Bring back things in aspic and caviar Swiss rolls

Here's a friendly piece of advice: a conscientious host should "exercise some ingenuity over the eats. It may not merely be a jaded appetite, but a connoisseur in food who comes to her informal party."

Throwing a Christmas party, gentle reader? Planning on handing round a few M&S sausage rolls before letting your guests loose on the Wotsits? Here’s a friendly piece of advice: a conscientious host should “exercise some ingenuity over the eats. It may be not merely a jaded appetite, but a connoisseur in food who comes to her informal party.”

Those damn connoisseurs, always turning up at your informal parties with their jaded appetites. What exotic sweetmeats could possibly satisfy such irritating guests? Mollie Stanley-Wrench, the author of Cocktail Snacks and Canapés: How to Make Them (1952), from which the previous wisdom comes, reckons they might be tempted by a sardine eclair, or perhaps a cheese croquette shaped like a banana. My own money’s on her nattily named “Satan’s whiskers”: surely even the most experienced gastronome would be surprised to find a pickled onion lurking inside that devil on horseback.

Stanley-Welch is also a big fan of the classic stuff-on-sticks concept, as exemplified by her “Hollywood snack”, which impales cream cheese balls flavoured with “a suspicion of onion juice” cheek by jowl with a plum stuffed with foie gras, topped off with the pièce de résistance, a small onion. I reckon that, served with crisps, it’s a sure-fire festive favourite in the Jolie-Pitt household – and no doubt they, like Constance Spry, store spare cocktail sticks “in the heart of a handsome cabbage”. Nothing screams sophistication like a Savoy.

That old roué, the 1970s gastronome Robert Carrier, agrees that “unusual canapes can make your reputation as the best party-giver in town”, and he’s right – a caviar Swiss roll would certainly cause a stir in my neighbourhood, though perhaps not as great as Fanny Cradock’s profiterole swans filled with tinned pâté and sherry-flavoured cream, or Josceline Dimbleby’s stuffed tomatoes with creamed aubergines and – brace yourself – kiwi fruit.

In fact, the 1970s, Cradock’s swansong years, represented a golden age for party food in general. The British Library yields some absolute treasures, such as the Daily Mail Book of Party Time Cookery from 1976, with its tongue and mushroom cups and frankfurter and pineapple salad, and Elizabeth Price’s 1977 masterwork, Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetisers, which deserves a reprint as much for the garish photography as for the daring recipes.

Alongside her kippers vinaigrette and banana and olive skewers, the decade-defining vol-au-vent makes its inevitable appearance here, filled with crowd-pleasers such as creamed kidneys – but to make a real impression, I’d recommend the versions topped with cheese sauce and a soft-boiled egg and crowned with a ring of peas in aspic.

Indeed, aspic should feature heavily on any decent party buffet: prawns, poached eggs, peas, whole fish and fowl are all fair game for imprisonment in calf’s foot jelly, while Price’s redoubtable-looking anchovy and egg gelatine mousse comes with a garnish of vegetation the colour of tinned spinach, lovingly carved out of butter.

But then there’s no room for scruples about food dye when you’re impressing the guests with neon crème de menthe jellies, or apricots stuffed with pink anchovy-flavoured cheese. Even workaday ham cornets, thriftily filled with leftover vegetables, come accessorised with a seductive frill of tangerine-bright mayo.

Forget the artfully rustic, thrown together presentation of today’s modish cookbooks. Let your guests see you’ve made an effort – as Spry observes, such details “add to the gaiety and interest of the party”. And if that means piping your pâté into brown roses and serving your devilled eggs in a satanic claw made from orange peel, then so be it. Remember, the connoisseurs are coming and they’re mighty fussy.

 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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