I’ve been liberated. Ever since we moved into our first home in an excruciatingly competitive Yorkshire village, I’ve been twitchy about cooking for other people. Villagers would ask us over for ‘kitchen sups’ and we would find ourselves eating roast grouse with men in dinner jackets. The next invitation would involve roast peacock and, the next, dodo with jus of a great auk.
The idea of having a good time had vanished. As Julian Barnes says in The Pedant in the Kitchen, what most home cooks need is a huge sign above the kitchen sink that reads ‘This Is Not a Restaurant’.
The difficult bit is getting everything ready at once. For me, the logistics are like invading the Falklands. Without guests, it doesn’t matter if the potatoes need an extra five minutes or the lamb isn’t quite the colour it should be.You don’t need to offer a ‘choice of puds’ (another hated phrase). You don’t need a pud at all.
Everyone says the dinner party is dead. They’re right, and the proof is in the fact that Georgian mahogany dining tables used to fetch £10,000 at auction; today, they sell for a few hundred. As for sideboards, like the dodo, they are defunct. But I have won my freedom and it is called, variously, tapas, mezze or antipasto. I’ve always been an ingredient-orientated cook. I suppose that’s because it’s a form of shopping. Tapas relies on ingredients rather than mind-bendingly complicated sauces à la Française. Indeed, I think the French have lost their self-awarded eminence in the cooking stakes, even if Michelin can’t quite bring itself to agree.
In Britain, at any rate, food fashions bounce faster than spring lambs. The tapas feeding-frenzy dates from about 2000, so it’s taken me 13 years to get there and, since then, we’ve taken in Mexican, Peruvian, Vietnamese and, currently, Korean foods, with Brazil as a sideline thanks to that boring World Cup.
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I recently made my new tapasstyle meal for two very critical, professional cooks, without more than a tiny twitch. Smoked prawns, smoked salmon and taramasalata, all from a local smokery here in Suffolk (‘local ingredients’ must feature on any menu). I made the tarama and mayo in advance, produced a salad of tiny tomatoes and cherries, along with a plate of olives and another of quail’s eggs. As a result, we could chat and walk around the garden (they open theirs every day-they would) without me panicking about the state of the meal.
It came through with flying colours, rather than at half-mast. I’m now copying this approach for other friends, only deviating when guests are too conventional to cope. Then, we go for a roast with an unprecedented lack of three or four different vegetables. Yes, old-fashioned restaurants still provide those odious little halfmoon side dishes piled with mangetouts, broccoli, baby sweetcorn and carrots, but remember, ‘This Is Not a Restaurant’. Of course, it’s easier in the summer. First, the smoked fish, then bowls of various berries, all in season, along with meringues (I buy them ready-made), clotted cream and Italian almond biscuits.
In winter, you can go for a choice of pâtés-chicken liver, pork with pistachios-served with olives, gherkins and toast popped up at the table. Add a shot-glass of Oriental broth spiced with chilli and finish with a nice breadand- butter pud with dribbled hot chocolate or fruit sauce, plus a bowl for extra sultanas.
Then, of course, a cheese course-nothing could be easier, especially as Britain now appears to have almost as many cheeses as France. Add to this Swedish crispbreads and that delicious Spanish quince paste-all of it bought-in. No Port. It’s curious. From the Middle Ages until about the early 19th century, food was served à la Française. That is, all dishes bunged together on the table.
Then, à la Russe, where food was served in a sequence of courses, took over. Now, 200 years on, we’re going back to bunging everything on the table at once-only, this time, it’s not oysters, turbot and quail, but a nice antipasto. Cheers all round!
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* This article was first published in Country Life on July 2 2014