Aldi, Christmas in July

I’m a huge fan of Aldi; I just wish there was a branch nearer home. They’ve come on in leaps and bounds, and it’s difficult to beat them on quality and price. Some of their products even look like their closest rivals. Their Christmas showcase didn’t fail to disappoint.

Turkey is Christmas for many households and this year you can expect something special. They’re working with the Binder family from Suffolk who’ve been rearing turkeys on Rumburgh Farm for over 25 years. These birds are fed on a diet of locally grown cereals and are free to roam the woodland and pastures. They’ve also got up to 40-50% more breast meat than commercially reared birds, and that’s great news for fans of white meat.

Goose, a Five-Bird Roast, Duck and Poussin are also on the menu.

If you’re after something special they’ve got a haunch of venison, a specially selected Dry Aged large beef roasting joint and a Specially Selected Beef Rib, with all the trimmings, of course. Talking of which don’t expect the humble sprout. Button Brussels, Truffle Oil Cauliflower Cheese, Honey Roast Parsnips, Dauphinoise Potatoes with Truffle or Emmental and Goose Fat Maris Pipers will help fill the plates up. I counted about seven types of stuffing.

There are four ham joints and a gammon joints all glazed, ready to cook and perfect to serve cold over the Christmas period.

A rope hung Scottish Salmon is from H Forman and Sons. The process remains the same since the company began in 1905 with the freshest salmon, just the right amount of salt and smoke.  The smoked salmon side comes with a board and a knife. You’re the artisan carver and can choose how you want it sliced, whether it’s in thin slices or sashimi style. What a way to kick off Christmas morning or a present for the food lover in your life?

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Other seafood includes raw black tiger prawns, Specially Selected Lobster, smoked salmon in Mojito or Gin & Tonic.

There’s so much Party Food and Canapes on offer, and some of my favourites include an exquisite jewelled layered pie. Pork, chicken breast, pate and fruit is sprinkled with golden sparkle. Master pie makers in Nottingham are responsible for this centrepiece and have been perfecting their art for over 80 years. Nocellara olives, duck rillettes, platters of Parma ham and antipasti feature alongside desserts of Churros with chocolate and caramel, mini ice cream chocolates and mini brownies.

The cheese selection was incredible, and the price points hard to believe. Specially Selected Goats’ Cheese Bombes, Specially Selected Brie with Truffle, regional Blues include Cornish, Shropshire, Yorkshire and Buxton.

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When was the last time you saw a croquembouche in a high street supermarket?  I know, right? And this choux pastry, cream filled tower is sure to delight any Christmas Scrooge.

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The Exquisite Yule Log is a pretty good backup.  Surrounding here by Specially Selected Dessert Shots.

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They’ve not forgotten the must-have family cake either.

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Nougat bars, florentines, nuts, Stollen and Moser Roth Fudge and chocolate are all there to satisfy the sweetest tooth.

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For the fizz, wines and spirit lover there’s some great Brut Champagne and Prosecco to get the party started. Move on to Vodka, Whisky, Gin or Brandy.  Become a mixologist for the day with their kit for Rum, everything you need to make four different cocktails.

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Great gifts or for feathering your own nest their range of copper pans and Scandi baking pans will take some beating and the premium stand mixer is really special.

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Their award-winning Lacura Face Care range introduces some new products for the over 35s. Made from the grapes used in French Champagne the Cuvee Royal range includes two mousses and serum. The men can take care of their skin too, and the Gentleman Kit is a great gift.

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Baubles for Barnardo’s is a partnership aimed to raise vital funds for young people this Christmas.  Baubles can be bought and decorated at home with the family and all the money raised goes to the charity.

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The Plants and Flower Buyer’s been busy at work too.  Beautiful bouquets in red and white are sure to finish your festive interior to perfection.

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Taste of Hastings: Lough Neagh Eel

It’s Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink, and Hastings Hotels have fully embraced the best of seasonal produce on offer. Passionate about food, they believe, and I tend to agree, that eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures. They champion local producers in their six hotels, and they work closely with all staff to make sure everyone gets the best out of the Northern Irish larder. This year, it’s just a little bit unusual.

Throughout July, they chose to highlight two dishes fished from Lough Neagh.

Lough Neagh (pronounced Loch Nay) is a freshwater lake, the largest lake, supplying 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water. Owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury, it’s 20 miles west of Belfast and is about 20 miles long and 9 miles wide. Fishing has been a major industry here. The eels make a 4,000-mile journey from the Sargasso Sea to the mouth of the River Bann and make their way into the Lough. They stay here to mature for up to 15 years before making the return journey to the Atlantic to spawn. The eels are shipped all over the world, and a PGI protects the Lough Neagh Eel.

For the first dish, the Eel was served cold with pickled rainbow carrots and beetroot. Armagh apple adds a sweetness which cuts through acid. Slices of Comber potato, just 7 miles from Holywood, have an incredibly creamy texture which works well with the firm fish with its delicate smoke.

Smoked Eel

Pollan is a freshwater white fish, similar to herring, found only in five Irish lakes, Neagh being one. It’s been a staple in the region for hundreds of years and was lightly fried, served with burnt lettuce and slices of Comber potato. Capers, beetroot and tomatoes are added to the dish, topped with a slab of lemon and herb butter.

Pollan, Lough Neagh

You don’t have to go to great lengths to enjoy smoked eel, and while you might not get your hands on a Lough Neagh fillet, it’s often available in high-end supermarkets and online. A simple recipe is all that’s often needed to showcase the brilliance of the ingredients, and this is an indulgent lunch or dinner party canape.

Ingredients

2 tbsp creamed horseradish
142ml carton double cream
100g smoked eel fillet
Thinly sliced brown or rye bread
Salt and pepper

Beat the horseradish with the double cream until it’s thick. Season to taste. Cut the eel at an angle into thin slices.  Top the bread with a dollop of horseradish cream, add a slice of eel and enjoy.

Marks & Spencer, Christmas in July

I always love the Marks & Spencer Christmas in July event and this year was another cracker.

Sweet, masquerading as savoury, and vice versa is a ‘thing’ this Christmas and the Seafood Knickerbocker Glory is a case in point. Prawns, lobster and a Champagne mousse are layered to mimic a Summer favourite. They’ve also taken inspiration from the chef Nuno Mendes at Chiltern Firehouse and borrowed his savoury doughnut recipe, using hot and sour prawns.

The love for salted caramel doesn’t seem to be waning.  Their Belgian chocolate and salted caramel cake is encased in a hand-decorated chocolate present and topped with a gold bow.

This year the party starts at Breakfast time with mini croissants filled with smoked salmon and egg alongside mini bacon Breakfast cups and an Egg Royale, a perfect pairing for their new Bucks Fizz with Cranberry and Clementine.

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Jenny Rea is something of a gin expert for M&S, and I had a long chat with her about this year’s top tipples. She’s been working with Charles Maxwell in Clapham, and they’ve developed two new gins. No 01 Spice (£26) includes Coriander, Angelica and Ginger and No 02 (£26) Liquorice, Seville Orange and Cassia Bark.

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No Big Dill (£12) is an infused gin with dill and a spot of Elderflower. Served straight and on ice with a sprig of Dill.

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Expect to see a repeat of the Serrano Ham joint from previous years; a 2kg joint has been matured for 12 months, de-boned and comes with both a stand and a knife.

Hidden centres seem to be de rigour this Christmas, and there are quite a few products in the desserts line.  The chocolate mousse pine cones are filled with an oozing chocolate truffle centre. Given a twist, the traditional Christmas pudding has been given a chocolate makeover.  A moist chocolate sponge has been married with raspberry compote and chocolate mousse to bring you a fantastic centrepiece. An incredibly chocolatey cabin cake has a hidden tree design inside, and there’s a chocolate pudding cake which when cut, spills out sixpence chocolate coins.

These mini Santa hats were simple, and a meringue base has a raspberry jelly and fresh vanilla cream topping

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Festive red teamed with glitter will always get my attention, and I loved this Raspberry & Cranberry jelly (£5).

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Flowers through the post is really catching on, and M&S have jumped on the bandwagon. This year, and it’s a high street first, they’ve created a Christmas Tree, Wreath and Garland that can be posted through your letterbox.

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There are great stocking fillers, and these chocolate angel wings (£10) are a good example.

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For the chocolate-lover in your life, this advent calendar is an absolute must, and if £20 is a little on the steep side, there are plenty of other options easier in the pocket.

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A sparkling table needs a sparkling outfit, and they’ve got that covered too. I have to admit to not checking out David Gandy’s range for Autograph, but I did have a look at the offerings for women.

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There’s a touch of Hollywood glamour on offer this year with plenty of gold and plush fabrics. I’ve got my eye on this skirt and its matching bomber jacket.

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Tesco, Christmas in July

Greeted by Christmas trees, snow and an awfully chill wind, Tesco’s Christmas in July event kicked off well.  A warehouse recreated a series of events in the run up to and on Christmas Day, journalists swung through a series of doors and events that take place over the Christmas period; an Advent Calendar brought to life.

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Tesco, Christmas in July

In ‘Preparing for Christmas’, there were lots of activities and things to make, including this Igloo Cake Kit (£3.99) which is something parents can make relatively quickly with their kids. Easy on the purse, it can be cooked in the microwave and comes with cut-out characters and a snow scene.   The cake is incredibly moist as it’s an oil mix, again vegetable oil being cheaper than eggs in most cases.

Tesco, Christmas in July

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Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the usual luxury and Tesco offer it in spades. From party food, generous seafood platters, British free range Bronze Turkeys, and the all-important smoked salmon.

The products that were worthy of note are on lit plinths and this Finest Reveal dessert earned its place.   A chocolate lover’s dream, this dark Belgian chocolate dome is flecked with gold for an impressive finish and at £12 it was an impressive price point.  It then reveals something of a surprise when the hot toffee sauce hits the crisp shell dome.

This year, the traditional Christmas cake has had a makeover regarding look.  I chatted with Stephanie Bacon one of the food developers at Tesco who talked me through this dome cake.  Whilst it looks contemporary, don’t be fooled, it has all the luxury of a traditional fruit cake.  There may even be luxury truffles on the side and will come in under the £20 mark. I love coming to these shows to chat with the experts, finding out what’s new and how some of the products are still being developed right up to the wire.  So much effort goes into making these events special, and the hard work paid off for Tesco this year.

No party is complete without fizz and this year their Finest pick is a DOP Valdobbiadene Brut from Treviso in Italy and at £10 it’s totally affordable. Flavours of apple, white flowers, citrus, grapefruit and a hint of honey, these bubbles, certainly for me, top Champagne any day of the week.

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This year there’s Christmas Dinner in a box and for £25 there’s, you’ve guessed it, Christmas dinner for two which includes turkey, veg accompaniments, half a bottle of champagne and a Christmas Pudding.

Free From frozen desserts are pretty impressive, and the Berry Christmas Cheesecake is a steal at £4.  Difficult to believe that the Chocolate Yule Cake is another bargain at £4.50.

Tesco, Christmas in July

Tesco, Christmas in July

I’m sure you’ve worked out that my sweet tooth overtakes my savoury.

However, I love cheese, so this finest dessert board selection caught my eye. The thing is, it’s a reinvention of the traditional cheese board, and it comes ready to serve on a slate-effect board.  It’s not cheese at all but features a sweet passionfruit cheesecake, a coconut pannacotta coated with cocoa nibs, a light lemon mousse with a swirl of pistachio crumb and a white blondie studded with white chocolate and a fruit compote.

Christmas in July, Tesco

The Tesco Snowman Cake is a novelty for the kids in your life, young and old. Vanilla sponge is covered with soft buttercream, shaped like Mr Frosty and accessorised with fondant.

Tesco, Christmas in July

Plenty of inspiration and styling to help you organise your Christmas throughout the holidays.

Tesco, Christmas in July

Christmas in July

I forgot to mention the Smoke at Home Ham.  A dry-cured ham joint is popped on an Alder wood smoking board, which can be soaked in juice or beer prior to cooking, it’s served on the board with pickles.  Impressive.

 

Culloden Estate & Spa

From the moment you arrive and step through the stone archway at Culloden, something magical happens. All the stresses of modern-day life disappear, and you feel as though you’ve come home, this is 5-star Irish hospitality at its absolute best.

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Culloden Estate & Spa is on the outskirts of Belfast and is about a ten-minute drive from the centre, even less from George Best City Airport. Built in 1867, the Hotel has been modernised and sympathetically extended. Formerly a Bishop’s Palace, it nestles within 12 acres of manicured lawns.

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It has a magnificent sweeping staircase and stained glass window feature. Very Downton Abbey.

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There have been a couple of additions to the original house which include additional bedrooms on an ivy-covered wing and conference and banqueting suites.

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The award-winning Spa has had a recent upgrade and undergone a total makeover. ESPA spa treatments are on offer in eight treatment rooms. There are two relaxation rooms, a gym and a Medispa.

In the original house, it’s all panelling and painted ceilings. Look upwards to see some real works of art or find a quiet corner to tuck into a book or admire the views.

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My visit took place over two days, and I brought my Mum along for company. The Lady Dufferin Suite was to be our home; even I was speechless and a little breathless for a few seconds because this it’s pretty impressive.

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The beds are worth a blog of their own. We slept like babies, on a mattress which Goldilocks would have trouble stirring from, and we woke to views that took us straight into the garden and beyond to Belfast Lough.

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The bathroom is almost as large as the bedroom, covered in marble from floor to ceiling. There’s a bath and decent power shower along with Jack and Jill sinks so there was no fighting for mirrors. Slippers and bathrobes were on hand as well as ESPA toiletries and the Hastings signature rubber duck. There’s complimentary wi-fi, tea and coffee on hand and a turndown service.

Fine dining is on offer in The Mitre Restaurant with Paul McKnight at the helm who’s an experienced pair of hands. While Northern Ireland is celebrating a year of food; the hotel group have been championing ‘local’ for years, and they’re right behind the initiative. Local produce from local suppliers is key to everything they do here. Executive Chef, Brian Donaldson keeps up-to-date with food trends and takes inspiration from social media and the plates are a testament to this. Their kitchen offers some inspired food and inventive flavours to rival any Michelin starred restaurant. Expect plenty of seafood and top-notch meat all paired with a decent wine list.

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It’s also here in The Mitre where the Hotel serves its not-to-be-missed breakfast. Small artisan producers are brought together on the Culloden’s menu, all with one thing in common, high-quality products whether that’s from the natural yoghurt to the sharp apple juice.

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A bowl of pin oatmeal, served with cream and a generous tot of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, is an absolute must and will set you up for the day if you don’t fancy the full Irish.

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J B Crozier, the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dronmore built a private Chapel during his time at Culloden.  It’s now a bright, airy bar, named in his honour.  The gin selection is one of the best I’ve seen for a while.  There’s great support for Irish gin brands as you’d expect, including Jawbox and Shortcross, and a couple of decent names closer to home.

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Wander around the gardens and be sure to sample some of the herbs the Chefs are growing.

A short stroll away, there’s the Cultra Inn a restaurant and bar serving a more relaxed menu, the emphasis again on fresh and local.

Afternoon tea is something of a ritual here, and you’ll be taking it in the Drawing Room. Be sure to skip breakfast; this is a marathon, not a sprint.

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We hired a car and found it pretty simple to get around. We drove to Giant’s Causeway,

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skipped around The Old Bushmill’s Distillery and went to Bangor for a stroll.

We didn’t make it to Belfast to explore the Titanic Museum, the Botanic Gardens, the Waterfront or the historic St George’s Market. Next door to the Hotel is Cultra Railway Station with direct links into Belfast and beyond.

Culloden Estate and Spa, 142 Bangor Road, Holywood.

Review: Afternoon Tea at the Culloden Estate & Spa

The Culloden have nailed the ritual of afternoon tea. From the service to the freshness and variety of the food on offer. Forget the usual offering of soggy sandwiches made during the breakfast service; there are a few interesting twists and turns that turn this feast into an unforgettable experience. Typically served in the Drawing Room, we had ours in two wing chairs because we couldn’t get enough of the view of the Lough.

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We had no idea what to expect until the award-winning Thompson’s Finest tea trolley rolled into sight, followed by an explanation of the impressive array of teas.

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In fact, you can drink whatever you like with this tea, from a glass of fizz to the Shortcross Gin experience. For those who are gluten intolerant, they’ve thought of you too, and there’s a special menu so those following a special diet can indulge too.

So what was on the three-tiers that arrived. Where to start?

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On the top plate, all things dainty and sweet.

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The glazed fruit boat was beautifully crisp, with a rich crème patisserie which disappeared in two bites.  A salted caramel and banana cupcake was moist with caramel frosting. The chocolate and pistachio Madeleine was light with a buttercream filling and the small shot glasses were stuffed with sharp apple and tart blackberry jelly layers. A sail tuile sat on top.

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On the next plate were the warmed buttermilk scones – cherry, fruit and plain. Served with butter and freshly whipped cream and local raspberry jam.

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On the last plate were the savoury offerings which included an egg and spring onion roll on a soft, white bap. Ewing’s smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese on fresh granary bread. Savoury tarts are always a winner for me, and these were no exception. Fivemiletown Creamery Goats Cheese is mixed with sundried tomato and basil. James Givan’s ham is paired with a delicate tarragon mayonnaise on a white Irish batch loaf.

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It was a real shame it had to come to an end, but as the saying goes, all good things do.  If you struggle, you can remove any leftovers in the delicate box they’ll provide.

The tea is £29 per person. There’s also a Gluten Free tea available and an afternoon tea with a Shortcross Gin cocktail £35 per person.

Culloden Estate and Spa, Bangor Road, Holywood, Belfast, BT18 OEX
028 9042 1066

Review: Sharish Blue Magic Gin

Not only does this bottle look like something lifted from the set of Alice in Wonderland, its contents tastes otherworldly.

The gin inside it is a lagoon blue, diluted indigo ink or faded blue jean.  Whatever you want to call it, it’s all natural and gets is colour from a flower named Clitoria Ternatea.  Magic happens when tonic is added;  the bruised purple turns to a beautiful flushed pink.  Gimmicky?  Definitely.  Tasty.  Without a doubt.

It’s produced in the Alentejo in Portugal and the name ‘Sharish’ is the Arabic for the town Monsaraz where it’s distilled.   A clear gin came first, with limited editions featuring pear and now the Blue Magic.  Antonio Cuco is the man behind the brand and something of a Portuguese success story, an unemployed teacher who in the autumn of 2013 decided to create the brand, now he operates two, 300 hundred litre copper pot stills and pulls in a million euros.  The spirit base is rice (30%) and wheat (70%) which makes for an interesting mix.


If you’ve ever been to the Alentejo you’ll know that it’s a vast area, it covers almost a third of the country from Rio Tejo to the mountain ranges in the north of the Algarve.  It’s also known as Portugal’s garden so no prizes for guessing where most of the ingredients are sourced for this gin.  A DOP apple – Bravo de Esmolfe, oranges, lemons, fresh lemon Beebrush, juniper, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla.  The result is smooth, fruity and long-lasting on the palate.  A massive hit of apple fruitiness with spice off the back Good enough with tonic but easily drinkable, straight in a martini.

My 50cl bottle of Blue Magic Gin was bought in Lisbon Duty Free for €35 but I’ve found a few suppliers selling it in the UK for a lot cheaper, including postage and packing, so if you want to give it a try – you must – have a scout around.

For more information on Sharish visit their Facebook page.

I’ll also be reviewing a tea, made from the same flower.