Festive food and Christmassy treats in the St Albans district

A fire pit at The Great Northern pub in St Albans.

A fire pit at The Great Northern pub in St Albans. - Credit: The Great Northern pub

Have you had your first mince pie and mulled wine yet? Mine was in Wheathamstead at the outdoor pop-up craft market; it was lovely to see people socialising and shopping safely, happy to have a chance to get together, and my home-made mince pie was lovely with thin, crisp pastry and a little star on top. Simple pleasures, that I think we have learned to appreciate all the more this year. 
So what other treats are out there for us? Wrap up warm and head to St Albans city centre for outdoor markets every day in the run up to Christmas. You will find the usual Charter Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as extra street food, seasonal cakes and bakes and gifts as well as mulled wine and coffee to keep you going on other days.
Look for the Crumbs & Bits stall on some days, aka Erica Sangiorgi, recent winner on MasterChef The Professionals. I bought a box of her clementine mince pies, which were outstanding. The pies come in smart red boxes, wrapped in ribbon, and would make a beautiful gift. Erica is also doing hampers with snowball bonbons, fudge, chutney and more (£20-£40). If you miss her at the market, message her via Instagram to collect direct. Over in Harpenden, Emilio’s van is doing mulled wine to help fortify you as you do your Christmas shopping.  
The Waffle House in St Albans is open for take out drinks and waffles so if you are strolling around the lake, head over there for refreshments. When I popped in they were selling cups of apple and cinnamon hot toddy and ‘Jaffa shakes’ made with jaffa cakes, marmalade and vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream.  
If you want something special to drink, Farr Brew have small batch bottles of Spice Rum and Whisky. I imagine the spiced rum would be wonderful in hot toddys and cocktails.  
Spirit of Herts is a new gin distillery based The Saddlery on Coleman Green Lane. They have developed a special festive gin with ginger, clove and nutmeg, with spruce and fir foliage picked in Sherrardspark Wood. Look too, for limited Garden City quince gin. It blends their Garden City Centenary Gin (Welwyn Garden City celebrated its 100th birthday this year), with the mellow, tropical notes of fresh quince. You can also book in to make your own gin, or buy a voucher.  
Talking of quinces, you can buy fresh quinces at Buongiorno Italia and Al Barka on the Hatfield Road, if you need a simple, delicious pud. A quick recipe for you, if you have never tried them: peel, cut into quarters, and poach in water with a little sugar for 30 minutes. Then roast in a moderate oven for 30 minutes until they are soft. Baked quinces are like honey-flavoured baked apples, lovely with thick cream.  
If you are quick you might still be able to buy a fig panettone from Buongiorno Italia; thick fluffy slices with the scent of almonds, and delicious with coffee for breakfast.
The pubs have been amazing, transforming into outdoor winter venues if they have space. Already a big hit are the fire pits at The Great Northern on London Road; hopefully they will keep these open in the new year as they have been so popular. Their hot toddy shack sells Winter Pimms, mulled wine and cider, Irish Coffee and Sailor Jerry’s hot chocolate. Email contact@greatnorthernpub.co.uk for availability. You can also eat inside if you are a household, and maybe buy a pint of Santa’s Piste?  
I had a few cups of mulled cider at The Mad Squirrel Tap, which sort-of kept me warm! Each cup was flavoured with orange slices studded with cloves, and they do a very good pizza for your ‘substantial meal’. Wrap up warm; the awnings and string lights make it look cosy, but it is still December!  
The Plough in Sleapshyde has transformed the garden into a winter wonderland – they are even providing hot water bottles to keep you cosy. Tickets are £20 to include Bratwurst cooked on the braai, fries and a dessert.   
As the days will soon start to get longer, and we head into 2021, I hope for a more normal return to life for our pubs, restaurants, hotels, cafés and caterers.
My next column will be my 300th for the Herts Advertiser, and I will be looking back at the last 10 years – there have been many changes in that time! See you then!