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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.