Christmas Links #18

Yorkshire puddings top BBC Food’s most searched for Christmas recipes:
"With Christmas on the way, here’s some festive cooking inspiration from BBC Food’s most popular Christmas recipes of 2020."

"The Charles Dickens Museum is hoping to attract new attention to the festive story The Cricket on the Hearth with the first display of some of its illustrations."

"On the first day of Christmas, my ex returned to me a sweater and my house keys ...."

"Disney makes digital changes to The Muppet Christmas Carol, with the version now streaming on Disney+ a slightly altered version of the film."

"The festive procession is returning to raise more money for charity."

"A Christmas Hollywood favourite has been brought to life for the festive season in an Essex village."

"The Comics Advent Calendar continues its 'Very Groovy 70s Christmas' theme as we see a 1973 comic where the JLA solves Santa Claus' murder."

"In 2009, Arctic Monkeys were busy fulfilling the latter half of ‘Bah Humbug’ but they were keen to prove that they hadn’t gone the full hog."

"From dinner-club jazz numbers by Norah Jones to country-soul carols from Hiss Golden Messenger."

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
Aldi Vegan Festive Feast.

Food  Surprise.  I promised long time friend of the blog (hey Darren!) that I'd cover a vegan option and here we are, the single Christmas sandwich left in the local Aldi mid-afternoon.  When Aldi first began opening shops in the UK in the 90s it seemed immensely exotic from the name (which takes the first two letters of the founders of the company the Albrechts with the German name for Discount, Diskont) to the contents, which if memory serves still had English translations stuck over continental labelling on a number of products.  

Slowly it entered the mainstream.  As late as 2008, The Guardian was sending Jay Raynor in to sample the goods, like a travel writer entering some remote clime suggesting it as "It's stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap."  That article's a fascinating record of how the business used to be.  Now it's much closer to its rivals often beating them to awards.  Some items are still cheap, but you're more likely end up spending much the same as you would elsewhere.  We love their steaks, but they're sometimes a couple of pounds more expensive than the Asda opposite.

But visiting still feels like an oddity as, for example, the checkouts don't have a particular place to pack your bags, expecting you to put your shopping back into your baskets or trollies and do that business at a long counter at the front of the shop, which in a lot of ways I prefer because it stops you from the anxiety of trying to balance out the weight in your bags as the good fly furiously through the checkout, much nicer to take your time, put everything in its place.  Now that I come to write this, I remember Kwik Save in Speke used the same method.

What of the sandwich?  It's fine.  Instead of the faux Turkey I've seen in other supermarket vegan alternatives, this is parsnip fritter with a vegan sage and onion mayo, spinach, fried onions and roasted pumpkin seeds on cranberry and poppy seed bread.  It's a bit bland, none of the flavours really breaking through, maybe the onion, just a general sweetness.  But it is moist, not stodgy like some and given the price, just £1.75, I certainly wouldn't be averse to having it again, even though I've never really been a fan of parsnips.

When I was writing this post, I asked the Twitter hive mind some questions.  Like, how do you feel about vegan food being labelled as such?  Does it just make it easier to shop because you can see it a mile off or do you feel like you're being identified as somehow different to other shoppers?  This has the word vegan three times on the front as well as the "plant menu" description.  What have been your favourite pre-packed sandwiches this year?  

@shauney said, "Not had many but I think it’s very important they are clearly labelled vegan because it can be frustrating having to read ingredients etc!"

@wimpyking offered:  "Enjoyed the Pret Meatless Meatball hot wrap- have had sadly few pre-packed sandwiches this year though. Happy for products to be badged clearly."

If you have something to add, I'll update this post with any replies either on Twitter or to my email address,

Christmas Links #17

Knights, princes and a Scottish castle: is this what women really want for Christmas?
"I’ve binged on Christmas romcoms to see exactly what modern-day fairytales are all about."

"These aren't just holiday turkeys – they’re the worst Christmas songs of all time."

[Editor's note: As you know I can't pass by a listicle without creating a playlist.  This is terrible.  I hate it.]

"Are the artists behind our favourite festive tunes snowed under with cash?"

A club behind a spectacular ride-on festive model railway special has said being nominated for a UK award is a "complete shock".

"When it comes to real versus artificial trees, the debate often ends the same way: Nostalgia wins."

"Perfect place settings for a seriously lovely Christmas celebration. Make sure everything on the table looks as good as it tastes."

"If you have Alexa you can ask it about Santa and get some Christmas-themed responses."

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
M&S Turkey Feast.

Food  It's not just a Turkey Feast, it's an M&S Turkey Feast.  Just a quick review today because (a) busy with Christmas and (b) for various reason Marks & Spencers is difficult for me to write about right now.  Too many happy Christmas related memories and I'm going through it.  No denying this is a lovely sandwich.  The scent on opening the packet is like being blasted by the smell you imagine when seeing a large festive spread in a Christmas film.  The most prominent flavours are the cranberry sauce and the bacon, the smoky flavour breaking through in way I've not often had with these sandwiches.  It's also lovely and moist.  This would be straight into my top five if such a list existed.

Christmas Links #16

"Hullo there!  And welcome to, heavens, the 22nd Christmas Creamguide! As ever we’ve combed the schedules for everything worth watching and listening to, joined once more by the gang from the Filmguide fireplace, like an annual for a long-folded comic."

I challenged Tom Cruise to send me two of his special cakes for Christmas. Did he deliver? Of course he did:
"Every Christmas, the actor sends an extreme white chocolate coconut gateaux to close friends – by private jet, it turns out. This year, those friends include me. Twice."

"James King celebrates the Christmas film, exploring how cinema has brought yuletide cheer to our screens for over a century, from 1898's pioneering silent film Santa Claus, to the enduring festive classic It's A Wonderful Life, to the modern-day comedy cracker Elf, to the sometimes controversial, 'alternative' Christmas favourite, Die Hard."

"I don’t recall ever eating a traditional Christmas Eve dinner."

"Make your own party favors that open with a pop for Christmas or any celebration."

"Jessica Jarrett shared her top tips for saving money over the festive season."

"A grandmother has broken a festive world record for the largest collection of Christmas baubles."

"If you plan to purchase a real Christmas tree this holiday season, AAA urges you to have a plan to get it home safely."

"A publican in the New South Wales Central West has pleaded for the thief who stole baby Jesus in a manger from a nativity scene at her pub to return it."

"It didn't take long for the huge pack of feral hogs to do some serious damage to the neighborhood."

Review 2021: The Christmas Sandwich Reviews: Jamie's Christmas Turkey Feast.

Food  Yes, yes I forgot to photograph the sandwich again, yadda yadda yadda.  I was so mesmerised by Mr Oliver's face, plastered as it is across the top of the packaging and the side, same photo by the way, that it completely slipped my mind.  Best get this out of the way early.  I have a potentially irrational dislike of Jamie Oliver.  He's often immensely irritating in his media appearances, a smugness which I'd also attribute to the James Cordens, Ed Sheerans and Michael McIntyres of the world which comes from them seemingly being absolutely fucking everywhere and knowing it.  

When the Shell deal was announced there were plenty of exclamations of hypocrisy.  Here's an especially withering column at Marketing Week from someone who clearly dislikes him as much as I do and an anti-corruption campaigner at The Guardian suggesting the deal was an attempt to burnish their dumpster-like reputation.  I have a mental box somewhere in my mind palace within which I hide people like him away so I don't have to think about them.  But today, my appetite conspired against me and there he is, grinning from the top of the packaging.  

There's a video on the Shell website in which Mr Oliver is depicted making examples of these sandwiches.  It's as cringy as you might expect and it's also interesting in how it describes the sandwich.  On the packaging the turkey is listed as "lemon and rosemary marinated" but in the video Jamie says "flavoured with rosemary and lemon" which isn't the same but I'm splitting hairs.  What certainly isn't similar is that the sandwich he prepares has nice thick slices of turkey and what you get in the package (also illustrated on the same page) which is a bit more granular.

All of which said how does it taste?  I was a bit concerned when opening he package because it smelt spicy, like a chicken curry.  The flavour is different; you can detect the lemon and rosemary in the turkey and the stuffing has a nice nutty texture.  It's also nice and moist.  Now that mission creep has set in I can't say whether its better that anything I've reviewed.  It's certainly not the worst.  But I would also say given the choice, I'd probably pop a little bit further up Smithdown Road and buy the better value Tesco sandwich instead. That's a pound cheaper and has sausages.

Christmas Links #15

A step back in time to Powys school Christmas plays of the past:
"CHRISTMAS is an exciting time for a child."

Spend your Christmas with Michael Sheen as he entertains the nation with a special Christmas Day programme on BBC Radio Wales.

"For Amazon drivers, the festive season is a time of precarious employment and unsustainable workloads handed out by unseen algorithms."

"Festive displays have gone up in towns and cites all over the globe so we thought we'd take a tour!"

"There's usually a sense of excitement about what lies beneath the Christmas tree, but for one festive family the biggest surprise was lurking in the branches up above."

"A Boston TikToker is hoping to make the classic festive filmThe Holiday a reality after asking viewers if anyone wants to trade homes for the festive season."

"One guest is an antivaxxer, another is allergic to your cats, the turkey is still raw and your best friends are splitting up in the sitting room. Here is how to face down festive fiascos."

"Kiah Stone’s second graders at Cambridge Elementary School have finished one of the most important writing assignments of their lives."

"The holidays feel more expensive this year because they are."

"Rising to head a ball in joyous abandon, British soldiers enjoy a game of football. This picture has become famous as it yearly accompanies articles about the heavily mythologised Christmas truce football match."

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
Urban Eats Turkey & Stuffing.

Food  Urban Eats is one of those sandwich brands which I've encountered a lot over the years in railways stations, convenience stores, libraries and universities without actually knowing much about them.  The packaging offers the address for Samworth Brothers Group in Melton Mowbray who's website shows that sandwiches are just part of a portfolio which includes Ginsters, West Cornwall Pasty Co., Soreen and Saladworks to the name the ones I've heard of.  They also produce own brand meals for high street supermarkets (although they neglect to say which).  As with many legacy brands, their origins are somewhat complicated and include starting then selling Walkers crisps and you read a synopsis on their Wikipedia page.

Except Urban Eats as a brand was only a recent acquisition, bought last year from the sandwich maker Adelie after they went into administration at the loss of over 2000 jobs.  Most of the news stories I've seen put this down to COVID-19 restrictions presumably because many of the places their products were available, in railways stations, convenience stores, libraries and universities were closed for just that little bit too long and so orders dropped.  That will also account for the redesign of the packaging with its neon colours and bold lettering, in contrast with the slightly more reserved previous packaging livery brought in when Adelie ploughed £5m into their own rebrand about a year before they closed.

There was no reason for me to know any of this before writing the previous two paragraphs but I wonder about the extent to which the sandwiches themselves have changed between the two companies.  When they were Adelie, Urban Eats sandwiches were never very nice.  Some of the cheese and pickle varieties perhaps but anything with meat was always dry, the bread a bit stale around the edges and it was the sandwich you bought when absolutely nothing else was available and even then, what with the price, you might consider going hungry.  Somewhere I used to work would have so much stock left at the end of the day they would simply give them away so they didn't go to waste.

Well, imagine my surprise when I bit into this and the flavours burst into my mouth.  One of the rare occasions that the bread makes an impressed, the malted elements breaking through.  But its the combination of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayo fillings which made me say "yum" and "wow" out loud for the first time in a few days, so moist and just so, well, "yum".  I'm a relatively quick eater but this is an occasion when I let the food hang about in my mouth for a while lubricating my taste buds.  By losing the bacon or sausage or any of the additions elsewhere, Urban Eats and whoever owns them now have found a sweet spot and I look forward to trying the rest of the range again.

Christmas Links #14

White House group's annual Christmas ornament honors LBJ:
"Luci Baines Johnson recalls December 1967 as a hectic time in her father’s White House."

"This holiday season, strike a blow against conformity and decorate your house with any plant that isn’t a poinsettia."

"The majority of trains will not be operating on Christmas Day or Boxing Day."

"The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has hailed a "Christmas miracle" after his lost wallet was returned by a rail worker."

"They are the festive fairgrounds where no one is a winner. Santas, elves and bouncers discuss the Christmas gigs that made them question their life choices."

"Yeah, it’s that time of the year again."

"Take some time out of the Christmas shopping frenzy to unwind with crafts and learn how to make a Christmas wreath."

"Share memories of loved ones, create new traditions and be honest about your emotions."

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
Morrisons Christmas Lunch.

Food  How do you pronounce Morrisons?  Most of the time I hear it with a hard R then a weaker ONS.  But for years now, decades, I've said it with a soft R and a real emphasis when reaching the ONS, with a slight West Country accent, so Murisuns.  I've tried doing it the other way, many times just before sitting down to right but it won't stick, it just sounds wrong to me in the same way that the old adverts used to mangle it in order to make a rhyme work ("More reasons to shop at Morr-i-sons!").

Here's why.  Back when I was an undergraduate in Leeds, the big supermarket most of us attended was the giant Morrisons at the Merrion Centre.  Each Saturday I'd visit Leeds Market for the fresh meat and veg then toddle up The Headrow to the supermarket for half a cooked chicken or one of their freshly made "supadupa" pizzas for tea that night.  Somehow I was able to feed myself for £15 a week, although to be fair that was quite a lot of money in those days even for student.

Although I was based at Beckett Park initially we had a Safeway close to hand in Headingley, Morrisons was cheaper so that's where people went and so therefore talked about and that included a friend from Somerset and since this was the first time I'd encountered the place and I heard her talk about it a lot, it's her pronunciation that stuck.  I don't know if she still reads this, but here you go Rosie, this blog post's for you.

There's a shot of what the old shop looked like in the video about Leeds I made in the Practical Presentation Skills module of my library course which you can watch here.  It's in the opening montage when The Bangles reach the lyric "You were so hard to please" in their cover version of Hazy Shade of Winter.  I'm surprised and delighted to see that it's still there thirty odd years later although its surrounded by much greater competition than those days.

Liverpool has a couple of Morrisons in Speke and Belle Vale and they briefly flirted with the city centre through one of their convenience stores, the M Local, until they were all sold off in 2017 to a company which ultimately couldn't sustain them as a going concern (and ruined the best M Local feature, the salad bar).  This sandwich was, however, bought in Southport because I was already there to visit the Waterfield's bakery.

As you can see I completely forgot to photograph the sandwich before eating it again, but having seen a few of these yourself by now, you can imagine what it looked like with the usual ingredients.  It's fine, nice even, no better or worse than the Tesco or Asda examples with the cranberry chutney blending well with the stuffing and the bacon adding some nice texture.

Christmas Links #13

Ben Baker's Christmas Box:
"Ben Baker's Christmas Box is a limited run podcast in the original packaging. In each short episode Ben talks to a guest about a TV programme that represents the Christmas period to them."

"After the comfort food and rituals, Britons are embracing more traditions, such as the festival of Santa Lucia."

"I can feel it now the way a buzzard can smell carrion from miles away."

"Learn how to handle these notoriously fickle tiny light bulbs."

"New year celebrations hardly feature in Shakespeare’s works and he only mentions Christmas three times. Explaining the lack of New Year quotes is easy enough, but why did Shakespeare dodge Christmas in his writing?"

"When do Christmas decorations become too much? And can they ever be too much? One man in Germany has a record-breaking collection that has to be seen to be believed."

"We’re tired of having to tiptoe around him all day."

"With all the big chains offering festive specials, MyLondon writer Jessica Battison went to see how Costa's shaped up."

"I was a college RA over Christmas break, and it was the duty shift from hell."

"Last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live saw the return of Kate McKinnon and the debut of host Billie Eilish, with the show utilizing both performers brilliantly in a chilling pre-taped sketch called “Lonely Christmas Ad.”"

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
Waterfield's Christmas Sandwich.

Food  Waterfield's is a chain of bakers based completely in the North West, mainly in the Lancashire region.  The only outlets in the Liverpool area are on the outskirts, Walton to the north and Woolton to the south with none in the city centre.  That's probably why I don't have any kind of emotional connection to them.  Despite being in existence since 1926, our first occasion to be in contact with one another was in Southport or Chester when there were other choices available and I don't tend to eat a lot of pasties or sausage rolls anyway.

As the biography on their website describes, Waterfield's is a family business, its current managers the grandsons of the founder, Alice Waterfield.  She opened the first shop in Leigh and was successful enough that her coal mining husband retrained as a baker and began working in the kitchens.  Their children took over the running of the business in the 50s and it's since continued for another generation.  There's something especially poignant about all of this compared to Sayers or Greggs who have long since lost their connection with their founders.

This sandwich ... isn't great.  You'd think that having been made with cranberry bread and with a coating of cranberry mayonnaise, that it would taste of cranberries.  Instead everything is over powered, including the thin slices of turkey, by the thick layer of stuffing which has been trowelled on in the middle and doesn't have much flavour in and of itself.  Plus it makes the already moist bread even soggier.  It's not inedible, I ate the whole thing, but it's not at all satisfying and certainly not worth the £3.40 I paid for it.

Christmas Links #12

"The writer and actor puts the ghoul into yule with screen and stage roles reprising haunting classics from Charles Dickens and MR James."

"A Black nativity scene and Black Santa tree ornaments will be on sale this weekend."

"It makes me feel 100 years old to be complaining about the season’s over-commercialisation, but isn’t it really about togetherness and glorious anticipation?"

"To close its seventh season on June 5, 1879, the Apollo Musical Club began its annual tradition of presenting Handel's Messiah, under the baton of the ensemble's second director, William L. Tomlins, in McCormick Hall."

"Museums across the UK are sprucing up their favourite prehistoric exhibits in time for the Christmas season. Here are some of the best."

"Michael Palin stars in an exclusive adaptation of Terry Jones's comic novel. A tale of interstellar skulduggery, romance and unhinged robots based in Douglas Adams's universe."

"As BBC One puts its on-screen decorations up, we're looking back on their best-ever festive visual identities."

"A Welsh MP unwittingly turned on Downing Street's Christmas tree lights after mistaking the switch for a doorbell."

Review 2021:
The Christmas Sandwich Reviews:
Starbucks Tis The Season Turkey Sandwich.

Food  Oh Starbucks.  A couple of weeks ago Stuart Heritage from The Guardian said, "nobody has ever travelled to Starbucks specifically to eat a sandwich".  Well, there's a first time for everything.  He didn't like it.  He said it "tastes exactly like every pre-packed chicken-and-stuffing sandwich you have ever bought from a petrol station in a fit of self-loathing" and give it 2/5.  Now that I've eaten what amounts to a lot of those, I have some idea of what he means.  But I also think he was a bit harsh but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Starbucks entered the UK in 1998 after acquiring then rebranding 56 outlets of the Seattle Coffee Company and it's probably about then that I visited my first although for the life of me I can't remember which but ever since it's been my place to go when I need a coffee and a sit down.  It's unfashionable to say this, but I'm a fan.  What attracted me then was just how different it felt to anywhere else on the high street, like stepping into a coffee house in an American film with its light jazz (also available for sale), large cosy chairs and unusual snacks.  

I've had numerous regular Starbucks over the years, visiting often enough for the staff to get to know my drink preference, and although some of the distinctiveness has eroded over the years (CDs no longer on sale) (bucket chairs), I like the predictability of it, the comfort of knowing that when I visit, it'll be the same coffee, served in the same way, usually in a decent atmosphere.  After lockdown subsided last year, the first cafe I visited was the Starbucks at Liverpool One and the beans I use most at home are their decaf espresso.

All of which will be incredibly disappointing to people who champion independent roasters and believe me I do use their services as well.  But as I explained to my Dad recently, if you're a decaf drinker, Starbucks is the only place which produces a decent, rich-tasting cup.  A lot of the indies (and the other chains) offer a much weaker blend which isn't to my taste especially when its been watered down by filling to the top because I've asked for black and I've forgotten to ask them not to (coffee with milk is just too bland for me).

So its with some trepidation, and Stuart's review ringing in my ears, I attacked their Christmas sandwich, but I needn't have worried.  It's gorgeous.  Despite the wedge of spinach in the middle, this is a moist, juicy affair with loads of flavour thanks to the citrus hints in the cranberry sauce and the abundant stuffing which isn't as claggy as it can often be.  I ate it with an americano at the side and they complimented each other perfectly, the sandwich strong enough to hold its own against the brute force bitter spiciness of the Christmas blend.  Worth the £3.90 to eat in?  Shrug emoji.  I enjoyed it.