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 government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

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