It's one of the warmest days of the year and I've just gone from nibbling gold-trimmed smoked salmon in an old church to eating cheese samples in the converted warehouse used for Dragon's Den, via a snow-covered woodland walkway.
No, I'm not high. I'm celebrating Christmas … in July.
For the past few years, while my friends Instagram pictures of themselves lying on beaches or go for picnics in the park—normal things people do in July—my month is blanked out in a haze of glitter, mince pies, and meat wrapped in meat. Sometimes all at the same time.
Because for print journalists covering food and lifestyle, July is the month when supermarkets and food retail brands showcase what will be on their shelves come Christmas. People like me are invited to their "Christmas in July" press shows (there's even a hashtag) to eat our way through all the fruity cheeses, novelty liqueurs, and varying-shades-of-brown food customers have to look forward to.
With an inbox full of invites to this year's Christmas In July shows, I hit the streets early, my stomach primed for the day ahead. First up is the Morrisons show, which is being held in a converted church by Regent's Park. Feeling jaded after a too-close-for-comfort Tube journey, I head straight to the party sweets section. A glittery brownie and macaron soon perk me up. Let the sugar games commence.
Moving on to the cheese section in an attempt to bridge the sweet-savoury bridge, I'm confronted by an array of questionable flavour mash-ups. Spoiler alert: flavoured Wensleydale is going to be big this year. With a choice of infusions including gingerbread and Bucks Fizz, I plump for eggnog. Verdict: cheese made to taste like a milky punch is not as bad as I thought—although I had stopped by the liqueur station just moments before.
Continuing my festive fortune-telling mission, I move onto the canapés we'll apparently all be eating come Christmas 2k16. It seems the only rule for Morrisons is that everything must be a miniature version of something that's usually triple the size. Highlights include mini Yorkshire puddings with minced beef and mustard crème fraîche, as well as mini beef burger sliders.
Next, it's on to the Tesco show which I enter through the aforementioned snowy woodland walkway. I feel as if I've just stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia, which I enthusiastically say to the PR manning the entrance. She nods politely. She has definitely heard this 150 times today already.
Entering a room marked "The Main Event," I find a groaning table laden with every Christmas dinner option known to man (including a fetching baked ham with edible gold stars, natch). This is how I imagine Miss Havisham would approach a festive spread: everything left in pristine arrangement ready to be devoured, with only a solitary, buzzing fly for company.
Continuing my condensed, whistlestop tour of Christmas 2016, I move onto the Waitrose show. It is here that I encounter the crowning glory: an entire Christmas dinner encased in pastry and jelly, and baked into a pie. How much more effortless could the big day's lunch get?
Casually biting into a panettone on the bus back to the office, it strikes me that all of this effort is really just in the name of forgettable magazine articles ("Can you believe it's actually gluten-free, from a discount supermarket, and made from tree husk?"), Sunday supplement gift guides ("The Top 10 Foodie Gifts for Your Brother-in-Law's Half-Sister's Aunty), and online listicles of your essential, go-to, festive life-savers.
It's easy to mock, but this is serious business. For supermarkets, getting products into the press is a big deal, with hundreds of jobs dedicated to developing and producing what we'll be putting on our tables over the festive period.
According to market research agency Mintel's report into attitudes around seasonal celebration foods, "Christmas is the time when supermarkets come to the forefront of advertising, given that their annual performance depends so much on how well they do over this period." A period that they say "sparks the most food purchasing activity" compared to Easter, Halloween, and Valentine's Day.
Last year's figures from Kantar Worldpanel, meanwhile, found that "increased consumer spending over Christmas helped the grocery market grow at its fastest rate since August 2014." The sales growth totalled a meagre-sounding 0.6 percent, but Kantar head of retail and consumer insight Fraser McKevitt asserted that this was a "rally for the supermarkets compared with recent months."
I spoke to Emma Beale, product development manager at Waitrose, to find out just how much work supermarkets put in before the festive season. Beale is the one charged with refining existing recipes to create the "ultimate" mince pie and adding those all-important razzle-dazzle twists to the store's offerings. She tells me that "dazzle" is actually one of the themes this year. That explains a lot.
"We start working about 18 months before Christmas. We're just starting work now on Christmas 2017 so we're on it all year round!" says Beale. "We start by looking at trends in the UK and abroad—especially in trend-setting places like New York—around food, fashion, restaurants. We brainstorm broad themes and then our chef team will come up with ideas to show us before we brief the suppliers and spend a lot of time perfecting the product and the packaging. Everything then gets seen by an internal group at Waitrose to make sure it meets our standard."
And can she explain all the glitter?
"About 18 months ago, we saw an awful lot of bronze and gold and sparkle in fashion so we took that on board to create the 'dazzle' theme this year," says Beale. "I work with my counterpart who does non-food (crackers, decorations) and we thought it would be great if these trends worked across food and non-food. If you really love that dazzle theme for tableware, you've got a brilliant cake to put on that cake stand."
I see. So we can blame the 1970s disco trend making a comeback for the coming influx of edible glitter.
Despite this sparkly assault on the senses, Beale assures me that supermarkets develop their Christmas food ranges with the customer in mind.
"It's about spotting something and seeing how it will apply, but not shoehorning it in for the sake of it," she explains. "We're always thinking about our customers. For example, the neon-fluorescent trend around that time wouldn't work for us."
So, come January next year, as you nurse your eggnog Wensleydale hangover, remember to look to the catwalks for a sneak peek of what we'll be eating come Christmas 2017. Who else is crossing their fingers for pleated pastry and Spanish flavours with a nod to the underwear-as-outerwear trend?