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GETTING IN THE MOOD WITH FOOD
A chunk of freshly baked crusty bread.
A wedge of farmhouse cheese.
Beaujolais splashing about in a teensy plastic cup.
Not the ingredients you’d expect for one of the best meals of my life, but as I sliced the cheese with my Swiss Army Knife, watching the French grape vines waft in the breeze, the only sound that of the rustling leaves and the birds, someone special next to me on the hillside - I couldn’t have asked for much more!
A great meal can be a very simple thing – what makes it special isn’t the bread, the cheese, or the wine themselves – though these are all part of it. It’s the mood – the vibe, if you will – of the setting. You can slice the same bread, the same cheese, and pour the same wine into crystal, but it will be nothing special sitting at your office desk!
We put so much thought and attention into our entertaining in terms of which food and wine to serve, is the house or backyard tidy, and all these superficial things – but do we do enough to create the perfect atmosphere for our guests?
Here’s a few little pointers which can greatly help with any kind of function…
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FUN!
Firstly, make sure you enjoy the PROCESS as much as the end product – from the menu planning, shopping for the ingredients, and most of all the preparation, try and make this a fun experience for you as well as your guests!
With good forethought your menu should be well balanced, and not involve you being stuck in the kitchen all night long ignoring your guests – barbecues are great for this as you can cook whilst socialising and enjoying the company of your friends. If you’re planning on attempting an intricate or elaborate dish as part of your meal, balance that out by making the rest of the meal a bit simpler in terms of preparation time and risk factor of success!
Also make sure the flavours of your meal work well together. Believe me, a tropical fruit salad does not happily follow a rich beef bourguignon! Try an apple tarte tatin, or if that seems a little daunting, a rustic apple pie with plenty of cinnamon, served with clotted cream. Very simple, yet very effective.
It’s a relatively simple thing to match wine to food nowadays with no end to literature available to help you in this search, but remember when it all comes down to it, food and drink are the most subjective things in our lives and everyone’s palate is extremely individual – personal taste is king! I’m not averse to a nice wooded chardonnay with a fillet steak occasionally if it feels right, just as I was recently very pleasantly surprised at how well a soft Italian red went with a rich tiramisu at the spectacular Villa D’este restaurant. It’s okay to think outside the box if your palate is happy with the results!
Sure some people prefer to stick to beer, but there are many gourmet beers nowadays easily matched to all styles of food, so there’s no excuse for anyone to be chugging on King Browns all night while you serve your painstakingly prepared gourmet delights!
Not that I’m one to encourage a few drinks (*blush*) but if it fits the overall vibe of your “do”, throw in a shot of cherry or cinnamon infused vodka (its so easy to make yourself!), tequila with sea salt and a wedge of lime, schnapps or similar to break the ice or enhance the mood. I sometimes like to go one step further than MATCHING food and drinks, but incorporate the drinks into the dining experience. This can be as basic as my tequila lime mayonnaise, or more involved making a baileys white chocolate ice cream, or a vodka watermelon granita for dessert.
Just as we need to spend a little time thinking about the food we will serve at any event, we should try to remember that picking the perfect setting can make a big difference to the success of your party.
Dining outside in candlelight in summer as opposed to inside a stuffy hot house makes a big difference, just set up a few citronella oil burners for light and to keep the mozzies away and you’ll find dining under the stars can make for a magic experience.
Once your location is set, you’ll need to decide what sort of table setting you want – outdoors is more casual than at a formal dining table, and may make your guests relax a little upon arrival. Don’t forget to make drinks and serving the food convenient for wherever you choose – sitting on a third story balcony is great until you have to carry twelve plates up three flights of stairs for each of three courses!
My one and only rule is ALWAYS replace the lights with candles – you’ll be amazed at how much difference softer lighting makes on people’s relaxation and enjoyment.
No offence to our local radio stations, but I want to choose the mood for my soiree’s, rather than have it thrust at me without any say. And advertisements – hate ‘em at the best of times! NEVER at a dinner party!
Let’s try something a little more fitting of the scene – if you’re serving French based cuisine, how about a classic such as Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone or Edith Piaf for some classy soulful jazz. Alternatively there are many compilation cds available, and film soundtracks such as Amelie are another great source of mood music. Coupled with the lighting you’ve instantly transformed a normal dinner table into a sultry Paris jazz café!
If serving a Jambalaya or Gumbo, try a New Orleans blues compilation; if it’s Indian, get Ravi Shankar’s “Chants of India” (produced by George Harrison of The Beatles) for some authentic yet still accessible sounds. I remember an Indian restaurant in Reading, England in the early nineties – as soon as my friends and I walked in they switched the sitar plucking music over to some bland generic radio station, and we had to beg them to change it back – they simply wouldn’t believe we, as white people, would put up with that, even in the background – until we patiently explained that we were Australian and not English and then they happily flicked it back! It’s all about the mood – I don’t want to eat a vindaloo with Kylie squawking or Matchbox Twenty whining in the background!
Even The Great Aussie Barbie can be enhanced with a bit of music – try a compilation of the best Aussie songs of whichever decade you and your friends grew up listening to? For me that’s the 80s, and there are plenty of compilations available which are guaranteed to get your friends whooping with recognition.
Just as we all enjoy crackers on the table at Christmas time, you can add props to some events. This could be as simple as a papier mache pinyata filled with liqueur chocolates or rum balls (or some other treats befitting the occasion) for a Mexican themed party – these are great for kid’s parties too, and you get the fun factor of making it beforehand!
Other props to consider are the shots I mentioned earlier in the DRINKS section or authentic themed table settings such as bamboo mats and chopsticks for an Asian meal. Another nice touch is to not serve a dish completely plated up, but to either finish it at the table yourself (carve a roast, or serve vegetables), or allow your guests to put the finishing touches on it (rather than a bowl of grated parmesan, provide a plate with a wedge of the real stuff and a grater).
Now, your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to combine all these elements with balance, and remember that this gives you ample opportunity to experiment with different themes and ideas – so go for it and most of all – enjoy the process! (Invitations can be sent to me at the usual address ;o) )
Finally, as I think back to that French hillside, knowing that plain old bread and cheese has never tasted as special since, I realise that sometimes a meal is so much more than the sum of its parts – it’s a snapshot in time.
Be excellent to each other
Getting in the mood with food - addendum
In the above article I forgot to mention the most obvious and simple prop of all - flowers! From a single flower to a bunch as a table centrepiece, petals strewn in the middle of the table (or coloured glass beads), or a rose in front of each guests place setting, flowers brighten up any event and any table!
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