Bringing it all together
One of the more colourful dinners we gave explored the social scene of the mid-1930s. In order to create a menu and a social atmosphere that made sense, I tried to imagine what kind of dinner would have been given by the people who lived at my address in 1936. Let's consider who those people were and how their world looked...
For a generation who had survived the horrors of the Great War, the 1919 influenza epidemic and the dark days of economic depression, life in the thirties meant hard work, responsibility and serious political effort, to ensure there was no repeat of those calamities. However, the generation too young to have fully understood those realities saw things very differently. For them, life was too short not to live a little. They had reached majority just as the economy was picking up; transatlantic shipping was fast and luxurious; advances in technology had made life much easier than it had been for their parents.
But it was all about to end and – deep down – they knew it.
|Guests were invited to wear bold, synthetic colours
Hitler had come to power in 1933 and was already flexing his muscles. Germany was re-arming and in March 1936 had re-occupied the Rhineland, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Voices in Westminster debated the best way to deal with this growing threat. In May, Italy annexed Ethiopia, and in July, the army rose against the elected government in Spain, triggering civil war.
I suspect that it was the looming threat of war that, partly at least, drove the giddy hedonism of the mid-thirties. If you were young and rich, perhaps you felt you might as well be prodigal with it: you could be dead very soon, like so many of the previous generation. Cocktails, Champagne, gambling, motor racing, sex and cocaine: they tried it all!
For our 1930s dinner, then, we started with a cocktail party, hosted by a friend. Geometric rows of colourful canapés were set out on a mirrored table: devilled eggs, barquettes of salmon mousse, soufléed cheese toasts, salami cones and prawn croustades. Two Champagne-based cocktails were offered. Although neither dates back to the 30s, they both fit the mood of frivolity and colour. A Dream cocktail is made with a mixture of Dubonnet, Cointreau and grapefuit juice, topped up with Champagne. A Saint Esprit mixes Grand Marnier and St Germain liqueurs before adding the Champagne.
Next was a lobster cocktail. On a trip to a discount store a few weeks earlier, we had found a set of starfish-shaped plates in opalescent glass. These made the perfect base on which to sit a Windsor martini glass, which we loaded with shredded lettuce, cress and lobster claw meat. The mayonnaise was enriched with a lobster essence that I had made from the shells: a basic bisque that was then reduced from a few litres to about 100ml. Finally, the tails were laid on top in alternating slices with black truffle. Several years later, this dish is still spoken of in glowing terms by those who were there. I'm very proud of it.
Our main course reflected the fact we live in a region with good hunting. A roast loin of venison was served with redcurrant gravy. The vegetables were layered and set into a terrine tricolore, and pommes marquise (mashed potato, piped into baskets and filled with finely chopped tomato flesh) brought yet more colour to the plates.
After cheeses and a bombe of pistacchio ice cream with maraschino mousse (served with more Champagne), we repared outside, where another cocktail bar had been laid out, decorated out with gaily-coloured paper lanterns and fairy lights. Here, we served strong, digestive cocktails: brandy Alexander and Mary Pickford. A brandy Alexander is made with cream, crème de cacao and Cognac. A Mary Pickford is a deceptively powerful mix of white rum, pineapple juice, grenadine cordial and marachino liqueur.
Next time: meat free, gluten free and delicious