Monday, 25 March 2013


In Scandinavia, there is the Smorgasbord. In France, Hors d'oeuvres. Not to mention canapés. Spain: Tapas. Japan: Sushi. Greece and Turkey: Mezze. Italy: Antipasti. China: Dim Sum. India: Chat. There is even the Cornucopia in the Arabian Nights.

A too little-known children's book from the nineteen thirties called Street Fair has some wonderful descriptions of food. Here is a description of hors d'oeuvres from a restaurant that was frequented by Marcel Proust:

"The waiter brought a lot of little dishes filled with delicious bits of food; there were small dark olives, quartered hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes, sardines, anchovies, sliced beets, quartered hearts of artichoke, tuna fish, radishes, rice with peppers -"

Even though one of the adults claims that this is "really too rich", we are told the waiter also "brought a plate of sausages with bright-coloured odours, three kinds of ham-"

But all the children are permitted are some radishes and tomatoes. "That was worse than not having any".

In England, we have the cold buffet. Much too severe an expression. "What a spread", people say brightly and politely, hoping there will be at least something there that's edible. Far too often, there is so-called quiche, wet and soggy, flabby chicken drumsticks and nasty little Scotch Eggs filled with a suspicious scrambled egg mixture.

I much prefer the term "cold collation" (or, better still, Granny's term, "cold collage"), particularly if it resembles Dr Watson's experience:

"It was after five o'clock when Sherlock Holmes left me, but I had no time to be lonely, for within an hour there arrived a confectioner's man with a very large flat box. This he unpacked with the help of a youth whom he had brought with him, and presently, to my very great astonishment, a quite epicurean little cold supper began to be laid out upon our humble lodging-house mahogany. There were a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pâté de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles. Having laid out all these luxuries, my two visitors vanished away, like the genii of the Arabian Nights, with no explanation save that the things had been paid for and were ordered to this address."

I wonder about the pâté de foie gras pie. The use of the word "pâté" rings alarm bells. If one is going to eat the stuff at all, it should be the genuine article: foie gras. No pâté about it. Would this, I wonder, have been simply foie gras en croute? I think I saw one of these in Selfridges's before they banned it. Finally, I note that the meat and wine is catered for but there is no mention of carbohydrates. Would the caterers have brought a salad or two with them? Potatoes dressed with olive oil and lemon juice? Some lettuce leaves?

Even without the vegetables, this sounds like a meal fit for a peer of the realm, as it is indeed intended. For understandable reasons, the peer walks out before the meal begins.

But unfortunately we did not walk out before a particularly unpleasant "cold buffet" we experienced several years ago. The party had been that most risky of events: those who were not hangers-on like us had been asked to bring their own contributions to the food. My father commented afterwards that the only thing he found that he could bear to eat on that table was his mother's pizza even though the pizza had had baked beans in it.

"Acres of disgustingness", shuddered my mother when we were a safe distance away. She then muttered something unflattering about the provinces. But her finest line, summing up her indignation at the evening wasted, was a reference to someone, admittedly shorter than average and admittedly tedious, who had monopolised her throughout the evening:

"And who was that monstrous dwarf?"

No comments:

Post a Comment