This is a Sponsored Post in association with Iceland
No, this isn’t the kitchen in a smart London restaurant, nor is it the domestic kitchen of a food obsessive. (Hello jars of home pickles.) What it is is the development kitchen at Iceland Foods in Deeside, near Chester in the North West of England. Given Iceland’s reputation as the home of frozen foods and pre-prepared dishes, it may come as a surprise to discover that behind the array of brightly-coloured boxes and bags in the chiller cabinets is a team of food obsessives, who cite influences as far-ranging as Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea, a chef so experimental and so extraordinary that he has been awarded three Michelin stars and five James Beard awards (think Heston on steroids). Led by the down to earth and charismatic Neil Nugent, chef, and Head of Product Development, this is where all Iceland’s, ahem, magic happens.
Neil Nugent, chef, and Head of Product Development
Neil Nugent’s food book collection
In a corner of the kitchen development suite are bookshelves filled with the works of food writers from around the globe, amongst which I spotted some of my favourites – The Fog City Diner Cookbook from San Francisco, Yotam’s Nopi, and the first Honey & Co book, through to current food favourites from books on fermentation to the Noma cookbook and Magnus Nilsson’s epic The Nordic Cookbook. I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Nugent’s influences range far and wide.
I was there, poking through the kitchen and its bookshelves because Iceland had imported a group of influencers to explore the Iceland Christmas Food offer. A more cynical person than me might have thought that the carolling gospel singers, festive table-laying seminars, cocktail-making demos, and edible food spray graffiti lessons were designed to draw close attention away from the festive food offer but, as it turns out, the people at Iceland are just extremely nice humans who like people to enjoy themselves (and create fun festive content).
And, as it turned out, they really needn’t have bothered with all the bells and whistles because the food stands by itself, not just good for Iceland, but as good as you can get anywhere.
At this point in my story, your bullshit meter might be hitting the red zone – Iceland did, after all, pay me to visit Deeside, but I can assure you that if the food was mediocre – or worse – you wouldn’t be seeing this post on LLG, and I would not be being paid. (You, dear reader, would only have to pop into Iceland, or order a Christmas food delivery, and the jig would be up.)
So, yes, there was a Christmas tree and a selfie station, and quite a lot of glitter but if I was interested in festive cheer I’d put a set of miniature antlers on Lettice and buy her a snowflake sweater.
Moving swiftly on. What I was really interested in at Deeside was this – well, hell-O shiny kitchen of joy.
After we had been fed and watered, (an Iceland Christmas turkey smoked on a Big Green Egg, and a sauteed mushroom brioche roll for me), Neil got cracking and at various points during the day demo’d his Christmas dishes. Of course there was the Gilded Turkey that featuring in the Iceland Christmas ads – it comes with a festive glaze of mustard and honey dressing, along with ideas for festive brunching.
I was, to put it bluntly, gobsmacked to discover that each year Iceland sell over half a million lobsters. (Last Christmas alone, Iceland sold 122,000 Whole Cooked Lobsters, 37,000 Lobster Tails and 27,000 Lobster Thermidor.) Neil’s suggestion for crustacean-lovers is to run a couple of wooden skewers through a Luxury Uncooked Canadian Lobster Tail to straighten it out, and whack it on a hot cast iron pan, before introducing it to a warmed taco, filled salad and dressed with, wait for it, an avocado sauce made with FROZEN AVOCADO.
Truly the existence of frozen avocados blows my tiny mind.
Although not as much as the discovery that I could discern absolutely no difference in taste or texture from unfrozen avocados in a dressing. Neil assured us that due to a magnetic (no, me neither) process, the frozen avocados that Iceland stocks are vastly superior to any others on the market, and I see no reason at this juncture to disbelieve him, given what I am about to show you.
This, my friends, is the Iceland Luxury Roast Parsnip, Mushroom, Spinach & Hazelnut Pithivier.
Iceland’s Christmas vegetarian option – the Pithivier
When I was doing my research before the trip to Deeside I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing in the Iceland Christmas food section: Pithiviers aren’t exactly your everyday supermarket vegetarian offering. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in a British store before.) Named after the French town of Pithiviers, they are a round, humped pie usually made by baking two disks of puff pastry with a filling in between (sometimes frangipane, often cheese or vegetables). Most importantly, they are traditionally decorated with a spiral of lines etched from the top with a knife point.
You may remember me ordering one in the London outpost of Balthazar when I reviewed it back in 2013 and, to save you going back and reading it I can tell you that I described the Balthazar offering as a ‘dry spinach and squash hockey puck of a Pithivier”. In truth it was horrid, and nothing like the Iceland version which is truly delicious – honestly I think I have found the Ur-offering for a vegetarian Christmas – the flavours are perfectly balanced, between the slight sweet edge of parsnip, the green freshness of spinach and the Portobello mushroom earthiness, with texture and crunch added by the, frankly, genius addition of chopped hazelnuts. The arid nature of Balthazar’s feeble attempt at a Pithivier is avoided by a wholly English addition of a creamy sauce enriched by mature Cheddar cheese and sherry. Oh and it’s six quid and would easily feed six.
And speaking of value, let me introduce you to the Iceland Macaron. I know, I know. But bear with me. I am about to tell you something that may well astonish you.
Laduree, originators in the 1930s of the sandwiched macarons, freeze their macarons too. What, you thought they were all made on site in each store by a team of skilled patisserie artisans? Nope. They’re made in large, centralised factories in France and Switzerland, and shipped to Laduree stores. (I hasten to add that this was not told me to me by Iceland – read this story.)
Iceland Frozen Macarons
Iceland sell a dozen Macarons for £3 in the traditional flavours of lemon, pistachio, raspberry, chocolate, vanilla and praline That, to save you doing the maths, is 25p each. This might be the biggest bargain in patisserie in Britain. A shot of sweet, crispy, melting almond-y goodness for a quarter of the price of a bog standard chocolate bar.
Because they are excellent. Truly.
I would not be able to pick them out in a blind taste test against competitors at eight times the price. And they defrost super quickly too. Their overall excellence brings me to another point well worth making – the surprise that is engendered when reading the ingredients in their ready-made products. There is a quite astonishing lack of industrial ingredients in Iceland frozen foods, barely a thing you wouldn’t find in a domestic kitchen. The macarons are a case in point. (Check the ingredients out here.)
The point about their ingredients was hammered home to me when I started checking out the Iceland Luxury Raspberry Tart which I would happily serve at home – after all, the French aren’t embarrassed to buy in their desserts, so why should the British be? I mean look at it – there’s no sickly glaze, no revolting thick gel holding it all in place. Just a pile of delicious sweet and sharp raspberries piled into an excellently short pastry casing, with a little pectin holding it all together.
Look – check out the ingredients:
Raspberries (36%), Wheat Flour, Sugar, Concentrated Butter (Milk), Glucose Syrup, Raspberry Purée (4.5%), Pasteurised Liquid Whole Egg, Gelling Agent: Pectins; Flavouring, Raising Agents: Disodium Diphosphate, Sodium Carbonates; Salt, Acidity Regulator: Citric Acid.
And how much is this?
THREE OF YOUR ENGLISH POUNDS.
Lurking in the back of the photo above is my guilty pleasure, the Iceland Luxury Raspberry & Pistachio Layered Pavlova. Not guilty because it’s crap food, (and that it certainly is not) but guilty because I could quite happily buy and polish off an entire Pav at certain times of the month. I mean what’s not to like about layers of meringue, sweetened whipped lemon cream and raspberry sauce, finished with heritage raspberries and salted pistachio nut pieces for £6? I’m also impressed that they’ve avoided going down the strawberry route in this dessert – there’s not enough acidity in a strawberry to work against all that delicious sugar and cream.
If chocolate is your thing then you’ll probably want to know about the Iceland Luxury Chocolate & Orange Choux Garland, a chocolate choux pastry ring filled with whipped cream and a chocolate and orange flavoured fudge icing, topped with a chocolate and orange flavoured ganache, sprinkled with dark chocolate shavings and a coloured dusting. Choux pastry freezes particularly well, so this dessert is, frankly, bomb proof. It’s the perfect emergency pud for the freezer for when you need to pull something impressive out of the bag over Christmas.
And, let us not forget the mince pies. To be specific Iceland’s award-winning Luxury Mince Pies – six for £1.89.
Personally I could eat these au nature, by the boxful. They are, I promise, as good (actually better) as any on the High Street, and I don’t even think they need perking up with a injection of brandy, as so many pitiful ready-made mince pies do.
Of course, you could always borrow Iceland’s slightly left field suggestion and make a mince pie martini this Christmas – simply remove the mincemeat from the pastry and shake it with vodka. The pastry can be reduced to crumbs and used to rim the martini glass.
I’m not going to talk at length here about Iceland’s excellent Luxury Freshly Frozen Petit Pois, or their brilliant Frozen for Freshness Cauliflower Florets (makes the most epic puree with 250gm butter, one packet of cauliflower, lemon juice, salt, and a splash of Amontillado), or the Iceland 4 Cheese & Potato Creamy Gratins for £1.79 which I bought last week when checking out the Kentish Town store, and are better than any I’ve ever been given in a domestic kitchen, because we all know that Iceland sells great frozen veg, but I am going to mention the very good frozen fruits – the raspberries in particular, because they formed part of Neil’s Christmas centrepiece, which he and his brigade had ALL the fun creating in front of us at the festive showcase.
His Christmas showstopper this year is Iceland Luxury Melting Chocolate Snowflake, which he told me is the most technically challenging product he’s developed this year. It sounds complicated but the taste is comparatively simple – a massive whack of delicious chocolate of different textures.
Essentially, it consists of a chocolate brownie base layered with dark chocolate mousse, contained in a dark chocolate shell and decorated with bronzed chocolate honeycomb pieces. It comes with a sachet of dark chocolate glaze which you heat up and then pour over the the indentation in the middle of the snowflake.
You may have noticed that I mentioned Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea back at the beginning of this story. One of the things he is known for is putting a cloth down at the end of the meal to create a dessert piece de resistance in front of his astonished diners. Neil and his team decided to create their own version of this for us using the Snowflakes.
Putting down a roll of paper they positioned the desserts, then flicked over, Pollock-style, mango and raspberry coulis, made by blending frozen fruits with a little icing sugar, (and, in the case of the raspberries, sieving the mixture). Then they added in a few macarons and Iceland Fruity Eclairs, along with a little chocolate soil (ground up chocolate cake.)
I had turned up in Deeside with a big bag of preconceptions, and left clutching a box of mince pies, a handful of shopping vouchers, and chomping at the bit to get spending – and eating.
This is a Sponsored Post in association with Iceland