Remember, you are not merely, for these few hours, membership-secretary of your own club. You are an opera director, a chieftain gathering your clan around your fire. Dinner parties stretch back into race-memory; your guests need to feel privileged, safe and at ease. Eschew the quotidian, therefore, and don’t skimp.
When? Saturdays suit. Although the smartest dinner parties, as do weddings and shoots, occur midweek, Saturdays have an inbuilt recovery period, and we all have to work. Whom? All walks, please. Guests from the same professional drawer will talk shop, and it is refreshing to meet those outside one’s realm of experience. (Beware, however, ‘Can I bring someone?’. We were once nursing a friend through a vicious divorce. Our dinner-guests brought along an unnamed companion for whom they were doing the same. Same divorce.)
Where? Oh, the dining room, for pity’s sake. Enough of eating in kitchens. If your dining room has gone, do as the Georgians did. Set up a table in the library, the drawing room or the hall. Whatever we may be told by life-stylists, being forced to watch some ersatz Nigella at work is attention seeking on her part, and makes everyone else feel inadequate and restless. You cannot enjoy a meal when being blasted with steam, or subjected to brutal lighting changes. Dining rooms, with their beautiful ritual vessels and dedicated furniture, impart sacerdotal magic; saucepans are simply dispiriting.
Back in the kitchen, however, do employ a skivvy. The hourly rate’s no more than a bottle of wine, and it’s worth every penny to return to a tidied drawing room and an immaculate draining board. If your guests have teenagers, why not employ them? They’ll love the chance of deriding their elders and worsers.
Flowers? Very high, or very low, so that people can talk across the table. No sickening smellies, and a Caravaggio-esque strewing of fruits and greenery encourages a sense of abandon. Candles are essential: they flatter jewellery, crystal and, crucially, complexions. Dress? Up. It’s an occasion: guests will want to allure. Black tie is a tiny bit golf club, but, in a tie-less dinner jacket, the very tweediest are rendered palatable.
Do have a placement, even for a buffet. No one should for an instant feel that they might not be welcome. Gender-alternate seating is as passé as a Middle East dictator. Predict where the liveliest conversations will happen, put those guests together, and voila! Husbands next to wives is, frankly, common; it leaves no notes to compare in the car, and flirtation is essential to the mood as freshly ground pepper.
As an aperitif, you’ll need a kick start. Cham-pagne is extortionate and halitoxic, so bring back the delicious, but unfashionable (and under-priced), sherries and hocks. I’m a fan of canapés as a first course. Not so substantial as to ruin the appetite, but if it’s a summer evening, or if there are late arrivals, canapés buy time. Guests will be trapped next to their neighbours at dinner for long enough, and that ‘gentlemen move two places’ thing is so Abigail’s Party.
Now, the meal itself. Follow the admirable fad and have food locally sourced. Very locally indeed. Depending on your acreage, serve your own game, newly dug potatoes or window-box tarragon. Personalisation fuels that sense of privilege. My wife, having flukily caught a salmon
at her first cast, bought a freezer-full on her way home. ‘Her’ salmon appeared at the next dozen dinner parties, until her address-book was quite exhausted.
Now that we can all cook, why spoil the ship? Serve a splendid wine. These days, nobody drinks very much, so it won’t bankrupt you. Double-decant the claret that morning, and one bottle of Sauternes (in pleasingly exquisite, even more pleasingly tiny, glasses) will go a long way. If kind people bring a bottle, murmur flatteringly that it’s far too good to drink tonight, and put it firmly away.
Unless you have a butler, plate up in the kitchen and slam it down quickly, before the gravy congeals. Maintain a ruthlessly Darwinian line on food intolerances. And, at the other end of the meal, don’t force guests to heave wrist-spraining plates of Stilton around the table-cheese served at a sideboard affords gents a stab at old-fashioned gallantry. After all, sometimes old manners are the best: proper napkins-one cannot with any dignity spread tissue across one’s lap-follow the hostess’s cue when conversing to right and left, and pass the Port. It’s as rigid as the Book of Common Prayer, which is why we love it. Go through afterwards, but not according to gender; non-smokers to the drawing room, smokers remain.
Beware, too, of party games. Guests will want to tie up loose ends, and anything other than cards, or Freda, might appear control-freaky. The exception is music. If no one plays the piano to Gershwin standards, have two duettists take a hand each. Or might I recommend a cabaret?
Kit Hesketh-Harvey, cabaret artist, is a perfect dinner-party guest
Images © Annie Tempest at The O’Shea Gallery, London www.tottering.com