Country Life's inaugural 'Canapé of the Year' competition pitted some of Britain's finest bite-sized food against each other. Tom Parker Bowles reports after and arduous judging session – with photographs by Andrew Syndenham.
The competition – run in association with the Plain English campaign – saw dozens of different bite-sized morsels being weighed up and considered. The top three are listed below, along with six that we considered the best of the rest.
The criteria: Small enough to eat in one and sufficient salty to stimulate the thirst. Able to be eaten in one bite and should not drip fat or juice down one’s tie or blouse. The base should be able to withstand an hour’s loitering about on a tray, without turning soggy.
Flavourings should be firm, but not pushy. There’s no place for an excess of garlic. Imagination, beauty and originality are to be applauded. Emptily pretentious preening is not. As ever with food, flavour comes first, but, in the case of the canapé, form and function must act as one.
The judges: Mark Hedges (Country Life magazine’s editor), Sally Clarke (chef), Martyn Nail (chef), Claude Compton (restauranteur), Tony Niblock (of Plain English) and Tom Parker Bowles (food writer).
Winner: Rocket Food’s smoked trout royale
Elegantly formed, beautifully put together and lavished with edible flowers and gold leaf, it sashayed down the canapé tray as if dressed in Dior haute couture. The judges initially asked whether it was too simple – could a classic canapé, albeit with A-list looks, really walk away with the top prize? Of course, it could. The was a nearly-unanimous decision because the canapé ticked every single box.
Gently-smoked trout sat in a lactic yoghurt embrace. There was crunch from the radish, a whisper of dill and a wonderfully balanced acidity. Pickling liquor and kombu were also involved, very on trend and all that, but here they added much-needed bite and depth.
The taste was spot on – so much thought had gone into this pulchritudinous mouthful. No sogginess or unwanted dribble, just the perfect canapé and a worthy winner.
Runner-up: Blue Strawberry’s seared scallop, avocado and yuzu with shiitake ketchup
It may take longer to read the description than actually eat it, but this was a cracking canapé, no doubt about that. There was a zing and glorious acidity to the whole thing, a wonderful Japanese-inspired balance of texture, flavour and crunch. The scallop was spankingly fresh and there were no extraneous additions – every ingredient had a role to play.
Pickled black mooli turnip added acidic bite and fish roe (lumpfish and trout), bonito flakes and dried brown-crab powder added elegant piscine depth. We also loved the wonton sesame croute base. The recipe might be complicated, yet the end result tasted gloriously, life-affirmingly simple.
Third place: Quail London’s Pea purée
So pretty you almost felt guilty eating it. A wonderful contrast between jet-black cracker and verdant-green pea purée. The base was made from beetroot and charcoal (achingly trendy) and had a good deep flavour. Not overly smoky, too. Mascarpone, scented with porcini, added a creamy lactic allure and the pea-and-mint purée sang gently of long summer nights.
We liked the crunch that came from the sugar snaps, as well as the deep truffle growl, which came from fresh black truffles (hurrah!) rather than that filthy mountebank that is truffle oil. Overall, there was a bracing freshness to this canapé: light, lithe and lovely.
Best of the rest
Sugar & Spice’s Autumn hazelnut
Beautifully presented, this contained the essence of British autumn. However, it was difficult to pick up and there was so much going on that we almost lost the delicate flavour of the woodpigeon.
TopHat’s Smoked chestnut
This reminded us of bonfires, in a good way. There was smoke, but not too much of it, and the leek ash really worked well. Lots of nuts, too, and a good Brick pastry case. www.tophatcatering.co.uk
The Admirable Crichton’s Angus beef and shallot marmalade
We loved the marmalade, the soft blini and the quality of the beef. Simple, yet satisfying.
Create’s Lobster mousseline
A hell of a lot of work went into this and it looked wonderful. However, there was lots going on and we lost the taste of the lobster.
The Admirable Crichton’s Crisp belly pork
You could taste the quality of the pork and we liked the squid-ink prawn cracker.
The Admirable Crichton’s goat’s cheese tomatoes
Lots of work goes into creating these ‘tomatoes’, so they look striking. However, they’re a touch bland, the jelly coating is too thick and, please, no more edible soil.