Can a cheap Christmas dinner pass the taste test?
It is a bitterly cold Tuesday afternoon and Pricewatch is regretting its good idea. We are sitting on a bench on the roof of The Irish Times building, pulling crackers and smiling frozen smiles as we look at the chilled smoked salmon on the picnic table beside us. A few feet away, an enormous cooked turkey is growing cold as it peeps over a mountain of steaming sprouts, while a plum pudding and half-a-dozen mince pies wait their turn.
When a supermarket that prides itself on value offered to cook Christmas dinner for Pricewatch and three of our closest friends (or randomly picked colleagues found slumped over their desks on a Tuesday afternoon), we naturally said yes – a free lunch is a free lunch, after all. Then we thought we’d eat on the roof of the building. Because it was sunny, like.
It is sunny but it also very cold and the absolutely brilliant Christmas jumpers, borrowed from the good people at funkychristmasjumpers.com(who have opened a pop-up shop on Dublin’s South William Street) are hilarious, but not as warm as we’d like.
The temperature is not the only – or even the main – concern. The five-course meal is being cooked by chefs working for Aldi. While it looks fine, it is going to be cheap, and it might be horrible. Christmas is a special time when caution and common sense are thrown to the wind, and over recent years, Irish consumers who have grown adept at watching their pennies, still seem to lose the run of themselves come ho, ho, ho time. Thousands of people blow unconscionable sums in Marks & Spencer, McCambridge’s, Morton’s, Donnybrook Fair, Fallon Byrne and all the other high-end food shops across the country that sell us the promise of a premium Christmas at a premium price.
But can a discounter reallly compete with these high-end retailers? Aldi said it could. We raised a sceptical eyebrow so it offered to prove itself. It laid on a five-course meal of organic smoked salmon with rocket salad, free-range turkey, ham, mashed and roast potatoes, two types of stuffing, roasted carrots and parsnips, some class of jus (we’d call it gravy), plum pudding, ice cream, mince pies, cheese and petit fours, and all for €25 a head for four adults. It even threw in an award-winning bottle of red wine with a price tag of €4.99.
But forget the price, was it any good? The short answer is yes: it was very good indeed. Aldi promised to feed four grown-ups (well, four Irish Times journalists at any rate) but before dinner had ended, at least six more people had arrived up from the newsroom with their best Oliver faces asking for some morsels. Everyone was fed and everyone who tried the food agreed it was much, much better than expected.
The own-brand Specially Selected smoked salmon is made by William Carr and at €3.89 is very good value for money. It is beautifully textured, with a wonderful smokiness that more expensive branded products would do well to replicate. The vegetables are locally sourced, as is the cheese board, while the desserts are from Aldi’s local suppliers. Even the whiskey used to drown the pudding was local, although it carried the unfamiliar Clontarf label. The only thing that did not come from Ireland was the wine.
Aldi’s free-range turkey has yet to be priced but a 5.5kg bird will sell for about €30. At that price, it will be great value. The same size, non-free-range bird will cost about €50. While the turkey may not be as good as some corn-fed, organic bronze fowl sourced off ruddy-faced farmer from Monaghan, it is still moist and as flavoursome as any turkey can be. You will not, however, be able to order one in advance as you might if you spend your money in your local butcher so, unless you are an early bird, you might lose out in the run-up to Christmas. The ham and the stuffing were not amazing but still perfectly fine.
All in all Aldi proved us wrong by serving a dinner that was hard to fault. All that was missing was It’s A Wonderful Life.
I was a late sub in the Pricewatch Christmas dinner canteen dine-in for four, after a camera-shy colleague took one look at the mandatory festive jumper and opted out. I temporarily ditched my deadline, donned my snowman jumper, and sat at a picnic table on the roof of The Irish Times building in the name of, well, what else but work?
What impressed me most was that the provenance of all the food was Irish, and that the Christmas dinner package is undeniably great value. It’s not pre-cooked, so everyone can put their own culinary style on what arrives at the table. Our chefs favoured orange slices on the turkey, something new to the Boland Yuletide palate. Christmas dinner is a ritual meal that can be as expensive as you wish, but not often as inexpensive as you would like. This one was. I think the jumper cost more.
So anyway, Conor Pope said that to help further my career as a serious journalist I should get some photos taken. These would be tastefully done glamour shots, he said, and would involve eating a three-course Christmas dinner while wearing a tight-fitting sky blue jumper with a penguin on it . . . and a crown.
“Just go with it,” said Conor and, as an eager young journalist overawed by the big city, I didn’t feel like I had any choice.
It was just like Christmas in that it involved cynical wise-cracking and drinking in the middle of the day, but not like Christmas at all in that it was November and we were sitting in the freezing cold on the roof.
The starter, smoked salmon with brown bread and pleasantly seasoned leaves, was very nice and the turkey, ham, sprouts, potatoes and stuffing, were delicious. However, what with the troika and Merkel and the rest of it, anti-Germanic patriotism bid me say otherwise.
“Foreign muck!” I declared xenophobically.
“It’s not actually,” said Conor, who was dressed as a Christmas elf as usual. “It’s all from Irish producers.”
“Um – very good then,” I said, and stuffed my face with moist, free-range turkey and ham. “God bless us everyone!”
The two standouts were the plum pudding and the turkey. Given that they are the core of the meal, that counts for a lot. The vegetables were all good and Brussels spouts really well cooked . The only thing that disappointed was the ham, which seemed a bit tough and not that juicy. The smoked salmon was also very good. Stuffing was a bit dry for my taste. All in all, it has be good value for €25 a head.