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How to plan the perfect party without being a Cordon Bleu.
The days are getting shorter, the nights are drawing in, and noses have turned a permanent shade of pinky-red. Yep, it’s that time of year again: the English winter is upon us once more!
Weirdly, considering my Mediterranean blood, this is undeniably my favourite time of year. I have a few good reasons for this. Firstly, I am one of those irritating people who starts to get excited about Christmas before Halloween has even occurred ( although officially I must keep my excitement under wraps until after the 6th November- boyfriend’s birthday must apparently be celebrated first). Secondly, I am actually rather fond of the Eskimo look. Indeed, I take great pleasure in layering vest upon thermals upon jumpers and topping it off with a balancing act of ginormous scarves, wooly hats, gloves, and a coat that more closely resembles a sleeping bag. Thirdly, and most importantly, I love dinner parties, and if this time of year is synonymous with anything for me, it is certainly cosy dinners with friends.
The thing is, as much as I love restaurants and bars, come winter the thought of trekking around London to meet friends in the rain, before getting bustled into a packed dining room, steaming with other bodies, and then having to watch how much I “warm myself up” with the wine, either because the mark-up is so painful to behold or because I am designated driver… frankly isn’t all that enticing. Add to this the fact that we live in London and that the chance of finding anywhere remotely good at a time you would actually like to eat at (no, that does not mean 6 0’clock on a Saturday evening, thank you very much) is on the stick-insect side of slim, and I feel like giving up on eating out entirely.
Instead, thoughts of friends filling my living room begin to pop into my head. Visions of red wine, open fire places, long convivial dinners that stretch out over hours in a way they never really can when you’re
being ushered along for the next 9 o’clock sittings swirl before me… And there I am, amongst them all, Nigella-like in red, placing down beautiful dishes to be “oooohed” and “mmmmmed” over. I use the word “vision” as, unfortunately, the reality of my dinner parties has in the past been slightly different. I am not an accomplished chef, I do not have an oak-panelled dining room, or an open fire place, nor, for that matter, do I look particularly good in red. Before I realised and accepted this, my dinner “parties” were far from that. In my bid to be the perfect host, I epitomised the nervous host: panicked over the guest lists, seating, decorations, drink and spent ages agonising over a flamboyant menu which I would then spend an entire day preparing. To calm my nerves I would get just on the wrong side of merry, and when the guests arrived I would spend most of my time frantically pulling everything together in the kitchen, drunkenly singeing most of it. Obviously, faced with this, a restaurant is a vastly preferable experience.
As I said, however, the key to the perfect dinner party is not only realising that you
are not the perfect chef/ hostess, but that you don’t have to be. Friends do not flock to yours to witness your Michelin cooking skills; they do not come to your house to entertain themselves whilst you get your knickers in a twist over the stove. What people want is atmosphere, fun, conversation and a good bit of drink- with food as a back-drop, not the main event.
Of course, this does not mean throwing all plans out the window and chucking a loaf of hovis and some cheddar on the table with a bottle of black nun- bad food stands out even more than good food. No, the key to a great dinner party is basic organisation. As Elisabeth Wilson, author of Goddess: Be the Woman You Want To Be, says : “ The easy way is to be organised and plan everything, The hard way is to throw everything together at the last minute.”
So what are the main things to think about?
Now, the guest list sounds simple, but it is often the first hurdle that people stumble over. The easiest thing is to start with good friends, which should be easy enough as most of us have them. Beware, however, of slipping into having the same comfy group over and over again: it may seem a bit more dangerous to add new people to your gatherings, but it makes for much more interesting conversations. People always perk up at the thought of meeting potential new friends/ lovers!
This may sound schmaltzy, what I mean by it is : what kind of dinner party do you want: casual, glamorous, cosy, boozy? Pick a theme and stick to it. Do not do this according to what you think will impress or suite others, do it according to what you feel like, because you are the one organising it all and the chances of you doing it well if you enjoy it are infinitely greater.
In an ideal world, my dining room would be wood-panelled, large enough to fit 20 of my closest friends, and warmed by the glow of a lovely roaring open fire. Unfortunately, as I have mentioned, this is not the case. I have, however, become quite adept at the art of illusion. Quite simply, with the right lighting you can hide any number of sins: less-than-spotless surfaces are covered up and rooms can magically appear to be twice their size. How does one do this? One word: candles. Lots of them. Indeed, I am now a dedicated candle fiend. They do not have to be expensive, matching, or placed in silver candle sticks. In fact, I personally favour the “however many of whatever colour you can lay your hands on” approach, as I feel the result is more fun and bohemian. I also like to spend a little more on a couple of good quality scented ones to put in the entrance, as I feel that it immediately sets the mood when guests walk into a lovely smelling candle-lit house.
I love the French brand Ventilo for beautiful smelling and long lasting candles, which you can find online at www.thecandleselection.co.uk.
For a wider variety of size and colour, go to www.candlesontheweb.co.uk where you are sure to find something to suite all tastes, budgets and themes.
Much of my way of entertaining, like most people, has been picked up from my parents, and in our house, one of the cardinal rules of hosting was to never leave a guest with an empty glass. Good drink is an essential element to any successful gathering, and I am a firm believer in quality over quantity. By this I do not mean that you should blow the budget on a rare vintage claret (though if you do, please don’t forget my invitation). I do, however, think that a little more thought should be put into your alcohol selection than just grabbing as many bottles of Jacobs Creek as you can fit in the supermarket trolley at the end of your food shop. One option, of course, is to go to your local wine merchant and ask for advice. The website that has made a huge difference for me, however, is findwine.co.uk, which has taken all the intimidation and hassle out of buying wine by keeping its stock small, interesting, diverse and constantly changing. It is all organised by price, country, and best of all there is even a “match your wine to your food” section where you will be recommended delicious wines according to your budget to go with anything from roast lamb to quenelles de brochet. One of my favourite things about the website is that you can order mixed cases of the wines of your choice, which makes it that much easier to inject a little bit of variety into your evening. The fact that they will then deliver your case of wine directly to your door also means there is none of that hassle of carrying back 10 odd bottles in plastic bags of dubious strength!
The final hurdle, where many a great host has stumbled over deflated soufflés and singed pavlovas. If you are one of these, I truly sympathise, for I was once one too. But as I have said, I have thankfully now realised that the key to a great dinner party lies not in flambé-d duck and glazed tarts. Great food is a fantastic addition to a dinner party, as long as it is not complicated and time consuming, because there is nothing worse than for guests to be sitting at a table trying to ignore the fact that their host is having a nervous break-down in the kitchen. Three words: keep it simple. There are two ways of doing this
1. Plan an easy menu which requires minimum preparation and which can (mostly) be made in advance. A fail safe combination for me which can be refreshed with many different changes and is always well received is this:
Starter: small individual salads (pear, stilton and walnut, asparagus and parma ham, warm goats cheese and pancetta)
Main: A one pot, slow cook stew (lamb couscous, tagine, coq au vin),a joint of meat, roasted or poached fish.
Desert: One of the more important bits as most people don’t bother with in in everyday meals. If you are able and willing, by all means make your own. I personally, however, usually resort to a professionally made sweet. I’m rather lucky in that my local patisserie is Patisserie Valerie where I can always find a lovely tarte or cake. Even better, you can now order from them online.
And of course…
Cheese: I am not just placing special emphasis on this because I am French and therefore would happily eat the unctuous substance in any form at any time of day. I truly believe that a fantastic cheese board is an essential element to a dinner party. Controversially, given
my Gallic blood, I actually like to have it after desert as I feel that leisurely cheese nibbling and grape eating accompanied by a good red and conversation is the perfect way to wind down an evening. My new discovery and go-to-cheesemonger now is Androuet. Long famous in France for their fantastic selection of quality cheeses, they have finally opened four stores in England, two of which are in London on Jermyn Street and Spitalfields Market. With both a cheese store and restaurant, as well as catering to parties, Androuet is a necessary addition to all cheese lovers’ address books.
2. Get the caterers in. Whether you choose to use professional help for one course or all, there is no shame in this; people will certainly not think less of you for providing them with delicious canapés and restaurant-style meals. It may cost that little bit extra, but sometimes, when you balance that out against time spent cooking and clearing up afterwards, it really is worth it. Once again, the caterers you choose depend on what kind of evening you are going for.
Bertrand Munier is definitely an address I am glad to have, and which has helped me out on a number of occasions. He provides absolutely delicious food from the freshest local ingredients without additives or preservatives at good prices, be it for a private dinner for friends, a larger family gathering or even a business lunch. Munier’s “Ideal Party” service will make wonderful canapés selections for up to 300 guests and even a three course meal for a little as 6 or as many as 115 people.
And if you want to cheat a bit, you could even get the meals pre-prepared and delivered to your door ready to be heated up and layed out by you and nobody would be any the wiser(minimum London delivery is £95)...
For something a bit different, I’ve been lucky enough to find Simmons Crêperie , which makes authentic, traditional Brittany galettes and crêpes. Having a private crêpe chef making fresh, homemade galettes or crêpes live adds guaranteed wow factor. As well as entertaining your guests and leaving you free to mingle and relax, they will set up and tidy-up everything! Being a proper pancake fan, I’m also dying for an opportunity to try out their seated 3-course crêpe & galette meal...
So there you have it: a few of my tips and useful addresses for a good dinner party. I hope you enjoy many a merry evening with them, ‘tis certainly the season for it!
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