Festive feast: What to buy for your Christmas blowout
From glazed hams to mince pies, Irish Independent food critic Katy McGuinness handpicks the best seasonal fare
The shops and supermarkets are full of festive treats, and for anyone planning their menu for the Christmas period, it can be hard to know which of the endless choices will be worth spending your hard-earned cash on. Whether you're catering for just immediate family, dining a deux, or hosting dinner for 30, there's a serious amount of consideration that needs to go in to picking the right ingredients. So whether you're planning a vegan feast or traditional turkey and ham, a drinks party or a full-scale family dinner, we've done some of the hard work for you. We've sampled seasonal favourites from champagne to smoked salmon to mince pies, in the hope of making your seasonal shopping easier. Some of our favourite products are undoubtedly pricy, but we've got plenty of budget-conscious options to pick from as well. Happy shopping!
ALDI VEUVE MONSIGNY, BRUT GRANDE RÉSERVE, CHAMPAGNE NV, 12.5PC, €19.99
Aldi's house champagne won silver at the International Wine Challenge earlier this year and is an excellent champagne for the price. It comes from the small champagne house of Philizot & Fils and is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, aged in cellars to enhance complexity, elegance and length. You might notice an aroma of ripe apples with floral hints and soft red fruit, toasty brioche notes in the mouth and a long finish, or you might just enjoy it.
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Other good supermarket options are Lidl's Premier Cru Comte de Senneval Brut (€26.99), Tesco Finest Premier Cru Champagne (€35), SuperValu's Pierre Darcy Brut (€20) and M&S Champagne Delacourt Brut (€37.50). Avoca is the exclusive stockist of Perrier-Jouet, which is delicious, but it's more expensive at €70.
If you're out to impress someone who knows their champagne, drop in to 64 Wine in Glasthule (or order online at 64wine.ie) and pick up a bottle of Delamotte Blanc de Blancs (non-vintage, €76). It's 100pc Chardonnay and aged for five years on its lees; this gives it a slight creamy character and brioche finish. It's relatively unknown yet is the second wine of one of the most famous champagnes in the world, Salon, which can cost nearly 10 times as much. Or instead of champagne, try a bottle of the Simply Better Torre Oria Cava Brut Reserva from Dunnes (€16.99), a much smarter, more chic choice than cheap prosecco, which can be sickly sweet.
SIMPLY BETTER OAK & HICKORY SMOKED ROYAL FILLET OF ORGANIC IRISH SALMON, 160g, €19.99
Produced for the Simply Better range by Dunn's of Dublin, Ireland's oldest fish processor, this fillet of salmon comes in a piece to be sliced downwards rather than across the grain and has a sashimi-like texture that put it way ahead of any of the other supermarket smoked salmon that we tested. The Gradvadlax Smoked Salmon from Tesco Finest (€5) came in second, and M&S was third with its Twice Smoked Speybay Oak Smoked Salmon (€7.50).
If you are of a mind to splash out, wild smoked salmon from Sally Barnes' Woodcock Smokery (from €45), last orders December 9, (woodcocksmokery.com) is very special. Frank Hederman's wild and organically farmed Irish smoked salmon are both excellent - find them in the English Market in Cork and online, from €72, at frankhederman.com.
AVOCA'S DUCK LIVER PÂTÉ WITH ARMAGNAC AND PRUNES (260g, €7.95)
If smoked salmon is not to your liking, this rich and delicious pâté is stated to serve between two and four - we reckon it's plenty for four. Our testers also enjoyed the generous number of scallops in Lidl's Scallops in Prosecco (two servings, €6.99). Dunne's Simply Better has excellent Chicken Liver Pâté (€4.99) made with free-range chicken livers sautéed in butter with brandy, garlic and thyme, and Smoked Trout Pâté (€4.99) made with Irish smoked trout from Goatsbridge in Co Kilkenny combined with cream cheese, crème fraîche, lemon and dill.
DUNNES STORES SIMPLY BETTER BRONZE TURKEY CROWN WITH CRANBERRY, APRICOT AND CLEMENTINE STUFFING, 2KG MINIMUM, €36.99
Many of us will buy our turkey from our local butcher, and it's a good time of year to give butchers support, because they are an endangered species. However, the supermarkets have upped their game in recent years and many of them, including Aldi, will offer Irish free-range and organic birds. Bronze birds generally have more flavour. My organic bird has come from McNally's Family Farm in North County Dublin for the past few years - always delicious.
If a whole bird is too big, this crown from Dunnes Simply Better range is a good, easy-carve option. It's topped with carefully latticed dry-cured whiskey-smoked streaky rashers and sage butter, which keep the crown nicely moist. The turkey is not free range, but Dunnes stand over the wellbeing and welfare of the birds, which come from Hogan's Farm in Co Westmeath. Aldi has a Boneless Stuffed Turkey Crown (€29.99) made with Irish turkey topped with maple flavour bacon with a spiced sultana and raisin stuffing; it comes in a handy cooking bag.
AVOCA BUTCHER TRADITIONAL MUSTARD-GLAZED BAKED HAM, 3.5-4kg, €83.95 (based on weight)
For sheer magnificence, this whole ham from Avoca, which serves 15-20 people, is unrivalled, but it always sells out and there may already be a waiting list - move quickly if you hope to secure one for your Christmas table.
A fine alternative is the Simply Better Honey & Clove Baked Irish Ham (4kg, €39.99), which also comes in a whiskey-smoked version and is available in smaller sizes too. The James Whelan Heritage Cure Ham, €49.99, available at selected branches of Dunnes Stores and also online from jameswhelanbutchers.com, is another great option. This whole ham - which holds a Great Taste 3 Star Award - serves 16 people. Cured on the bone, it has a distinctive slightly sweet flavour with a hint of smoky hickory.
VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN OPTIONS
ALDI, SPECIALLY SELECTED ROOT VEGETABLE AND CRANBERRY SAUCE PASTRY CROWNS, €2.99
It's tough to cater for vegans at Christmas. These crowns from Aldi taste festive and pleasant, which is about as good as it gets. For vegetarians, our testers were impressed by the Irish Brie, Rocket and Cranberry Quiche from - guess who? - Simply Better (made by Zanna Cookhouse in Wexford) (€10) which is tasty and rather delicious.
SCÉAL BAKERY HANDMADE CHRISTMAS PUDDING, 910g, €25
This pudding is made to a 100-year-old recipe passed down through Charlotte Leonard Kane's family, tweaked so that it now includes sourdough breadcrumbs. The puddings serve 6-8 'country' portions, with enough left to fry off a couple of slices for breakfast on Stephen's Day. It's a pudding that could convert even the most reluctant. Get your order in quick. (scealbakery.com).
If you don't manage to get your hands on a Scéal pudding, the version from Dunnes Simply Better (454g, €13.99) is also delicious. It comes from Seery's Bakery in Tinryland, Co Carlow and includes vine fruits, almonds, pecans and cherries and is laced with Spanish cream sherry, French brandy, cider and Caribbean rum.
Laura's Specially Selected Vintage Christmas Pudding (€9.99) from Aldi is another winner, filled with fruit, pecans and almonds infused with a blend of stout, brandy, rum and whiskey. Avoca's 454g pudding is €12.95, and Tesco Finest's just €4.50. If there are no major pudding fans in your house, this is a good choice as it'll give people a taste without breaking the bank.
Claire Nash's handmade plum puddings are also wonderful. You'll find them in Nash 19 in Cork, and in Terroirs in Donnybrook. A 1.35kg pudding costs €39.95 at terroirs.ie.
ALTERNATIVE CHRISTMAS PUDDING
AVOCA FESTIVE RUDOLF CAKE, SERVES 25, €95
This triple chocolate biscuit cake is covered in a chocolate Swiss meringue butter cream and is absolutely the dessert to buy if you want to keep a large multi-generational family gathering happy; it looks gorgeous and tastes absolutely delicious.
If you are not catering for such a large gang, the handmade hazelnut praline Paris Brest from Simply Better (500g, €5.99) is divine. It's made by Robert Bullock of Le Patissier in Dublin and this portion would comfortably serve between two and three.
Our testers also liked SuperValu's beautifully presented Chocolate and Salted Caramel Pudding (€7.50), Avoca's Classic Sherry Trifle (€14.95,), although they thought it could have done with more sherry, and Lidl's Deluxe Spiced Toffee Sponge (€7.99), which left our testers covered in (edible) glitter.
DUNNES STORES SIMPLY BETTER IRISH CHEESEBOARD SELECTION, 600G, €13.99
The selection from Simply Better features Oakwood Smoked Knockanore, Vintage Irish Cheddar, Crozier Blue and Double Cream Wicklow Ban.
Aldi's Specially Selected Irish cheeseboard (€17.99) includes Cashel Blue, Cooleeney Camembert, Tipperary Brie with Chilli and Pepper, Gortnamona, Vintage Irish Cheddar, Wicklow Gold Beechwood Smoked Cheddar along with crackers and a sweet tomato chutney.
All the supermarkets - bar M&S - stock a good range of Irish cheeses. Avoca has an excellent cheese selection including Durrus, St Tola and Young Buck, alongside the Belgian cheese, Old Groendal, a new one on me which has lovely with Peter's Yard Sourdough Crispbreads and Can Bech Peach and Apricot Chutney. Sheridan's has ready-made cheese selections in their shops and in branches of Dunnes Stores.
This year I plan to serve just one cheese - the exceptional Ballylisk triple cream, Triple Rose, which you'll find (if you're lucky) at Loose Canon on Drury St, Dublin 2 or online at ballyliskofarmagh.com. It also comes in a smoked version.
SIMPLY BETTER HANDMADE ALL BUTTER MINCE PIES, 330g (6 pies), €4.99 (2 FOR €7)
The Lawless Family in Athenry make these delicious mince pies, topped with a hand-cut star, with a delectably short and crumbly pastry that our testers loved. The mincemeat is nicely juicy with plenty of fruit and nuts moistened with a blend of Irish stout and French brandy. Avoca's mince pies are also delicious - their mincemeat is probably the best - and they look homemade but cost €9.25 for six. The Collection mince pies from M&S (€3.80) came in third in our test, our testers felt that the pastry to mincemeat ration was skewed.
If you are in Dublin and can visit Scéal Bakery at either the Naomh Olaf Market in Sandyford on Fridays or the Fumbally Market on Saturdays, their handmade mince pies are an ethereal dream (€15 for a dozen). It would be a pity not to pick up their vanilla and sea salt brandy butter while you are at it.
Whichever mince pies you end up buying, be sure to choose an all-butter version - it really makes a difference and is worth it.
LIDL, TOP ICE CHRISTMAS CAKE, €5.99
If you aren't making your own cake and just want a taste, then you won't go wrong with this moist, rich cake from Lidl, which tastes figgy and delicious. Our testers also liked Avoca's cake, which is laden with marzipan and icing - the 5-inch version serving 6-8 costs €34.95. And the Simply Better All Butter Christmas Cake (€950g, 15.99), made by the O'Hara family in Foxford Co Mayo is another gem, steeped in whiskey for that old-school boozy flavour.
All the food left over after our tasting was donated to the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin.