Turkeys and geese may be taking centre stage in dining rooms across Britain this Christmas, but every star needs a supporting cast.
Ham, salmon and cheese are three of the most popular choices, and, if you get the very best, you might have to re-write the part from a non-speaking extra to a limelight-robbing co-star.
Andrew Wickham was a chartered surveyor before he bought The Weald Smokery in Flimwell in 1990.
In the 25 years since, it has grown from a business run by him and his wife to one that now employs 25 local people.
To help maintain the standards of the operation and its products, this growth has been carefully managed and deliberately limited.
This compact approach allows Andrew and his team to know their suppliers and customers personally, and know where every fish, cut of ham and wheel of cheese comes from.
It’s one that has undoubtedly helped Weald Smokery establish itself as one of the premier gourmet food producers in Kent, and pick up dozens of awards in the process.
But it’s the smoking itself that’s the key to success.
“Our unique selling point is that we do things the old-fashioned way,” explains Andrew.
“Everything we do is about doing things traditionally. And by traditionally, what I mean is we light an open fire, using oak logs, and then we cook our products.
“We use two different methods, hot smoking and cold smoking. For hot smoking we light a fire and cook our products from the heat it generates. Then, after the cooking process, we smoke the products from the smouldering logs.
“With cold smoking we smoulder oak shavings in a brick kiln, allowing the smoke to pass over the product in an unhurried way. It takes as long as it needs to to take on the flavour.”
The unique taste these methods generate makes the smokery a popular place for foodies all year round. But the festive season always brings with it a sharp surge in sales for a number of products.
“Smoked salmon is a particularly festive thing,” says Andrew. “We probably sell more in the month of December than in the rest of year put together. It’s very much a meal that seems suited to Christmas.”
The salmon isn’t just popular with punters, it’s also proved a hit with the experts of the industry. Since 1998, the flavours generated at the Weald Smokery have earned it at least one Great Taste Award every year, with the salmon leading the way.
“At one point we had to stop entering the salmon as we’d won it too often!” exclaims Andrew.
Cheese is another product that enjoys a cracker of Christmas. For the duration of the festive season, it seems to appear after meals, with matching wine in tow, like a late, welcome and edible guest.
“We sell a lot of cheese at this time of year,” says Andrew. “It’s a great thing to have in the house, sitting there waiting to be delved into throughout the holiday.
“We smoke stilton and cheddar. Most of the other cheeses we sell in our delicatessen aren’t smoked.
“They tend to be traditional, top of the range farm house or continental cheeses. The kind you wouldn’t readily get in the supermarket, that reflect the artisan approach we strive for throughout the operation.
“Ham is a similarly great thing to have around, ready to carve a slice off whenever you feel like it.”
Ham is the only one of the holy trinity that isn’t smoked. Locally sourced, it’s cooked on site using slow, traditional techniques that lock in moisture and flavour.
Unlike ham, salmon and certain cheeses cannot be sourced locally, but Andrew otherwise tries to keep raw materials as close to home as possible.
And when he does have to bring things in from further afield, he tries to identify the best possible source of that raw material.
A selection of the best of those from near and far make up the menu at The Kiln Room, the new restaurant on the premises. Others find their way into hampers and gift boxes.
“My wife, Corrine, runs the brassiere restaurant here, which is part of the shop,” explains Andrew. “We launched it in February and it’s going really well. It gives people the opportunity to taste the products and then buy them afterwards if they wish to.
“We also do a mail order service that’s gearing up at the moment. We provide gifts for companies that want to supply gifts for staff or special clients. And we supply gifts for people who want to give them to friends and family.
“They make good presents for someone who has everything in life. Food is something you only ever have so much of, at a given time, and always needs replenishing. It can still be really enjoyable for those who have it all.”