Yes, it’s time to come dine with us again

Date:16-04-2014 07:58:05 read:0

Yes, it’s time to come dine with us again

The formal dinner party is back in fashion as Come Dine with Me and the parade of celebrity chefs on our televisions fuel our drive to impress

Mind your manners: the boss comes to dinner in 'Mad Men’ – but eating several courses is actually a Russian convention  Photo: Rex Features

Polish up your silverware, dust off the best china, dredge out the white linen from the back of the airing cupboard and prepare to pass the port. The dinner party - thanks to an unholy alliance of Downton Abbey, Come Dine with Me and the endless parade of celebrity chefs on our televisions – is making a remarkable comeback as Britain re-embraces one of the most gruelling social trends of the past century.

Yes, the wheel of home entertainment has come full circle for those of us who were children in the Sixties and Seventies, and who watched – from behind the bannisters – as the Boss came to dinner with his wife, dressed in full-length orange polyester, while mothers heatedly stuffed Hostess Trolleys with Chicken à la King and mounds of watery veg, and fathers carefully uncorked a nice bottle of Piat D’Or.

We swore off such torturous social engagements, replacing them with eating out, takeaways, TV dinners, safari suppers and barbecues. At most we’d throw upwardly mobile kitchen suppers, which casually inferred that although one could lay on a full scale HM-the-Queen-meets-Martin-McGuinness-white-tie-and-tails-style banquet, we were simply too cool for such faff. The menu – of which I may have been guilty – was always fish pie followed by a shop-bought fresh fruit tart and some odiferous cheese. That is unless the hostess simply decanted a Waitrose lasagne and bunged a lot of fresh parmesan on top to pass it off as her own (not guilty).

But no more, a survey by Maille has found. One in four Britons are sharpening up their home-cooking skills like a sashimi knife, determined to impress their guests with Scandi-style placements, lush red wine from Lebanon, and a whole menu of conversation topics which now include politics and religion – and may be sent out in advance.

Most of all, they have been studying gastronomic gimmicks which had seemed like alchemy, until we saw them being practised by spotty Kevin from IT on MasterChef.

Yes, once it turned out that making a foam or a jus, creating a confit or searing tuna quadrillage was 50 per cent concentration, 40 per cent following a video blog, and 10 per cent sheer luck, it was inevitable that we’d all want to have a go.

And as one’s own loving family rarely provides the appreciative audience demanded of a Lapsang Souchong-infused saddle of venison with root vegetables and smoked pancetta sauce, it has been a very natural and inevitable progression from those Friday night kitchen sessions with mismatched plates to inviting a Viognier-tamed fanbase over for plaudits and Instagrams while seated around polished oak in posh frocks and smoking jackets.

Of course, the torturous parade through four or five courses is not, it turns out, all that British.

Indeed our Tudor, Hanoverian and many of our Victorian ancestors would have been surprised at these modern, effete meals. They preferred the hearty buffet-style approach – joints and jellies piled on to the table at once so that it (and you) could pleasingly groan – also known as service à la française.

The change in our dining styles was due to a Russian diplomat, Prince Alexander Borisovich Kurakin, who was ambassador to France in 1808. There he gradually introduced the Parisians to service à la russe, where dishes were brought out separately from the kitchen, to ensure each was served at the optimum temperature.

Mrs Beeton records how Russian-style dining migrated to England in the late Victorian era – and it’s fair to say we’ve never looked back, here or anywhere else in the world.

At least eating Tsar-style means our hot Goosnargh duck with honey, lavender, fennel, blood orange, radish and scorched cos lettuce will never get the cold shoulder from guests.


“My truly memorable disaster was in the 1970s when my fridge broke down, so the lettuce leaves went limp and the ice cream turned to liquid. I lived in a village where the shops closed by 5pm so we had prawn cocktail without the lettuce, warm fruit juice and apple pie without the ice cream. But nobody seemed to find it odd. We were all so much more relaxed then. If you burned the potatoes one of the guests would nip to the chip shop!”

Ann Widdecombe

“I remember, on one terrible occasion, having to eat dinner twice. We’d eaten a good supper at home when the phone rang and the voice said: “Are you on your way?” We suddenly remembered we were supposed to be having dinner with friends.

“We didn’t dare confess the truth, so raced to their house to be confronted by a mountain of haute cuisine. Somehow the guilt made us feel we had to ask for second helpings of every course.”

Gyles Brandreth

“There’s no hell like organising a dinner party, so I outsource it. My last formal dinner party was many moons ago. The guest of honour was the wife of the American ambassador to Britain, plus six other interesting women in London. So important were they that it took my PA two weeks to organise the dinner party, so the major cost for me was PA time, rather than the bill. So that was my last dinner-party-to-impress.”

Shirley Conran

“I am not one of nature’s hostesses. Even though I start cooking and building up the house weeks before a dinner party, I am always beset by disasters. Once, when we were first married, we served what the butcher described as Manchurian partridges. They went so hard that every time we tried to carve them they shot across the room, like Hunka Munka’s doll’s-house food, and were finally even rejected by the cats.

“Our house is so difficult to find that people always arrive late, which means that by the time we go into dinner, I’ve had so many dry Martinis I’m practically under the piano.”

Jilly Cooper

“I was entertained years ago at an admiral’s table down in Plymouth. It was a very formal affair and I put some 'sugar’ into my coffee from a bowl on the table and it turned out to be salt. It was such a special occasion that, even with the titterings, I didn’t feel able to correct the mistake. So I had to have my coffee with the salt rather than the sugar — which wasn’t ideal.”

Max Davidson

“I don’t do dinner parties — not even when they were 'in’ in the Seventies and when people used to build houses with a separate dining room that nobody used. Best to all go out and share the ticket, then no one has to worry about anything.”

Carol Vorderman

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013