Cooking is an essential life skill, although arguably less essential than of old, but it is actually far more than that. If you enjoy cooking, you are unlikely to lack people willing to enjoy eating what you have made; breaking bread with others gave us the word companion. That’s something worth pointing out to any young people about to start university! Some people seem to have a more natural gift for hospitality than others and despite the numerous cookery books I own that include the word “entertaining” in the title, they see to focus solely on suggestions for what to cook. Can you learn to be a good host? I know I often fail to live up to my own expectations but that doesn’t stop me trying again and I conclude that despite the anxiety and effort, overall, I do enjoy entertaining.
The Greeks are famous for their hospitality, their word for it (Philo)xenia is deeply embedded in their culture. Our philosophy was summed up by Edward Augustus Freeman when writing The History of The Norman Conquest in 1868, he observed that “an Englishman’s home is his castle”, meaning that within it we felt we could do whatever we wished and not be dictated to by others. Further, we could bring up the drawbridge to exclude others. Whilst there are regional differences in our propensity to provide hospitality, it doesn’t seem to come as naturally to us as it does to the Greeks.
There is an element of obligation in it. The Bible makes many references to our duty to provide hospitality, particularly to strangers. St Peter’s exhortation that we should “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” can be something of a challenge. That we are fortunate to have the space within our home and garden to entertain adds to the sense of duty, yet I remind myself that when I had my first home, with only a two-ring camping gas stove to cook on, I still made Chili con Carne for friends, which we ate sitting on the steps of the staircase. One of those friends asked me to make it again when she stayed with me recently because she always associates it with me!
My most hospitable friend sees it as something she was brought up to do. Once a week her parents would invite one of their foreign business visitors to join them for the evening meal. Some were easier than others, for example, they knew they were in for a tough evening when their Swiss guest replied that he wanted nothing to drink as he wasn’t thirsty! It is indeed much easier to be a good host if one’s guest understands their duties too.
We should remember that “hospitality venues” were few and far between until around a quarter of a century ago. Pubs were for men to drink in. I would credit Berni Inns with bringing dining out to the masses in the 1970s. Yes, hotels did serve food, but it was common to invite foreign businessmen to eat in your home, my father frequently did so when working in Germany. My parents had a circle of friends who took it in turns to host one another for dinner parties – a term now associated with the film Abigail’s Party, long dresses, dinner jackets and bow ties. Not all entertaining was formal, after an evening playing badminton my parents and their friends would retire to one of the houses for a supper of cheese and biscuits. This circle of friends has endured although they are now all well into their eighties, and the food is often bought from the local Cook shop, but entertaining at home is still the norm. Although I did not play an active part in this hosting, I suppose that I too was brought up to it. Certainly, eating out was still only for special occasions in the 1980s when I had my first home.
Some years later, I used to hold cookery courses for small groups (5 plus myself), alternating the home so that all the participants could take a turn in hosting. Some were experienced hosts, but others almost never cooked for anyone other than close family. The reasons behind this had less to do with any inbuilt unfriendliness and much more to do with a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence in their own cooking skills might have been behind signing up for course, but there was often also a notable lack of confidence in the adequacy of their homes for entertaining others. I called one of my courses Relaxed Entertaining because this seemed the crux of the problem- many people wanted to invite friends for a meal, but the perceived expectations were too intimidating. The man I credit with breaking down many preconceptions about cooking and entertaining was Jamie Oliver. Not everyone warmed to his style, but he certainly demonstrated a relaxed approach, with a penchant for meals cooked in a single tray “just chuck it all in”. A crowd of friends then arrived to eat, without any fussing over setting the table etc.
I have chosen to write about this now, whilst we are in the midst of “Barbeque Season”, because it is the one form of entertaining that seems to be growing in popularity rather than declining. Perhaps this reflects the fact that fewer homes now have a dining table, perhaps it is also because the very essence of barbeques is that they should be informal occasions. What follows are my tips to help ensure the hosts are as relaxed as the guests. They were written with barbequing in mind, but not everyone has a garden and there are many other ways of hosting. I shall soon be doing my stint at a church open day which, depending on the weather, may see no one or a whole party of walkers. Whenever I do this, I keep in mind a walk to Culbone Church on Exmoor on a rather hot day. We were greeted with a glass of ice-cold water, which had never felt so welcome! So, whatever the occasion, try to put yourself in your guests’ shoes; take a deep breath and plunge right in!
Tips for enjoying your own barbeque
- My number one rule when catering for large numbers (which tends to be the case with barbeques) is not to offer a great array at one time but to structure the menu into distinct courses. Otherwise, guests seem to expect a constant supply of food and keep grazing much as they would keep returning to a buffet. This may be linked to the British meal structure (discussed in my last post), which essentially rather than following a natural progression of courses, has the tendency to put everything on one plate. Buffets and barbeques are prime places to witness this frankly disgusting tendency.
- If people are arriving (or leaving) at different times and may therefore miss some courses that’s fine! The cook does not need to keep revisiting previous courses. Not all of the courses will involve the barbecue. You’ll want something preprepared to nibble with drinks to begin with. Dips are my go-to for this course. Remove them before starting the next course, which might be considered the starter. If coming from the barbecue, kebabs or fish might fit the bill here. Don’t worry whether everyone will be able to eat every course, in the same way that people might dip in or out of the meal at different times, so people can also miss a course along the way. If you don’t feel comfortable about this, let me remind you of the general rule of thumb regarding offering choice. If you have, say, 30 guests but want to offer options, how many of each option will you need? It will have to total way in excess of the 30 guests present because not only will you not want to disappoint anyone if their first choice has run out but there will also be those who want to taste everything. To offer two options to 30 guests you will need at least 45 portions.
- Allocate Roles – a man will probably have placed himself in sole charge of the barbeque, but think about who is doing other jobs, such as ensuring drinks are topped up and clearing empties. Liaise over timings of different elements.
- Ask for help – when people ask: “can I bring/do anything?” have some tasks to delegate. Things that need to be prepared last minute, like fresh salads, can be time consuming on the day, so ask people to bring one, especially anything that can be considered one of their specialties.
- Rehearse – when you are hosting is not the time to try new recipes. Make things that are tried and tested.
- Use your oven – apart from the fact that an entirely barbequed meal can be monotonous, you will relieve the pressure on the barbeque if some things are cooked, or pre-cooked, in your indoor oven. I am fortunate to also have a wood-fired oven outdoors, which is ideal for slow cooked meats, such as a shoulder of pork. I always cook them for the first hour in a conventional oven then transfer them to the wood-fired oven where it will continue cooking for several hours. A large cold joint of meat would consume all of the wood-fired oven heat just to get hot. The wood fired oven is also great for baking stuffed vegetables or fruit.
- Have plenty of bread. I make focaccias for a barbeque but buy some other interesting bread too. This year, we found good authentic pittas from a middle eastern bakery, and these took just moments to toast on the barbeque. Ideal for people to fill or sliced to serve with dips. Letting people fill themselves up on bread reduces the amount you will have to cook!
- Non-alcoholic drinks are not just for children but becoming more popular with adults. Try to have one large jug of something homemade on offer. Below is my recipe for homemade lemonade using Lemon Verbena leaves which give a delicious sherbet flavour. Most of work is done in advance so this is quick to replenish during the day.
For the Lemon Syrup (makes 3x375ml bottles)
Pared rind of 2 large unwaxed lemons (preferably Sicilian)
40 Lemon Verbena Leaves, chopped
750g granulated sugar
Dissolve the sugar in the water, stirring as you heat. When all of the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat and bring up to boiling point. Add the lemon rind and verbena leaves, cover, and leave to infuse for several hours.
Strain to remove the flavourings. Bring the strained syrup up to boiling point and pour into hot, sterilized bottles. The syrup can be kept in the fridge for 4 months.
To make the lemonade
To one bottle of lemon syrup add the juice of 3 lemons (I squeeze juice in advance) and top up with 750 ml of sparkling water.
Add lemon slices and verbena leaves to the jug.
To make “Hard lemonade”
If you want an alcoholic cocktail, you should add half a measure of lemon syrup to one measure of vodka and the juice of half a lemon. Top up with sparkling water or prosecco.