It’s that time of year again! The time when colleagues, associates and friends gather for the annual ritual of eating too much, drinking too much and getting into a tangle in social circles which are more accustomed to the working environment.
The office Christmas party – it’s a minefield! The Gazette one is approaching fast, but I was eased gently into the swing with the Alnwick in Bloom annual gathering. It was never going to be a raucous affair, but the good folk who mastermind Alnwick’s challenge on the bloom front know how to enjoy themselves and they had plenty to rejoice.
This year, the town picked up an amazing eight golds from the Northumbria in Bloom judges, so it was a double dose of celebration – gardening gongs and Christmas bells! Forks at the ready, we headed for The Oaks, appropriately enough for a bunch of gardeners.
The committee has held its festive bash at the same venue for as long as I can remember.
It’s a chance for everyone to down tools, hang up the wellies and taste the fruits of someone else’s labour for a night. The Oaks has proved a steady option over the years, rarely disappointing.
It is a warm, welcoming environment and the staff are always friendly. I have been a big fan of the carvery there, although I haven’t been since the establishment changed hands recently.
The festive offering is one of the cheapest around – £19.95 for four courses.
There is a choice of four starters, four main courses and three desserts.
The beauty of meal review by committee is that just about all bases are covered. The disadvantage is everyone has different tastes, standards and opinions!
In terms of this review, personalities and quotes will remain anonymous for fear of causing ructions and in-fighting among the Bloomers!
The most popular choice for the starter was prawn cocktail. It was declared by most as unspectacular but perfectly palatable. The majority’s opinion was that the prawns had been frozen and were therefore a bit bland.
One diner said: “The prawns and sauce were delicious, but large slices of tasteless tomato let it down.”
Another thought the wine glass housing the food was too high.
Mrs L and I had the vegetable broth. It was piping hot and mild in flavour. The accompanying bread roll was warm, but not homemade – a pop-in-the-oven type. Another Bloomer described it as ‘tasty and wholesome’. It had been a decent opening salvo.
The remaining two starters emerged at different ends of the popularity scale. The mushroom risotto, which could also have been a main course, was declared the course champion. It was well-cooked, fresh, full of flavour – and there was plenty of it!
The duck liver pâté, on the other hand, was generally described as disappointing. Although home-made according to the menu, it lacked flair.
I struck lucky with the main course – I was the only one to plump for the sole and salmon roulade (I’ve never liked turkey, it’s too dry for me). The fish was chunky, the sole and salmon offering quite a contrast of flavours. The sauce was creamy and contained a little surprise – mussels, which was a canny touch.
My vegetables were over-cooked, but further down the table there were reports of crunchier carrots and sprouts. The luck of the draw, I guess.
Mrs L had gone for the shin of beef and approved. She said the meat was fall-apart tender and her portions were copious. It was generally well received among fellow diners.
The traditionalists who chose the turkey seemed to have a bit more to grumble about, with one saying it was average.
Surprisingly, sherry trifle was the choice of the majority. Perhaps it was the word sherry that swayed them. And it received a general nod of approval (either that or the sherry had taken effect).
I was among the Christmas pudding gang – it was quite stodgy and swimming in very sweet sauce, the presentation lacking finesse. But it was a good helping. One Bloomer commented that it lacked brandy (there is a bit of a theme developing here!).
The yule log with accompanying squirty cream and rolled wafer biscuit was given the thumbs up and just about edged it over the other desserts.
The warm, though mass-produced, mince pies and coffee were a fitting way to finish.
The meal had had its ups and downs, but at just £19.95, with prompt, friendly service, there could be no big complaints.
MIXED REPORTS FROM A MIXED SET OF PALATES
The range of comments and scores I received from the Alnwick in Bloom revellers shows just how difficult it is to cater for parties. And how difficult it is to review meals. Some people are easily pleased, others extremely fussy. Marks on this occasion ranged from five out of 10 for some courses and a full house for others. Mrs L and I found ourselves marking somewhere in the middle.
OAKS’ £19.95 FESTIVE MENU
Home-made vegetable broth
Home-made duck liver pâté
Roast turkey, with trimmings
Slow-cooked shin of beef with red wine and thyme jus
Sole and salmon roulade
Mushroom, cranberry and brie Wellington
Christmas pudding with brandy sauce
AND FINALLY... Mince pie and coffee