They should have eaten something. That’s the conclusion I came to rewatching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I had hoped to catch Edward Albee’s 1962 play on stage in New York this month, starring Laurie Metcalf, Rupert Everett and Russell Tovey, but with Broadway closed and my transatlantic flight cancelled, I dug out the classic 1966 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A black-and-white black comedy about what happens when you invite people over for drinks (and then more drinks), it charts one couple’s booze-fuelled descent from barbed civility to barbarity, all in the company of another couple on their own downward spiral. If only there had been some nibbles.
Ah, nibbles: the food that comes out at a dinner party before the real food, back when we still threw dinner parties and attended them. Who didn’t welcome those titbits when you pitched up to a friend’s house and found out dinner wouldn’t be ready for an hour or two? Happier times. Now, nibbles are pretty much what we subsist on while sofa shirking (I mean, working from home) for hours on end.
So what to nibble on? I happen to think there is pleasure in revisiting the old favourites – all the more so now that we’re only pleasing ourselves. Devilled eggs, why not? As long as you use the best possible eggs. And if you want cheese-and-pineapple hedgehogs, do as the Grill at The Dorchester’s head chef Tom Booton suggests and use Gouda cheese with salt-baked pineapple and beer-pickled onions.
In a hotel or bar, the purpose of a nibble is to make people drink, and therefore spend more money. At home, that motivation doesn’t apply, but a drink would certainly help in the current climate. “That means salty snacks,” says Claridge’s executive chef Martyn Nail, who knows a thing or two about nibbles. Claridge’s ordinarily makes up to 10,000 canapés a day. “You also want strong, deep flavours to get the tastebuds going. Like lemon, horseradish, smoky flavours, truffle, chilli – which is great with champagne – and Marmite.” In other words, reach for the Twiglets.
And the crisps. Although any good-quality crisp will do, I have a recommendation that is guaranteed to get lips smacking. Torres Black Truffle crisps from Spain are light, fragrant and contain real black truffle. Order some packets to be delivered to friends and family. It’s a care shipment anyone would welcome.
When it comes to olives, everyone has an opinion. Here are a few. Manzanilla are the classic choice. For their tenderness and buttery brine, Davies and Brook’s Daniel Humm prefers Sicilian bright-green Castelvetranos, also known as nocellara (the olive of choice at Annabel’s and all the Birley Clubs). Bocca di Lupo’s Jacob Kenedy swears by a mix of large green cerignolas, small black gaeta (both from Italy) and Greek kalamata with lightly roasted walnuts, thinly sliced lemon, rosemary and extra-virgin olive oil. He insists on keeping the stones in (it helps preserve the flavour) and curses anyone who has theirs stone-free. Perhaps this isn’t the time to admit I rather like pitted gordal olives by Perelló, stuffed with orange and oregano, the way you get them at Brindisa. Each one is a sweet, meaty juice bomb going off in your mouth.
Meats and cheeses are a nibble no-brainer because they only require plating up. I am convinced there is nothing nicer than setting out a large block of Parmesan so that everyone can chisel off their own delicious morsels. Stevie Parle of Pastaio swears by this, and suggests getting a bigger cut than you need because no one ever complained about having a lump of Parmesan in their fridge, especially now.
The standard-bearers for cheese in London are Neal’s Yard Dairy and La Fromagerie, both of which deliver. For charcuterie, many chefs vouch for Vallebona. Personally, I defy anyone’s mouth not to water at the selection at Cannon & Cannon, whose varieties include Cornish salami with seaweed and cider, Worcestershire jerky with pineapple and chilli, and Great Glen Wild Scottish Venison chorizo. For something out of the ordinary and Spanish, Barrafina’s executive chef Angel Zapata Martin suggests the nutty, salty, little bit fatty, acorn-fed jamón Paletilla Ibérica and a mildly floral Andalusian goat’s cheese called Quesos y Besos – literally cheese and kisses. Both are available from Bristol-based supplier Mevalco. You can pair these with a classic pan con tomate, using ripe Sicilian tomatoes (from Natoora) on rustic bread. Parle makes something similar on toast (“call it bruschetta if you must”) by darkening some sourdough on a griddle pan, lightly rubbing it with garlic, dousing with olive oil, sprinkling on sea salt and spreading on smashed, well-seasoned white beans, with a dash of vinegar and oil to taste.
What about dips? Well, the point about crudités is to use seasonal produce, which is more flavourful. Rather than cutting up the usual vegetable batons, at this time of year try wedges of fresh fennel, crunchy radishes, mini cucumbers and carrots with their tops attached – or, better still, the purple or deep-red varieties. As for dips, I refer you to #TheDip, a “highbrow version of ranch dressing” that went viral among millennials when posted by New York Times columnist Alison Roman (she is also the originator of #TheStew and #TheCookies). The labneh dip with spring onions and chilli features in her 2019 cookbook Nothing Fancy, a paean to not killing yourself in the kitchen. It’s worth a try if only to keep up with the kids. I’m also fond of a recipe passed on by Alex Hely-Hitchinson of 26 Grain and Stoney Street, which comprises fresh ricotta with lemon, salt, pepper, olive oil and toasted hazelnuts. For a sweeter version, swap out the salt and lemon for a dribble of honey.
The last word goes to canapés. I like the idea put forward by Rovi head chef Neil Campbell of making tempura out of leftover stems and herbs (so zero-waste) and serving it with Szechuan pepper, mandarin and lime-leaf vinegar. I also like Jason Atherton’s offering of spiced fried chicken with lime and chilli yoghurt, and I hope Jason has me round when this self-isolating business is all behind us.
But I won’t be doing any of that myself, particularly without a roomful of friends to “ooh” and “ahh” over my efforts. I’m sticking with a tin of oscietra caviar (from Gourmet House) and spooning a small amount on the back of my (washed) hand to warm the eggs. Then I’ll just lick them off, like salt before tequila. It’s a surefire way to get the party started, even a party of one.
This story was originally posted on 5 April 2020.