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Christmas crackers made in Alton

PUBLISHED: 12:08 15 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 15 December 2015

Archant

The Victorians started the craze and now it wouldn’t be Christmas without crackers on the festive table. Viv Micklefield travels to Alton to see how some of the finest examples in the country are made

We seem to love it all: the usually quite pointless gifts, the paper hats that slide off into the gravy and, of course, the awful jokes. But travel a few miles out of Alton into the Hampshire countryside and there’s a small business which has established itself as the crème de la crème of the cracker world.

With a client list that includes the Bond Street jewellers Asprey, and the company that runs the famous Orient-Express trains, small wonder that Upper Crust Crackers know a thing or two about making celebrations go with a bang. Started back in 1987 by a farmer’s wife called Barbara Brooking, its current director Katy Dziedzic took over the running of operations from her friend and fellow horse-lover Jo O’Connor in January. Currently living a few miles away in Hartley Wintney, so far it’s been quite a year for Katy.

“I was previously working in London for a sports marketing agency as part of their events team so it was a complete change of career and lifestyle, which was why I was so interested in taking this new challenge on,” she explains. “We’re on a rural business park and it’s very much a workshop here. There are four of us at the moment and then we have two out-workers who collect the materials, make up the crackers and then bring them back the following week.

“A lot of our big competitors have most of the work done in China and then finish it off over here. However, we pride ourselves on the fact that our crackers are fully handmade in the UK - I don’t want to start doing huge bulk orders but instead plan to keep it luxury, handmade, bespoke and British.”

And while the workshop’s surroundings might appear less than glamourous given the final destinations of its contents, step inside and a veritable treasure trove of richly embossed papers and sumptuous ribbons await. It’s enough to send the average home crafter into ecstasy.

According to Katy, “if it doesn’t snap it’s not a good cracker!” And when she goes on to suggest that their gifts are ‘nicer than your average cracker’ she’s not wrong, with the aforementioned Asprey (who have the bigger 16 inch variety, as opposed to the standard 12 inch) selling their crackers for an eye-watering £200 a pull. Naturally, the reason is that there’s not a plastic key ring in sight…instead sliver pens, cufflinks and silk scarves are de rigueur.

Of course, whatever the budget there are the all-important jokes to consider which, based on their snigger value, are drawn from a shortlist chosen by Katy and her team. Although, this being a custom-made operation, it’s possible to feature whatever tickles an individual customer’s funny bone.

She also keeps a look-out for the next big interior design statement that might determine the preferred decorative finish.

“You start to see trends, although this year it’s been here there and everywhere: we’ve got one client looking for a space theme to go with their next event. When we work with some of the top London stores, we get given a mood board in advance which might include sample papers and ribbons.

“For the Belmond British Pullman (sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express) we had to do a cracker to match their table settings, which are blue and silver. A lot of our private customers will also say ‘our dining room walls are this colour’ and will want something to match.”

And the attention to detail really is second to none, with singer Elton John reputedly opting for a more flamboyant pink and feather centrepiece one year. While Dubai’s Burj Al Arab hotel, has previously ordered designs befitting its seven-star service.

With cracker making practically a year-round business, it’s all hands on deck during the autumn months as retailers launch their festive lines and parties get booked. And with the orders set to continue to pour-in, Katy and her team will be frantically tying ribbons and filling cardboard barrels right up until the final few days before Christmas. So, with such a choice of decorations at her disposal, what’s likely to be on Katy’s own table this year?

“My ideas keep changing because in this job it’s almost impossible to choose!” she laughs. “Something special will come into the workshop and I’ll think ‘I really like this one’ and then another design will catch my eye. But I do know that my family’s crackers will most likely be very over the top and probably just a bit blingy.”

To order your own crackers for that special occasion, visit www.uppercrustcrackers.co.uk

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