The new dinner party rules

All nice and neat


The simple request, “You must come to dinner,” once a cheerful indication of intimacy, has become fraught with social dangers. How straightforward it was when all you needed to do was put on your best suit or frock, spend the first half of the evening speaking to the person on your right, the second half to the person on your left, jump into a cab by midnight, scribble a thank you note the next day, and we all got out of there alive.
Our newly casual way of living means we hardly know when we’ve strayed over some mysterious line in the sisal matting. In the latest edition of The Lady magazine, etiquette and modern manners expert, Thomas Blaikie, describes the new dinner party rules, which include leaving by 10.30pm on a weeknight and 11.15pm at weekends, never bringing wine that costs less than a tenner, and, if you’re the host, never making plated starters.
Personally, I’ve thrown so many dinner parties, my dishwasher should be receiving some sort of award for its contribution to community relations. Here are my notes from the dinner party front, to ensure both happy hosts and guests.

Ten dinner party commandments

1. Don’t be on time This is the act of a monster. The only people worse than those who arrive bang on time are those who arrive early, when you’re still in your pinny and haven’t had time to soften your more frazzled edges with your first cocktail. For the very best in civilised behaviour, arrive between 10 to 15 minutes after the appointed time.

2. Bring wine if you must but now it’s highly acceptable, not to say fashionable, to bring craft beer or cider instead. You look terribly cutting edge and no one has to drink it.  

3. Don’t take flowers Because rattling out dinner for eight isn’t soothing enough, let’s add having to find a suitable vase to this evil game of party peril? Send flowers afterwards, or take a potted plant – no cacti though, chances are there are enough pricks at the table as it is.

4. No one cares what you like If you are vegan, vegetarian or have a deadly food allergy, of course you should let your host know beforehand. If you’re just not eating dairy this week, flirting with gluten-free or drearily carb-phobic, do keep it to yourself, there’s a love. There’s honestly nothing more boring than the pick-and-mix culinary peccadillos of others.

5. Do talk politics and religion. It’s so prissy to skirt around the really interesting stuff in favour of what? House prices and minor illnesses? Do also pay close attention when speaking about your children to anyone who is not a blood relative in case of terminal eyeglazeoveritis.

6. Don’t help Of course, do offer, but you can be too casual. Unless invited, don’t start clearing tables or washing up. It’s your job as a guest to sit there and be absolutely fascinating, damn it.

7. Accept that last drink If I’m pouring the hard stuff, or that weird digestif I dragged back from my hols, it’s because I want you to stay. If I suggest tea or coffee, I am mentally calling you a cab. Please don’t expect me to actually make the tea or coffee.

8. What time to leave? Mr Blaikie speaks perfect sense when he says weeknight dinners should be over by 10.30pm. We aren’t 20 anymore and being in (you own) bed by midnight is one of the cornerstones of civilised life. But if anyone left my house at 11.15pm on a Saturday night, I would hang up my hostess apron forever. Do stay. Have another drink. Laugh. Gossip. Drag out the old vinyl and let’s dance around the kitchen. Don’t leave me this way. Not just yet.

9. Do say thank you Of course, a letter is delicious and people will remember your impeccable guestitude forever; a postcard is good and an email is fine. The most dreadful thing you can do is to resist sending an email or making a phone call as you absolutely, positively are going to write that letter. Just as soon as you track down the perfect stationery, buy an ink pen, find a stamp and master calligraphy. And suddenly you’re bumping into your hosts at another event and it’s 10 months later and they’re wondering why they never heard from you again and is it because you hated their cousin Bert or the syllabub, or, in fact, them. Send the bloody email.

10. If you’re the host, don’t show off. You need to make it look – or at least feel – effortless if you want your guests to be relaxed and have a good time. No one cares that you spent the whole weekend watching YouTube videos of how to make swans from choux pastry. Bowls of bought ice cream taste sweeter than any amount of culinary braggadocio.


Stoke Newington Literary Festival

Next weekend, 3-5 June, Stoke Newington comes alive with writers and all manner of creative types for the seventh Stoke Newington Literary festival. If you’re the hungry or thirsty sort, which of course you are, do come to any and all of the events I’m helping to run in St. Paul’s West Hackney.

We kick off with A Taste of Honey on Saturday, with Hattie Ellis, Hannah Rhodes and Paul Webb, then Sabrina Ghayour joins us to talk about her delicious new book Sirocco, the follow up to her smash hit bestseller, Persiana.  We round off Saturday afternoon with chocolate brought to us by Cocoa Runners and philosopher Julian Baggini.

On Sunday, Rachel McCormack hosts her popular Gastro Salon, with cocktail queen Kay Plunkett-Hogge, Hackney food writer Yasmin Khan and local resident and former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, and then on Sunday afternoon Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer join us to talk about running their deliciously successful restaurant, Honey & Co.

Do come! It would be wonderful to see you.

A Taste of Honey.
Saturday 4th June, 11:00 – £6.00

Have you ever thought about becoming a bee keeper? Fancy having your own hives or simply mad about honey? Then join us as we talk all things honey with Hattie Ellis, author of Spoonfuls of Honey, Hannah Rhodes, founder of Hiver Beer, and urban beekeeper Paul Webb.

Fabulous Flavours from the East with Sabrina Ghayour Saturday 4th June, 15:00 – £6.00
Join Sabrina Ghayour, the award-winning author of the bestselling Persiana, as she talks food, cooking and her eagerly anticipated new book Sirocco. Discover what fuels Sabrina’s passion for food, the inspiration behind her new book and the key ingredients that are always in her shopping basket. There will be samples of one of the dishes from the book.
Saturday 4th June, 17:00 – £6.00

Philosopher Julian Baggini’s essay, an epilogue to the acclaimed The Virtues of the Table, extends his thoughts on our relationship with food to cover one of the greatest food groups of all, chocolate. The essay was exclusively written for Cocoa Runners, a chocolate club who are passionate about the chocolate they source and how it is produced. Both Julian and the Cocoa Runners team will be joining us for chocolate, discussions on chocolate, and more chocolate.

Chocolate will be provided…
Sunday 5th June, 13:00 – £6.00

Host Rachel McCormack (BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet) talks to former model booker, cocktail queen and food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge (Heat: Cooking With Chillies), Hackney-based author Yasmin Khan (The Saffron Tales) and former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and self-confessed foodie Ed Balls (Sport Relief Bake Off) about road trips. They dish up stories of the best – and worst – food they’ve eaten whilst travelling.

 

Sunday 5th June, 15:00 – £6.00

Since it first opened its doors in 2012, Honey & Co has attracted an intensely loyal following who pack the tiny restaurant every day. At the heart of this success are owners Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer – partners in business and life. Join them as they talk about how they got started, what inspires them in the kitchen, and how they navigate a delicious path in work and life. 

There will be samples of cake from their baking book.

 

The full Literary Festival programme can be found here, or downloaded in pdf format here.

Debora and Louise Invite You to a Dog’s Dinner…

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Every fancied making healthy treats for your dog? Want to learn how best to use them in dog training? Join food writer Debora Robertson and dog behaviourist and trainer Louise Glazebrook in Debora’s pretty Stoke Newington kitchen for a lively afternoon of dog chat, tea and cake.
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Watch Debora demonstrate how to make easy snacks such as dog breath bones, dried sweet potato chews, and liver treats. Then Louise will discuss how to make the best use of treats during training, share her thoughts on good nutrition for your pet and answer any questions you may have.
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Woof!
INCLUDES: Tea and coffee, cakes and biscuits; a doggy bag which will include a recipe sheet, dog treats and other goodies for you and your dog.
WHEN: March 22, 2pm-5pmCOSTS: £30

Here, Have A Cookie

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So a nice thing happened which I quite forgot to tell you about, what with all of the garden talks and bake sale hoopla. It’s a really nice thing, a skip-around-the-room-and-pour-yourself-a-margarita sort of thing.

My blog has been nominated for the Guild of Food Writers’ Food Blog of the Year Award , alongside Kerstin Rodgers’ The English Can Cook  and Emma Gardner’s Poires au Chocolat . The chichi là là party is on May 29. Not long to wait. In the meantime, do join me in a celebratory Friday afternoon cookie.

MochaButta Cookies

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I’ve been at my desk since seven o’clock this morning, taptaptapping away. By tea time, I was desperate for something sweet and there was nothing but oranges in the kitchen. Now I love an orange, but I needed the You-Lift-Me-Up transformative powers of butter and sugar. So I came up with these cookies using what I have in the cupboards, and they’re pretty good. Dark, nutty, not too sweet, quite grown up in fact. I’m eating one now. It’s still warm and I’m thinking how good it would be with vanilla ice cream.

I was going to make them with half caster- and half light muscovado sugar, but I’m out of light muscovado so I did a 8:2 blend of caster- and dark muscovado sugar. I also wanted to use up some caramelised cocoa nibs I was sent so I threw those in. Chocolate chips would be good if you’re all out of caramelised cocoa nibs.

Makes about 20 cookies.

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75g plain flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
50g unsalted butter, softened
80g caster sugar
20g dark muscovado sugar
200g crunchy peanut butter
1 egg, room temperature
2 tbsp instant coffee, dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp vanilla extract
70g caramelised cocoa nibs or chocolate chips

Sift the first four ingredients into a bowl and set aside.

In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer – or certainly by hand if your desire is to have perfectly toned upper arms to rival Michelle Obama’s – beat together the butter and sugars until well combined. Beat in the peanut butter, then the egg, coffee and vanilla. Slowly but thoroughly beat in the sieved dry ingredients then fold in the cocoa nibs or chocolate chips. Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Line two cookie sheets with baking parchment. Preheat the oven to 170C.

Roll the cookies into balls roughly the size of a walnut. Place them on the prepared sheets about 4cm apart. Flatten them slightly with the bottom of a glass then press a criss-cross pattern into the surface with the tines of a fork.

Bake for 10 minutes. Leave on the tray for two minutes to firm up slightly, then drag the baking parchment onto wire cooling rack and let the cookies cool completely.

Hello London, I Love You

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Ballerina, Queen of Night and Barcelona tulips.

Last Sunday was real sunhat weather.

I sat on the grass weeding, low enough to smell the soft, sweet scent of the orange Ballerina tulips and to enjoy the dazzle of their lily-shaped heads against the fat cups of purple Queen of Night and shriek pink Barcelona. I love to sit on the grass. You see things differently there.

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Beautiful shriek-pink Barcelona tulips.

As I pulled out soft-leaved, milky-rooted dandelions and tiny sycamore seedlings, music drifted across the wall, through the trellis and over the roses. Our neighbours are in a bluegrass band. They’re really good. The plaintive sounds of the fiddle, guitar and banjo pulled the hipsters who live on the other side of us from their beds and onto their little roof terrace. Pale chested boys and girls with last night’s mascara smudged around their pretty eyes sat and watched, listened. When they came to the end of their first song, we all applauded.

Gentle wisps of smoke from our Turkish neighbours’ barbecue curled deliciously into the warm afternoon air.

And in that moment, I just fell for London really hard and all over again.

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Spring.

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Cherry blossom, before…

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…and after the wind.

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Apple blossom.

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Barney – is it the demise of the blossom, or the bluegrass music that’s making him so mournful?

A Gentle Stroll into the New Year

 

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The soft pink light of morning.

The first week of January and I haven’t cooked very much. This is partly due to annoying tendonitis in my elbow which makes lifting things and chopping things painful. I have decided to call it TenderIsTheNightis, a RSI-type injury caused by lifting too many flutes of champagne. This makes my suffering seem a little more thrilling and glamorous.

In place of cooking, I’ve been sitting by the fire in my mother’s study drinking coffee and reading thrillers, occasionally prodding the dog with my toe to make sure he is still alive. He scarcely moves more than a foot or two from the hearth.

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‘The heartbeat at my feet.’

Before the fire is lit each morning, I manage to lure him outside to the Bishop’s Park. On New Year’s Day, the light was soft and pink, the sun low in the sky. We wandered through the Scots pines and the Wellingtonia. I threw a few sticks. Barney brought them back. A lot of my childhood was spent in this park – picnics in summer, whizzing down the terrifying snowy slopes on our blue sledge in winter. Fifteen years ago, Sean and I got married in the chapel here.

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St Peter’s Chapel, Auckland Castle


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The clock tower at the entrance to the park.


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The River Gaunless snakes through the park.


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Fierce!


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The Deer House, built by Bishop Trevor in the Eighteenth Century.


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Golden box, bright as Christmas baubles, over the grey crenelations of the castle walls.

One of my favourite activities in the world, to be indulged whenever the opportunity presents itself, is to visit a country auction. Addisons – a proper country auctioneer and valuer in Barnard Castle – always has an auction on the first Thursday of the new year, which is very considerate of them as I’m usually up here then.

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This morning we went to the viewing. The hall was full of the merry bustle of people relieved to be out of the house and back into their old, comforting routines. ‘Too long, too long a break John,’ explained one man to another. A young chap in a khaki jacket with a skull and crossbones appliqued on the back slowly examined a long and ferocious Indian sword. A woman in a neat red coat and careful coiffure trawled through a cardboard box of treen. Two elderly men in leather pastie shoes and Christmas scarves rustled around in cardboard suitcases of model railway bits and pieces, eyeing each other not entirely benignly. ‘Happy New Year to you’ ‘All the best!’ they said, nonetheless.

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If you know me at all you know I love a bargain, and auctions outside of London are often much cheaper than my usual city stamping grounds. Apart from anything with a dog, a pig, a horse or a fox on it. Then you can expect to pay top whack.

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It’s not all foxes and cows and herd books …

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Please don’t bid on any of my lots, there’s a love.

A lovely thing happened…

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I am doing the happy dance this morning. The wonderful people at Psychologies magazine have included Love and a Licked Spoon in Kate McGinley’s feature on the five best blogs. It’s on page 42, along with Daily Eco tips, Mind Hacks, Brit Lit Blogs and The Sartorialist – rather smart company, I’m sure you’ll agree.

When I began my blog just over a year ago, my idea was to create a place where I could record all of my kitchen experiments – so much better, more accessible, less spattered with flour/butter/olive oil than recipes scribbled into countless notebooks and onto the backs of envelopes or grubby paper napkins. I thought my family might like it; I hoped my friends would (if nothing else, because they feature so heavily in my life, in my kitchen, around my table and therefore in my blog), but it has been heart warming, genuinely thrilling, to find that it resonates with others too. I confess to checking my Statcounter and being ridiculously delighted to see visitors from America or Australia or China, as well as those from just down the road. I love it when you visit, I love it even more when you come back and I’m uncool-ly excited when you comment.

So if you’ve been visiting Love and a Licked Spoon for a while, thank you. You’re all angels at my table. And if you’re visiting because you read about my blog in Psychologies, thank you too. I hope you’ll stick around, join in and swap some food stories of your own.

Love and a licked spoon,

Debora x

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