London does Christmas better. Better and bigger than anywhere else in my humble opinion.
Right now it feels like the entire city is illuminated. Streets are decked out with elaborate lights, stores are dressed like pantomime stars, every corner reveals an outdoor ice skating rink selling mulled wine, and the tell-tale smell of cinnamon and cloves wafts through the air.
Then there’s the food. And this is where London really shines. Even the supermarkets bring out imaginative Christmas ranges, from Heston’s hidden clementine Christmas pudding at Waitrose to xmas pud yoghurt (delicious by the way). The Christmas ad from Sainsbury’s this year stopped the nation.
But the real action is in the department stores that I usually steer clear of because I’m more Primark than Prada. And if London does it best then no one comes close to two of the big names in retail: Harrods and Harvey Nichols.
Harrods is a retail temple that’s lit up from top to toe all year round so you can just imagine how energetically it embraces the festive season. Every inch of the four giant food halls is festified.
Little red cards noting special dishes are dotted through each section – a clever technique that subtly screams ‘limited edition’, ‘you need me for Christmas’ and ‘buy me immediately’.
The bakery section (always my favourite) is full of stunningly decorated cakes, pastries, donuts and breads. You can pick up a Christmas train cake for a cool £150, slices of marbled vanilla chocolate kugelhopf dusted in gold leaf or a gingerbread man ham and cheese puff.
The prices are, as expected, exorbitant. But when you consider the artistry and precision involved in every single item, they are somewhat justified. And in case I had any doubts about the extremely high standards set here, an exchange I witnessed set my mind (and wallet) at ease.
A suited manager asked one of the servers what on earth had happened to one of the fruit kugelhopfs on display. Admittedly the pieces looked like they’d been hacked by a five year old. The server hastily explained that it was a very difficult cake to cut and she’d really struggled with it.
‘So what is it doing on the shop floor?’ asked the manager with an arched eyebrow.
All evidence of that cake was gone in 30 seconds (I desperately hope not straight into the bin).
The dish I found most drool worthy was definitely this sweet potato pie, perhaps a legacy to Thanksgiving as much as Christmas. Almond pastry encloses a heady spiced sweet potato mix which is topped with pumpkin seed tuille and mascarpone. What a stunner.
And then there is the savoury patisserie. According to The Independent newspaper, “Savoury patisserie is a thing now”. Basically take your favourite pastry and replace the usual sweet flavours with savoury and presto, you have savoury patisserie.
For Harrods this means traditional choux pastry éclairs stuffed with goats cheese. Or delicate macaroons filled with foie gras.
They sound exquisite but my attention was focused on the smoked salmon gateaux. Layers of smoked salmon, delicate crepes and light smoked salmon mousse are topped with avruga, salmon caviar and cream cheese ‘icing’. My next birthday cake perhaps?
Down the road at Harvey Nichols, the food hall on level 5 is slightly more chic (sweetie darling) but equally adorned. Giant silver crackers hang from the ceiling, spilling out beautifully packaged panettones, gingerbread men and mince pies.
If those crackers are a little big for your dining table, there are smaller ones designed in black, gold and white that are filled with choice gifts and premium headware. Presumably the jokes are more high brow too.
There is an impressive cheese selection and numerous ‘bombs’, including a smoked cheese bomb and whisky cheese bomb, both sheltered in thick wax and sprinkled liberally with glitter. Nothing says festive glam like glitter.
My favourite find was the large Christmas fruit cake in the shape of a turkey. Even the vegetable accoutrements are made of fruit cake. That’s one way to get the kids to eat their vegies!
As much as I would have loved to buy this cake (a steal at £49.95), I settled for some eggnog instead. You rarely see eggnog in Australia, probably because of the 30 degree plus temperatures around Christmas time so I’m curious to give it a whirl.
Christmas is a marketers dream. Create it and they will buy. This is why you need a specific pickle for Christmas Day and then a separate chutney for Boxing Day. Using the same over both days would be uncouth.
The alcohol department is also a favourite of mine, stacked high with bottles of Dom and Krug priced higher than a plane ticket to Sydney. My tip for the festive season is the mince pie syrup. Mix it with rum and pressed apple juice to create the perfect mince pie martini.
Between the two stores I could have easily dropped my life savings. But I’d better save a few quid for a trip to Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason…