Category Archives: parties

The doghouse – party food – 2

The standard regular get-together was, of course, the drinks party, which happened regularly.  A number of my parents’ friends never held dinner parties, though they might invite us round for Sunday lunch, but of course hospitality was returned in one way or another.  We all belonged to the Yacht Club in Lowestoft so often met there – I seem to be including me in this, but of course it depends on what was happening and how old I was at the time.  As we got older, Wink and I certainly joined our parents at Sunday drinks dos, and when they invited people round we’d have helped out, offering plates of food and so on.

Canapés would have been quite simple in the early days, eg caviare on Ritz crackers, bits of smoked salmon on brown bread, morsels of cheese and so on, and there would have been olives, nuts, crisps, all the usual.  It was fine just to have the latter, there was no need to do more as it was a pre-lunch or dinner affair and only lasted an hour or so.  Interestingly – well, to me anyway – although neither of my parents smoked, they always provided dishes of cigarettes for their guests back in the early ’60s.  That’s a real mark of changing times.  I don’t know when that stopped, but ashtrays were still put around for years.  Now of course, few people would smoke inside their hosts’ house but go outside for a smoking break, even if invited to stay.

The other thing that strikes me is how much people drank in those days – although I suspect that alcohol wasn’t a part of everyone’s everyday life and just kept for the weekends.  As I said in an earlier post, wine was always on the table at dinner time in our house, but that wasn’t the norm with everyone.   But at drinks parties it wasn’t just wine on offer but a full range of spirits and mixers.  As a child, I remember drinking Bitter Lemon at our friends, Frank and Jean Barnitt’s house, which I liked very much as we never had it at home and it seemed sophisticated.  Once I was in my teens I was given sherry and I seem to remember knocking back a fair bit – easily a couple of glasses, enough to make me feel warm and woozy.  From my teens, I was allowed wine at home too, but I rarely drank it as it was a bit dry for me, it took some time to build up the palate for it.

But at dinner parties, everyone would start with pre-dinner drinks, at least two, sherry, gin, whisky, Martini or beer, then go on to wine with the meal – a different wine for each course, that is, though I don’t think we ever served a dessert wine with the pudding, then port with the cheese, and/or brandy and liqueurs.  Wine was less alcoholic then and glasses were quite small, but even so.  I don’t remember anyone ever appearing the worse for wear and everyone cheerily drove home afterwards, but they all must have had what was known as a “skinful.’

An abiding memory for me, and one that I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is a Sunday morning drinks party when my parents served champagne.  One of the guests had Parkinson’s Disease.  She was the mother of a friend, whose husband later became our family doctor (it was he who delivered Al) and lived with them.  She was probably in her early sixties then, and already quite shaky and incapable of holding a glass steadily.  She was always happy, chatty and laughing however, with an indomitable spirit.  I have an abiding memory, half a century on, of her sitting on the settee, one person holding the champagne glass, another holding the straw to her lips, another keeping her head steady as she sipped, and of her laughing at the ridiculousness of it, so much that she could hardly drink.  As an example of sheer gumption and determination to retain a love of life, whatever adversity hit you, it made a huge impression on me.

The doghouse – party food – 1

I can’t really remember much about the food served at dinner parties.  I should think the main course was fairly classic in the French style, boeuf bourguinonne, boeuf stroganoff, chicken Marengo, that sort of thing.  I remember koulibiac, if that’s how it’s spelt, which was a sort of fish and rice pie encased in pastry, I think. The focus was usually on the main course – I’d have to look up recipes because I still have all her books and could look for the stained pages – the rest was usually fairly quick and easy, often cold and prepared in advance – the first course might have been avocado – avocado vinaigrette was quite avant garde in Oulton Broad in the early sixties.  Otherwise, pâté (home made), smoked salmon, a fairly sophisticated soup, oeufs en cocotte, scallops – that sort of thing.

Mummy had little interest in sweet courses, but lemon syllabub was a staple (and still is with me, can’t go wrong, totally delicious) and I remember her recipe: juice of a lemon and half the grated rind, a sherry glass of sherry, 4 oz sugar, 1/2 pint cream.  Although actually I adapt it now because the modern taste is for more alcohol and less sugar.  So I put in 3 oz sugar (about 80 grams, darlings), all the rind of the lemon and, as well as the sherry, a slug of brandy.  Otherwise, she had no compunction about serving bought ice cream.  Cherries jubilee was a tin of black cherries heated in a chafing dish, then kirsch heated, set fire to and added so that they were brought to the table ablaze, then served with vanilla ice cream.

When I was in my teens, I liked baking so it was quite likely that I’d make a gâteau for a pudding.  I remember a very good lemon one, where several layers of sponge were sandwiched together with a lemon icing.  You did some very thin slices of lemon and simmered them until soft and then added sugar and reduced and poured the liquid over the sponge, then topped it with the lemon slices to decorate.  I also made chocolate cakes and mousses – oh, my mother did a very good raspberry mousse – and we did poached peaches or pears.  Nothing elaborate, ever.  For my father’s birthday and at Christmas she made a trifle, which never contained fruit or jelly, it was sponge cake with jam and sherry, then custard and cream, decorated with glacé cherries, almonds and angelica.  I haven’t seen candied angelica for years.  The almonds were whole in their skins, you poured boiling water over them, let them cool a bit then slipped off the skins.

I remember the party food rather better.  She did big cold buffets, lots of salads – green and tomato salads of course, also classic Caesar, Waldorf, coleslaw (always made with vinaigrette, not mayonnaise) and so on, and her elaborate party pieces were a big hand-raised pork pie and a French raised pie.  These both were made with hot water pastry and I never learned how to make them myself.  Because they were quite complicated she did the whole thing.  The meat was cooked first, then the hot water crust was made and constructed.  I don’t think she used a mould to shape the pork pie, she certainly did the French raised pie.  The latter was oval with incurved sides, pointed at both ends, she had to roll and fit the pastry while it was still warm and malleable, then fill it with the various meats and top it with another rolled-out batch of pastry, then pierce holes, cook it and fill it again (this was the case with a pork pie and probably the French raised pie too) with liquor which would set to a jelly.  I think she used a calf’s foot for that, can’t quite remember.  They both did look spectacular and taste delicious.  I still have her pie mould but I’ve never used it.

For a big party she might cook a whole ham and a salmon.  Decorating the salmon was several hours’ worth in itself.  I remember my engagement party, when she peeled cucumber, sliced it so thin you could see through it, quartered each slice and carefully laid them as if they were scales.  It was so pretty.  Very simple food, elegantly served.  Mayo was home-made of course, it was always the quality of ingredients that mattered, also its presentation.  She made salmagundi, which was a big mixed salad containing cold meat and cheese, all arranged in concentric circles on a huge dish.

She also decorated the house very beautifully.  I have somewhere a photo of Wink standing in front of the buffet table at her 21st birthday party.  It was decorated with garlands of flowers.  For one party, she made big flowers out of crêpe paper and stuck one on every door.  This was a great success and was repeated with different flowers according to the time of the year – I remember anemones and daffodils.  She never counted the time it took, whereas I’ll drop a job if I run out of time (and always schedule at least one thing that I’d like to do but can be omitted if necessary), she just stayed up all night to complete it.  We helped a lot, my sister and me, but we flagged long before she did.  Mind you, after the event she might well collapse with a three-day migraine, I don’t think a more balanced view is a bad thing.

I’ve just remembered one spectacularly successful party, at a time in the late ’60s when food was getting more and more sophisticated and she decided to turn it on its head and made several big steak and kidney puddings instead.  Everyone was thrilled at the traditional, delicious food, especially the men.

I’m remembering more about parties and celebrations.  I’m going to have to come back to this.