William Sitwell, a self-declared fusspot and connoisseur of drinks-party food, reports on the results of Country Life’s 2018 Canapé of the Year award with Plain English and Champagne Gosset.
It is the season to be festive. Christmas Day lurks just over the horizon and, along the path to the great day, amid the shopping and yuletide decorating, are the gatherings. Seasoned party- givers are staffing up, the booze has been ordered (the sensible ones opting for simplicity – there’s a time and a place for Champagne and it’s now) and then there’s the issue of the nibbles.
As a professional fusspot, I can tell you that I’ve seen some canapés in my time and it’s not always been pretty.
Without question, the most disgusting was inadvertently eaten at an open-air drinks party in Chelsea. As mushroom vol-au-vents were passed around to guests assembled in a courtyard, I witnessed a pigeon drop its load onto the lapel of a guest. Thinking a tray-laden waitress had brushed too closely past him he wiped the mess off his jacket with a finger and popped it into his mouth.
However, when they’re good, I can be seen shamelessly lurking by the kitchen entrance. I will cut a swathe through grannies and toddlers to get my fingers on a good sausage to go with my fizz.
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‘The assembled throng would rather help Great Aunt Edna find her teeth than watch me splutter my way through explaining the canapé one-bite rule.’
Similarly, I will find it hard to shed the gruesome memory of trying to elucidate my views on some vital topic while grappling with a mini fillet of beef on Yorkshire pudding.
As the chewy beef stuck in my teeth, horseradish dripping to the floor, I will have repulsed the assembled throng, who would now rather help Great Aunt Edna find her teeth on the tent floor than watch me splutter my way through explaining the canapé one-bite rule.
‘Canapés are there to fuel a party and ease conversation, not get in the way of it.’
Thus, I have put deep thought into the subject of the canapé. My face was among the most serious as we sat around a table at the Plain English London showroom recently and munched our way through the array of nibbles competing for the Country Life Canapé of the Year crown.
Now to some rules. It doesn’t matter how ingenious the idea, how seasonal the ingredients, how sustainable, tasty or on-trend the recipe. The canapé must serve the guest rather than the ambitions of the chef.
Canapés are not eaten in silence or solace. They are there to fuel a party and to ease conversation, not get in the way of it. They should either be eaten and swallowed in one, or bitten once and consumed – bowl food is not a canapé and should not be considered as such. Even the most dexterous percussionist can’t hold a glass of Champagne in one hand, a bowl in another and then a spoon. If you wish to serve risotto, do it on a small china spoon for that one-mouthful moment.
‘If even the baby coriander leaf flutters to the ground, you have failed.’
Another tip: don’t stack your canapé too high. Imagine that all your guests are shaky oldies on a ship on the high seas. If even the baby coriander leaf (on the Parmesan crisp, on the duck breast, on the watermelon, on the black-rice crisp) flutters to the ground, you have failed.
Next, if you, or the cook, have made an elaborate concoction with some 15 ingredients, please do not trouble the waiting staff by making them explain it to everyone. This is a growing trend at smart drinks parties; the staff bearing the little treats are forced to interrupt your chat as they introduce the next morsel.
Having to pause to hear that the hand-dived scallops pan-fried in lobster-jus, with garlic and chilli, are sitting on a coconut tuile and decorated with ethically sourced caviar is very tiresome.
‘You can wave it about as you make remarks and the number of bites is immaterial. ‘
Simplicity is best. Which is why I’ve always thought that the well-made cheese straw is actually one of the finest canapés, even if they do break the one-bite rule – rules are meant to be broken after all. A well-seasoned, not too flaky straw, made with plenty of Parmesan, goes very well with Champagne. You can wave it about as you make remarks and the number of bites is immaterial.
On the subject of cheese, in the last issue of the magazine I was editing (before a skirmish with some vegans gave me more time to reflect on issues such as canapés), I heralded the idea that a cheese toastie should be considered a canapé. Small enough for two bites, with some flecks of chilli for added piquancy, it’s simple to make and an incredible crowd-pleaser. And, of course, it matches every kind of drink, from Kestrel to Krug.
‘If you’re doing it yourself, my advice is to stick to cheese straws and spend your money on a decent fizz.’
With all this in mind, we tasted the canapés on competition day at Plain English. The winning bite was a majestic invention, the skill and ingredients of which do not labour the guest. Rocket’s The Tuna Sea Garden was as pretty and inventive as it was tasty. Light, exotically seasoned and mesmerisingly tasty, it’s not for the home cook.
The runner-up, a chicken, truffle and chervil concoction, by Caper & Berry, brought the finest flavours of autumn to the palate in one masterful bite.
The winners are crafted by seasoned party planners and great chefs. If you’re doing it yourself, my advice is to stick to cheese straws and spend your money on a decent fizz. Whatever you do, please don’t serve devils on horseback.
What goes with what: The Sitwell Guide to harmonious pairings
Champagne with cheese straws
White wine with mini Thai-chicken skewers
Red wine with chicken-liver pâté on crostini
Lager with roasted cocktail sausages
Cider with scallops and sweet chilli
Negronis with tiny slivers of Ibérico ham
A virgin Mary with mini onion bhajis and chutney
Sparkling elderflower with mozzarella sticks
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