There is straw inside the Fortnum & Mason Christmas Treat Hamper (£100). As the straw drifts through the house, it begins to resemble a stable. I like this. Hampers are dependent on plants for their mystery: without them they would be just a carrier bag full of food.
Restaurants are closed to those who live apart, unless you are in Cornwall or the Isle of Wight. So, this is the Christmas of hampers; of alcohol, sugar and baked and dried goods. There are gin hampers and beer hampers and vegan hampers. There are hampers for dogs (‘woofly good’) and hampers for cats (‘the hampurr’). There is a Branston Pickle hamper, which is mostly Branston Pickle, plus socks with Branston Pickle written on them. I think that’s excellent.
I love to order food at home. I once had a Victoria sponge cake whose selling point was that it could fit through a letter box. It was too expensive to review — no Spectator reader would spend £60 on a Victoria sponge cake — but they sell out anyway because some people can’t do anything for themselves, and some people don’t want to.
I begin with Fortnum & Mason of St James’s, which sent hampers to Suffragettes after their spell in Holloway prison and delivered 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne (Montebello 1915) to Mount Everest for the 1922 expedition. It used to have an ‘expeditions’ department; if it still existed, they could send the Prime Minister a specialised hamper for his next trip to Brussels. I would suggest Assorted Creams and Medical Grade Opiates. It also provided condiments to the Empire — Empire-builders could apparently not function without condiments and I believe it — and is also expert in very theatrical jams.
I order the £100 Christmas Treat hamper, which has an Argentinian Malbec, a St James Christmas Pudding, Marc de Champagne Christmas truffles, a Christmas fig preserve, Christmas Black Tea and a Musical Christmas Shortbread Merry Go Round. I love the biting truffles and the rich shortbread, which does indeed live, like a biscuity princess, in a rotating music box. I think that is how Fortnum & Mason, which sells myths as it sells condiments (they are inter-dependent because condiments aren’t nice) sees itself: a rotating music box.
For the full Imperial experience, order the Imperial Hamper for £6,000. It includes china, a mad amount of alcohol, and meat. I stare at a photograph of its contents and wonder whether, if I were sent one, I would bother to do vegetables with the 3.5kg Glenarm Salt-Aged rib of beef. I don’t think I would.
I also order a Forman & Field Ultimate Care Package for £79.95. Forman & Field’s marketing information speaks like a Jewish grandmother addressing an idiot. It is the Katz’s of Britain — Katz’s is the New York City delicatessen that will ‘send a salami to your boy in the army’. If that isn’t necessary, they will just give you a salt beef sandwich as big as your head. Forman & Field specialises in fish and meat. We have smoked salmon; buttermilk chicken; pork sausages; beef burgers; salmon fish fingers; a good banana bread. It’s a fine care package, and I feel cared for, although it makes me feel nothing like a rotating music box. It also does an Ultimate University Care Package for your university-age child (‘no cooking skills required’), including three craft beers. I suspect this is carefully calibrated. Two is too few. Four is a drunk. They also do a Christmas in a Basket for £142.50 which includes a 2kg ham. Or, if you like food that is only orange and pink, they do a side of smoked salmon with Kentish Brut Rosé.
The third hamper is from the shining Cotswolds: the Pimlico Hamper from Daylesford (£135). Daylesford is a fashionable organic farm that, among other things, runs the Wild Rabbit Inn in Kingham with satellite branches in Notting Hill and Pimlico. This hamper is bright white and lined with fine cloth. Inside I find a Christmas cake; organic coffee and breakfast tea; wonderful organic chocolate peppermint thins; organic non--alcoholic drinks; and many biscuits, the best of which are the Scottish shortbread hearts. It’s neither town nor country but an invented combination of both, for those who want both and like neither, but it’s still a lovely hamper.
The final hamper is the 2 Tart’s Essentials Hamper from Wild by Tart, and it is for people who want Rosemary & Pink Peppercorn vodka and nibbles. It is a tart’s hamper indeed: it’s food to absorb alcohol. A puddle of delight falls out: Vanilla Fudge and Northumberland Honey; Spiced Ginger Biscuits and Lavosh Crispbread; Cheesy Biscuits and Smoky Spiced Nuts.
I want to cook — or assemble something — so I order a Cenone Grazing Box from Table Vallebona (£120), which provides dine-at-home Italian food. I understand how pandemic has changed the restaurant industry: this is exactly like a fine Italian restaurant being a refugee in your filthy house. It contains a wonderful plate of charcuterie and cheese with Music Paper Bread; and Capunti Con Funghi and Truffle, which they actually trust you to boil yourself.
I also take a Deluxe Coffee Pod Hamper from Cru Kafe, experts in organic and ethical coffee (£56; £45 in the sale). Sometimes I drink Gold Blend with warm tap water on deadline. This is much better; it is glorious.
My home is filled with food, drink and wisps of straw. Pudding is from Café Domenica in Brighton. The café is part of Team Domenica, a charity which provides training and employment to young people with learning disabilities. I take an Assorted Brownie Box from Baked Goods by Callum and Café Domenica for £16. A good brownie is complicated and almost impossible to do well: it must be strong and fragile; dense and light. If you were fixated on both Jane Eyre and baked goods, you would say brownies are the Mr Rochesters of baked goods — and these are perfect: perhaps 2020 wasn’t so awful after all. I mean of course it was, but try saying that with a brownie in your mouth. Merry Christmas.