As our social lives and gatherings are gradually re-established, food writer and author Debora Robertson muses on how relaxed hosting is the most convivial.
When I think of the happiest moments in my life, it's not the Big Ticket events, the grand parties or holidays. I'm happiest tying on an apron on Sunday morning, anticipating a roast leg of lamb and a table full of loud conversation by lunchtime, or opening the front door on a Friday night and letting a gang of friends tumble into the hall, a mess of laughter and tissue-wrapped bottles of second-best wines from the corner off-license.
With planning parties the thinking, imagining and unfurling are the purest of pleasures, but host, know thy self. It might sound relaxing to delegate- and in these free wheeling, sneakers-or-stilettos, anything-goes times, it most certainly is if you're a laid back type. But I'm a control freak, so the thought of relying on anyone else to make a pudding brings me out in hives. It's easier for me to hold everything by a short rein and make a million lists. This way. I can enjoy my own party because I've done all of the worrying beforehand.
I do set the table in plenty of time, because if it looks beautiful, people are far more forgiving about what goes on it. It doesn't take much to elevate if from the ordinary: a scattering of candles and some flowers or greenery cut from the garden in small glasses spread along the table are as pleasing as more elaborate arrangements and set a relaxed tone, which is truly what we all want.
I'm very guilty of repeatedly inviting my best beloveds, but I do try and include a few new people each time - it makes everyone perk up. However, relaxed your gathering it's still important to introduce people properly and make it cleat what you expect from your guests. If you're serving and want people to start as they get their food, do tell them; if you want them to help themselves to side dishes, make that clear too. And if you're the guest, start, help yourself, for goodness' sake. With new people or shy people, I like to give them a job such a serving drinks or handing round snacks. It breaks the ice in the gentlest possible way.
My idea of hell is a dinner where every component is a recipe, comprising elaborate method and ingredients, which means the host is weeping into the split sauce while everyone pretends everything is fine as they cling onto their gin and tonics rather too hard. Dinner as gladiatorial combat, inspired by competitive cooking shows, has ruined us for a simple roast chicken and salad followed by bought ice cream. But all sane people- that is, the kind of people you want around your table - prefer the latter to the former. Keep it simple. Some charcuteries and olives, a main course you can prepare in advance, something bought for pudding, everyone's happy, nobody's crying.