People in the olden days would have killed for a frozen Christmas. Or so I keep telling myself as I trudge through the rain to Iceland. I know that the variety, availability and value of frozen food is a marvel of the modern world; it just doesn’t feel like it, with my son bawling in his pram below me. As Louisa May Alcott didn’t quite write, a frozen Christmas food feature wouldn’t be a frozen Christmas food feature without Iceland.
Leave the fresh stuff for the summer. There is no reason nowadays not to enjoy an entire Christmas out of your freezer, from canapés to pudding. You may be thinking to yourself that you are not a regular frozen food muncher and that the way of the chest freezer is an alternative lifestyle you can happily do without.
You would be missing a trick. The frozen food industry does not mind your indifference: it continues to innovate. Christmas is a showcase not only for the traditional festive foods – turkey, stuffing and the like – but for tray snacks, sides, desserts and meat-free options, too. Christmas is when you might have to cater for large numbers at short notice, or contend with young Tilly’s new vegan boyfriend. The supermarkets know this and they are here to help.
In the name of science, I assembled a crack squad of tasters and the best of the new season’s frozen food. Here I am not referring to that clever gravy recipe you made ahead and stuck in plastic containers or the stockpiled pigs in blankets bought in advance and frozen. This is marketed ‘freezer food’.
We began with canapés: the kind of thing you can whip hot out of the oven with 10 minutes’ warning. It must be said that not all of these were traditional Yuletide flavours.
‘One criticism I would have is that they don’t all scream Christmas,’ said my friend Hadden, and it was hard to disagree.
For example, Tesco Finest provided Prawn Bao Buns (£4.50 for eight). Four of these were ‘Thai green style’, four were ‘kimchi & prawn’. Or so the theory went. I didn’t help their cause by overcooking them, so they had a brown exterior you don’t normally get in Chinese restaurants, but even Ken Hom wouldn’t have got a tune out of these fellas, which tasted of generic spicy sludge. Equally unsuccessful were Waitrose’s Nacho Cheese Triangles (£3 for eight), fat squishy Doritos. ‘It’s impossible to make cheese bad,’ said my friend Johannes. ‘And yet…’
Hadden felt they had a potential, specific application: ‘These are horrible, but at the end of a drinks party you could eat a whole tray of them.’
Brie de Meaux & Cranberry Parcels (£7.50 for 10) from Booths, the Waitrose of the North, satisfied more traditional festive palates, but I’d advise adding lashings more cranberry sauce. ‘Sacks of nothing,’ Hadden said. By far the weirdest item of the evening were Tesco’s Battered Crispy Sushi Rolls (£2.50 for 10). I hope no Japanese person ever learns of these, or we will be at war, but provided you ignore the word sushi, and try to forget everything you know about sushi, these sturdy blocks fill a hole.
The Iceland Tempura King Prawns (£2.50 for 10), which were hot, crispy and moreish, got top marks; as did the Tesco Finest Mini Coquille St Jacques (£4.50 for eight), little pastry scallop shells filled with chopped scallop and topped with cheese and breadcrumbs. The moral is: all canapés are beige, but surprisingly you ought to stick to fish.
On to the mains. To the whole frozen lobster (£9.99 for 375g, Lidl), I apologise. This tragic specimen came encased in a cylinder of ice, looking like Keanu Reeves before he was freed from the Matrix. I defrosted him or her, being sadly unable to establish their pronouns, and warmed them per the instructions. As I did so, I recalled being taught only to buy seafood you can see, advice that predated frozen lobster cylinders from German discount supermarkets, but would surely include them. Out of their pot, the beast smelt worryingly fishy. We broke into the shell, to find sad wet grey flesh. I tried it; it had the unmistakable frozen sogginess. What’s the point of fish like this? Lobster is hit and miss at the best of times, even when it’s impeccably fresh and expertly prepared. Sliding their pink carcass into the bin, I had never felt less festive.
Similarly, the Iceland gammon had a distinct wetness in the middle, as well as being excessively salty. One can’t expect too much of a meat joint that costs less than £4, but this would have been more enjoyable on Boxing Day with bread, lots of mustard and a hangover, rather than as the main event. Perhaps the time-honoured ‘buy a frozen turkey and remember to take it out on Christmas Eve’ is a case of ‘if it ain’t broke…’
Luckily, there was more happiness elsewhere. Our vegan option was a Lidl Vegan Sausage & Cranberry Wreath (£4.99), in effect a sausage roll alternative, which my sister conceded was ‘not bad once you had cooked it properly’, having sent back an earlier version on the grounds that the pastry was ‘raw’. In Christmas food reviews, as at Christmas itself, there are no critics like family.
I had always been rude about frozen roast potatoes, which I took to be a marker of extreme indolence on the part of the chef, but evidently the technology has come along leaps and bounds. These came hot and crispy out of the oven. You could tell I hadn’t peeled, blanched, chuffed and roasted them myself, but only just, and they were much less work. Convenience is king (Edward). At Christmas, at least, when time and volume are of the essence, bagged roasties have a future.
Frankly, pudding came as a relief. You know where you are with a frozen pudding, which occasions memories of Viennetta. We were supplied with several, including macarons and spice-flavoured ice cream, both of which were sadly artificial-tasting. Vanilla ice cream, all is forgiven.
The showstopper, however, was Marks & Spencer’s much feted – by M&S – Trifle Caked Alaska (£12), a product that screams ‘focus group’. You can imagine them thrashing it out in the lab: how best to create a dessert that tastes like baked Alaska but without its irritating tendency to melt? The solution is a semifreddo custard on a jam sponge base, with a trifle cream finish.
The box suggested it could be eaten straight from the freezer, but it improved as the tasting went on, so I’d recommend taking it out while you get stuck into seconds of sprouts. ‘I love that,’ said my friend Hodo, ‘but I do have a sweet tooth.’ Enough sugar can thaw even the coldest heart.