Even top chefs will tell you life’s too short to home bake all your Christmas fare. But with a huge array of gloriously over-indulgent foods on sale, which to choose?
Journal Taste assembled an expert panel to sample locally-produced Christmas cakes, puddings, mince pies and chocolate.
The team met in the welcoming surroundings of Tynemouth’s Dil and the Bear café and patisserie on a cold night to offer their words of wisdom.
Thanks to Vicky Turnbull of Newcastle-based vegetarian and vegan street food firm, Wheatberry; Dilaila Galbraith, owner of the Dil and the Bear café; Sally Craigen, who runs Martineau Guest House in Tynemouth, winner of this year’s North East Tourism Awards Bed and Breakfast/Accommodation of the Year; chef and pop-up restaurant organiser Gareth Kyle; and Karen Atkinson, photoshoot coordinator, good home cook and passionate supporter of local produce, for giving up their time to be part of the Big Journal Christmas Taste Test.
So, without further ado, here’s what they thought of this year’s locally produced and sourced offerings. Marks are out of 10.
Christmas just isn’t right without a rich, fruity cake. We tested plain and iced versions. Our panel looked for a moist texture, high fruit content, spice and booziness, and a good, thick marzipan layer on the iced cakes.
Blagdon Farm Shop Christmas Cake with brandy, 600g, £8.95, available from their outlet at the Milkhope Centre, Blagdon, Northumberland, NE13 6DA, www.theblagdonfarmshop.co.uk
A rich-looking fruit cake bar topped with thick marzipan, white icing and festive holly sprigs. Praised for being a classic Christmas cake at its best made from top notch ingredients.
Dilaila: “Very moist with a good layer of marzipan.”
Karen: “Looks like a proper Christmas cake with a decent layer of marzipan and icing.”
Gareth: “Not overly sweet, moist and with a good all round flavour.”
Brocksbushes Farm Shop Mini Iced Christmas Cake, £2.50, (larger Christmas cakes start from £12.50 each), available from their outlet at Corbridge, Northumberland, NE43 7UB, www.brocksbushes.co.uk
An individual and traditionally iced Christmas cake that wasn’t as densely dark and moist looking as the others, but was packed with lots of fruit, nuts and spices.
Gareth: “Not too sticky and the nuts provide welcome texture.”
Karen: “Nice homemade marzipan and a good filling with plenty of citrus and nuts. It looks very pretty too.”
Jenkins and Hustwit Rich Fruit Cake with Rum, 2kg, from £18, www.jenkinsandhustwit.com for list of regional stockists
A traditional luxury fruit cake that comes un-iced but, as one of the panel said, “leaves you with a blank canvas to feed it with more alcohol and decorate as you want”.
Karen: “Looks like a tea bread when you cut into it. For me, it’s not dark or rich enough for a Christmas cake.”
Vicky: “It’s pleasant but could do with more fruit.”
Dilaila: “Looks professional and very smart but it’s a bit on the dry side.”
Auckland Castle Iced Christmas Cake with brandy, 1kg, £25, available to order by calling the Library Tea Room on 01388 743 750, www.aucklandcastle.org
A homemade Christmas cake covered in white icing, subtly decorated with stars and a gold bow.
Vicky: “A bit too homemade-looking! Very thin layer of marzipan and icing.”
Dilaila: “Uncooked in the centre and overcooked on the outer, but it tasted good with nice citrus undertones.”
Karen: “Remarkably sweet and sadly just missed the mark for me.”
Only the best will do when it comes to the finale of Christmas dinner. The pudding should be moist but hold together well, be packed with plump fruit and give off a good ‘festive’ aroma.
The Proof of the Pudding Alnwick Rum Christmas Pudding with Nuts, 225g, from £6, (450g, from £10; 1kg, from £18.50) www.theproofofthepudding.co.uk for list of regional stockists
This attractive pudding, made to an old recipe by Susan Green on the family farm just outside Alnwick, plopped splendidly from its bowl and had the tasters going back for more.
Karen: “Brilliant texture and taste. It’s just like my granny used to make – and that is a compliment!”
Dilaila: “You can really taste the individual fruits.”
Gareth: “The nuts really give the pudding texture and body.”
Vicky: “Beautifully dark and very traditional looking.”
The Proof of the Pudding Alnwick Rum Christmas Pudding, 225g, from £6 (450g, from £9.80; 1kg , from £17.85), www.theproofofthepudding.co.uk for list of regional stockists
Like its nut-filled stablemate, this pudding comes in an attractive muslin cloth and looks the part when turned out onto a plate.
Dilaila: “This tastes really good and is nicely boozy, but for me just needs a little bit more texture.”
Karen: “Looks great, holds together well, has a good flavour and leaves a nice taste in the mouth.”
Vicky: “Lovely texture with plenty of fruit.”
Jenkins and Hustwit Victorian Christmas Pudding with brandy, 1kg, from £10.50, www.jenkinsandhustwit.com for list of regional stockists
Attractively packaged in a box, this is a great pudding for those who like a traditional domed Christmas offering.
Gareth: “Dense, great texture and any leftover would be fantastic on Boxing Day fried in butter!”
Vicky: “A lighter coloured pudding, it’s moist and traditional.”
Dilaila: “Tastes good and is light, moreish and moist. Just wish it had some nuts.”
Karen: “It delivers on the flavour.”
Auckland Castle Christmas Pudding, 450g, £7, available to order by calling the Library Tea Room on 01388 743 750, www.aucklandcastle.org
Dark, smooth and shiny pudding with a nice festive aroma of alcohol.
Karen: “Very moist, very moreish with big cherries and plump juicy raisins. The whole pudding is packed with fruit. A really good mouthful!”
Vicky: “Good chunks of cherry and fruit.”
Fenwick Luxury Christmas Pudding with Cherries and Apricots, 500g, £8.99, available from the food hall, Northumberland Street, Newcastle, www.fenwick.co.uk
Glossy and brown, this pudding looks the part.
Dilaila: “Looks great, but unfortunately there’s not much texture and it tastes quite bitter and traditional – perhaps too much so if you aren’t really a Christmas pudding lover. A good option, though, if you are a true Christmas pud aficionado!”
Gareth: “Good citrus and spice aromas but too sticky.”
Karen: “It’s a bit on the claggy side.”
Vicky: “Looks good, is pleasantly dark and I like the taste.”
Ringtons Luxury Christmas Pudding Selection, four at 110g each (Brandy, Port and Walnut; Cider; Rum and Double Cream; and Traditional), £6.49, www.ringtons.co.uk
Individual puddings in a variety of flavours presented in a festively decorated cardboard tube.
Sally: “Good for people living on their own and better for non-traditional pudding lovers.”
Karen: “The rum and double cream pudding is full of plump fruit, but it’s too sweet. You’re not really conscious of any walnuts in the brandy, port and walnut pudding and overall they’re not a great shape either. All the puddings are very flat.”
Santa won’t thank you for any old mince pie when you leave one out on Christmas Eve. He’ll want crisp pastry and lots of boozy, sweet and spicy mincemeat.
Vallum Bakery and Patisserie Port, Fig and Red Wine Sweet Mincemeat Pies, £1.85 each or six for £9.95, available from Vallum Farm, East Wallhouses, Northumberland, NE18 0LL, www.vallumfarm.co.uk
These homemade pies are substantial (double-decker size, as one tester commented) and are filled to the brim with flavoursome mincemeat.
Vicky: “Good, sparkly, frosty look to the pastry, lovely Christmassy smell and boozy mincemeat.”
Sally: “Texture and taste delivers, but for me the pies are a bit too big and overbearing.”
Gareth: “Deep and golden with a lovely spicy Christmassy aroma.”
Karen: “Delicious filling and perfect pastry, but even for an oversized appetite these pies are a challenge. The best ones, though.”
Dilaila: “Good flavour, pastry and filling. Liked the crunchy sugar on top instead of icing sugar. But they are very big!”
Blagdon Farm Shop Luxury Homemade Mince Pies, £3.99 for four, available from their outlet at the Milkhope Centre, Blagdon, Northumberland, NE13 6DA, www.theblagdonfarmshop.co.uk
Traditional looking, generously sized homemade mince pies with a good depth.
Dilaila: “Nice pastry, good texture with the citrus cutting through the sweetness.”
Karen: “Nice crumbly pastry and good homemade mincemeat with more personality than all the others – bar Vallum.”
Sally: “The mincemeat had real character.”
Brocksbushes Luxury Sweet Mince Pies, 85p each (boxes of six iced mince pies £3.50), available from their shop at Corbridge, Northumberland, NE43 7UB, www.brocksbushes.co.uk
Impressively deep-filled and nicely decorated homemade mince pies.
Gareth: “Look very nice but the pastry is too soft. Could be crispier.”
Karen: “A bit claggy and the pastry’s too thick.”
Vicky: “Pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Fenwick Luxury Iced, Star Topped and Viennese Mince Pies, £1 each or three for £2.50, available from the food hall, Northumberland Street, Newcastle, www.fenwick.co.uk
Very pretty and festive-looking mince pies that look beautiful on the plate.
Karen: “Pleasing to look at, but the filling has a weird artificial taste.”
Dilaila: “Far too sweet and squidgy.”
Gareth: “I like the different finishes but they’re not great pies. The filling’s too sweet.”
Greggs’ Six Sweet Mince Pies, £1.50, available from the baker’s high street outlets across the region, www.greggs.co.uk
Sugar topped with a good colour but which are oddly flat, looking more like the classic image of a UFO than a generously filled mince pie.
Karen: “Tasteless and greasy pastry.”
Gareth: “Short pastry and very stingy on the filling.”
Sally: “Very disappointing texture and flavour.”
Vicky: “They are very flat. Where’s the filling?”
FESTIVE CHOCOLATE SELECTIONS
Chocolate and Christmas go together like cheese and crackers. So which regionally-produced selections got our testers salivating in anticipation?
North Chocolates’ Christmas Hamper, £22, www.northchocolates.co.uk for list of regional stockists or to order
Beautifully presented in a straw-lined box, the selection includes three bars of dark chocolate with Mulled Spice, Ginger and Fennel and Frankincense and Myrrh, Chocolate Coffee Beans and a bar of Angel of the North milk chocolate with smoked salt.
Dilaila: “Definitely my favourite. Very tastefully and thoughtfully packaged and I loved the local references with the Angel of the North bar.”
Karen: “The chocolate was glossy and dark and had a beautiful ‘snap,’ with subtle flavours that play on the palette.”
Gareth: “Loved the fragrant frankincense and myrrh – but where’s my gold!”
Vicky: “Luxurious with very high quality dark chocolate.”
Davenports Chocolates’ Mulled Wine Truffles, £9.95 for 12 or £17.95 for 24, www.davenportschocolates.co.uk for list of regional stockists
Presented in a chic, understated lime green and brown box with each chocolate in its own compartment and a flavour that speaks of Christmas. But the panel thought given the time of year, the packaging could be more festive.
Karen: “A fabulous truffle with an amazing taste of Christmas that lingers pleasingly in the mouth.”
Dilaila: “A lovely flavour with a nice thick chocolate coating. They look individually-made and special.”
Sally: “You can really taste the mulled wine.”
Gareth: “Would be more than happy to get a box of these for Christmas.”
The Chocolate Smiths Ring Master’s Selection, £50, available from Tynemouth Station weekend market or www.thechocolatesmiths.com for list of regional stockists or to order
A large seasonally red gift bag containing one each of the Bizarre bar range – including Crimbo Dinner, Cherry Christmas and Yuletide Candy Cane Hot Chocolate with Popping Candy, Christmas Spice Hot Chocolate and a box of Festive Cheeseboard Bizarre Bites.
Sally: “It was quite exciting dipping your hand into the bag and wondering what flavour you were going to pull out. But it was difficult to get into the bars with all the wrapping.”
Dilaila: “Very Willy Wonka! The packaging was fun and I loved the peanut butter and pretzel flavoured bar (Americana Bizarre). I could eat a whole one of those.”
Karen: “Really interesting flavours.”
Gareth: “Loved the peanut butter and pretzel bar with its salty-sweet balance.”
Gareth James Christmas Truffle Selection, £8.40 for eight chocolates (other quantities offered), available to buy or order direct from 12 Front Street, Tynemouth, NE30 4DX, or call 0191 257 7799
Packaged in a neat but plain box tied with a lime green Gareth James ribbon, each chocolate is sat in its own paper truffle case. Flavours tested included mulled wine and Jack Cain’s Gin and Fentiman’s Tonic. Again, the panel thought the box could have been made to look more Christmassy.
Karen: “Beautiful fluid salted caramel inside a perfect coating of dark chocolate. And the brandy butter flavour was the real deal.”
Vicky: “Lovely texture, nicely alcoholic and I loved the brandy butter.”
Gareth: “The brandy butter was a big, boozy warming hit – in a good way!”
Sally: “Delicious salted caramel.”
Fenwick Luxury Chocolate Collection, 200g, £12.95, available from the food hall, Northumberland Street, Newcastle, www.fenwick.co.uk
Selection of tried and trusted chocolate flavours presented in a neat and sophisticated green and red festive striped box.
Vicky: “These chocolates were way too sweet for me.”
Dilaila: “An uninspiring collection and very, very sweet. They look very professional but not in a special homemade way like Davenports or Gareth James.”
Gareth: “All right packaging. The violet crème was delightfully floral, though.”