Aperitifs - a cook's guide

Let’s be honest here: what I’m after in this blog is to change the culture, so that the aperitif becomes part of our way of life. That means getting cooks to plan aperitifs as part of their dinners. So, I need to persuade you it’s worth it.

Image: G Mather
Here goes…
Imagine this: you’ve planned a lovely dinner; you’ve spent all Saturday preparing, chopping, cooking, laying out beautiful things and making room for them in the fridge. Your best ice-cream dessert has been in the freezer since Thursday. Your home is clean, welcoming and smelling of lemon-scented furniture polish. But when your guests arrive, you’re going to have to leave them to their own devices while you dash off into the kitchen to remove cling film, light the gas under the soup and lay out plates for the starter. You’ve offered them a drink to keep them occupied, and they, not sure what you might have in, have asked for “just a glass of white wine.” Now they’re drinking the only white you had chilled - the Pouilly Fuisé you’d carefully chosen for the starter. You’re going to have to serve whatever else you’ve got in with your starter now, and your careful planning is starting to unravel.

Planning a little aperitif before dinner will buy you an hour of relaxed conversation with your guests, so that your occasional absence in the kitchen, to heat soup or dress a salad, will go largely unnoticed. The posh white you were looking forward to sharing stays in the fridge for now, while you serve something delicious you bought that becomes a talking-point in itself, accompanied by a few nibbles

I’ve served any number of different aperitif foods and drinks in my time, some more work than others, and it’s become something my guests look forward to almost as much as the meal itself. If I’ve got time, it’s nice to put a little work into making something that looks as special as it tastes, with piped savoury creams and filleted lemon and a tiny sprig of dill. More often, though, I simply open a jar or two, slice up something from the fridge and lay them out neatly on pretty plates or mini chopping boards. Sushi plates are great for this sort of thing, but I’m not above digging out a 70s-syle glass hors d’œuvres dish if the food’ll look good in it.

Incidentally, I NEVER make my own pastry for aperitif tartelettes and such. Life’s far too short for that. I know of a couple of delis that sell things like mini vol-au-vent cases and different shapes of pastry case. They’re perfect for holding a blob of that pâté someone brought back from France in a jar. If all else fails, there’s little you could put in pastry that you can’t serve on a small square of toast.

Smoked canapés: I'm not averse to a touch of theatre!

Here’s a couple of clues as to what makes a good aperitif service:

  • Aperitif food needs to be flavoursome. Remember it’s going to be served with some strong-tasting drinks. Cured meats are good, as are smoked and soused fish, olives and salted nuts
  • Be wary of fatty foods: they can be quite filling. If you do serve something quite rich, make sure the other things are lighter, or be bold and just serve that one food, maybe with a piece of pickled veg to liven it up
  • Keep it small: if it takes more than two bites, it’s too big.
  • Don’t do too many different foods: three’s a good number, five if you have a lot of guests.
  • Take a tip from the great August Escoffier: try to give your guests about half an hour between the aperitif and the dinner. It gives the drink time to work its magic.

Finally, remember: you’re doing this for yourself. The aperitif is your time to relax and enjoy the company of your friends, before you get to work on serving dinner. Make the most of it.

Next time: the magnificent Martini


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