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.