truffly cheese Boschetto al Tartufo and the crab terrine. Now Harvey Nichols speciality is all the great store cupboard ingredients to accompany the above so I’d want plenty of risotto rice, aged Balsamic vinegars, the aforementioned mushroom and truffle sauce, white truffle oil, lemon oil and all the other wonderful little condiments they do so very well in their fifth floor gourmand paradise. Maybe the espresso cups, though Baci di Dama is my favourite image so I’d maybe just have all of those. I’d have the olive wood cheese board to top with the cheeses and any sundry cheese knives they have. As the moths have been merrily making my cashmere their personal playground perhaps I fill the corners of my hamper not filled with some ginger chocolates, macaroons and pink Champagne with some silver of cashmere loveliness. Oh and the whole lot could go in one of the white F&M hampers as I suspect I am part Snow Queen.
I realise not many probably share my fascination for 'hamper porn', but they make me very happy and I just can't help but be drawn to those shiny catalogues, hmmmm hampers!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A well travelled parcel

It might be a terribly gloomy, rain swept Autumnal day but it has been brightened considerably by the postman delivering a box full of goodies from the extraordinarily well travelled E in Belgium. Though her actual location has little bearing on the contents of my blogging by mail parcel as the contents origins are wonderfully eclectic and cover a wide range of exotic countries.
So where do I start? Well I think at the first thing I tasted – the Petits Trésors, dark chocolate biscuits with lemon and ginger from France. And they are incredibly moreish, I adore dark chocolate and ginger already but the lemon gives it an extra zing. A firm favourite already!
The next thing I tried was a square of Chocolat Noir au Thym – more dark chocolate but this time with thyme. It’s fabulously aromatic and definitely different – and from Belgium. What E has done that I am so grateful for is included thoughtful notes for those with woeful language skills (me for instance) and identified the intriguing extra to the chocolate and thyme which I could translate as linseed (which I most certainly couldn’t translate).
Staying on the chocolate theme are chocolate hagelsag or sprinkles from Holland. The seem to be for scattering on bread or toast but as E says they are much better dusted over ice cream and I think I would have to agree.
From E’s native Sweden there are Djungelvrål (which she helpfully translates as ‘cries from the jungle’) which is salty liquorice. E says they ‘are not for the faint hearted’ and they are madly salty I must concede. Though being a fan of liquorice I like the taste after the salty wave has passed. Coincidentally my last blogging by mail parcel courtesy of Anna from Sweden acquainted me with such delights.
There’s a little blue tin of Galangal from Thailand, smoked white peppercorns from Cameroon and an intriguing test tube of wild black peppercorns from Madagascar. I do like a good grind of peppercorns and so many dishes so am looking forward to trying something a little more interesting.
From a little closer to home is a jar of dried mushroom and parsley from Italy. E always stocks up when she’s in Italy and this will absolutely be featured next time I whip up some pasta.
I’ve also got some tea made from grape pits from South Korea and mulberry tea from Laos which E became addicted to whilst travelling there. E’s most recent trip took her to the Dominican Republic and she picked up a macadamia nut wafer and a dinky little pink pestle and mortar.
Thank you again E for my wonderful little parcel, I have many more exciting foodstuffs to explore. And thanks to Stephanie’s latest Blogging by Mail event, now I really must finish off my parcel to another food blogger and find a post office to send it from – my local one sadly being no more.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Breakfast scrambled

Some days you fancy eggs and bacon but not in the traditional form, so eschewing the frying pan today I opted for scrambled eggs with bacon. Sometimes that is all you need!