The vast exhibition hall bulges with festive throngs searching for flashes of inspiration among the Christmas lights. Carol singers spread seasonal cheer throughout the maze of stalls. Everything from Christmas cupcakes to yuletide tipples can be found. There are people in santa hats and reindeer antlers stocking up on pungent cheeses and sugary mince pies. Every imaginable treat is here, but like any good Christmas bash, there’s plenty of surprises in store.
The crowds flock for a glimpse of the Naked Chef working his magic with a showpiece Christmas bird - but there isn’t a turkey in sight. «Goose was the historical Christmas bird,» he explains. «The reason Britain switched to turkey is because it was made so much more affordable. You can’t really rush a goose, so it costs more.»
Jamie Oliver offers an Asian take on the traditional Christmas goose. «I want the legs and breast to fall apart, to be moreish and gorgeous. In essence, it should be like a Peking duck.»
The goose is cut in half and placed in a roasting tray, seasoned generously with salt, pepper, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, and strewn with sliced oranges or clementines. It goes in the oven at 175 degrees for three to four hours, and is cooked slowly. «No touching, no groping, no basting - it’s done. The skin should be wafer thin and crispy,» he said.
For the gravy, the cooked goose, the fat and hard spices are removed, and the tray placed on the hob. Chicken stock is added along with a splash of port and flour to thicken. «I remove the goose wings and put them in as well. You get great flavour from roasted bones and marrow.»
«A little trick I love is adding jam», says Oliver. «Cranberry jam is very Christmassy. Think brambles, blackcurrant. Anything like that has a wonderful ability to harmonise a really good gravy - a festive gravy.» With the bird taken care of, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gets to grips with the vegetables.
His dish of roasted Brussels sprouts with shallots is a tasty and textured variation on the much maligned green veg. «They’re everything you’d expect from a sprout,» he says. «But in the middle they’re intensely sweet. They’re only just cooked through, not mushy and brown on the edges.»
The sprouts are placed in a roasting tin - some whole, some halved - alongside some whole peeled shallots. A trickle of olive oil goes on top, and everything is mixed together with a few sprigs of thyme. They go in a hot oven at 190 degrees for around half an hour and are finished off with a sprinkle of lemon juice. «You can serve it as a side-dish as a lovely alternative way of doing sprouts with your turkey or your goose. But you really can serve this up as a dish on its own, perhaps with oily toast rubbed with garlic.»
Francesco Mazzei of London’s L’Anima restaurant suggests an Italian twist on Christmas that’s very much in-keeping with his roots. «We usually have lamb on Christmas day in Italy,» he explains. «Our lunch can last five or six hours. Lots of antipasti, a huge amount of pasta, meats, lots of grappa and red wine. We sit there nearly all day.»
His leg of Welsh lamb is deboned and rubbed with a stuffing of sourdough breadcrumbs, parsley, eggs, coarsely grated Pecorino cheese and Calabrese sausage or salsiccia. «It’s a very famous sausage, a bit like chorizo, but not chorizo,» says Mazzei. «It’s made with unsmoked paprika and fennel seeds, which with the heat and the fat gives a bit of freshness. But please, don’t call it chorizo.»
From Asian goose and Italian lamb to Scotch pancakes, and a lighter alternative to traditional Christmas pudding from British chef Gary Rhodes. «Christmas Pudding can be really heavy,» says Rhodes. «It’s an awful lot to eat so can do with something really quite light.»
Into a traditional Scotch pancake batter he whisks chopped sultanas, currants, raisins, mixed peel and glace cherries. «Mix in a teaspoon of mixed spice for that element of the Christmas pudding,» he adds.
The batter is gently fried and the pancakes served with homemade custard, or a mixed fruit sugar syrup laced with toffee vodka.
Inspiration for Christmas day is everywhere at Taste of Christmas. Meat hampers burst with beautifully aged beef and game that will last until New Year. And a fiery Burmese curry paste solves that tricky leftover turkey problem. But what about Christmas Eve? On a day when people often abstain from meat altogether, there can be few better things to eat than a nice piece of fresh fish.
Vivek Singh of London’s Michelin starred Cinnamon Club Indian restaurantsuggests seared haddock with a crab and kokum crust, served with a coconut and ginger moilee sauce. Fillets of haddock are seared in the pan, then encrusted with flaked crabmeat mixed with ginger, chilli and onion. Black onion seeds and fennel seeds are added to the mix, and the crust is given a slightly sour and acidic hint with kokum. «It’s brilliant for this kind of weather,» says Singh. «When it’s cold, the creamy coconut and the kick from the ginger and chilli really works well at this time of year.»
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