Matthew Fort takes a quizzical look at the amuse-bouche and the important part canapés can play in our festive feasting.
What is the point of a canapé? Asks Matthew Fort. What’s it there for? The pre-cursor to a proper meal? A dam against the incoming tide of alcohol? A nifty way of breaking up conversations into bite-sized chunks? A pep-you-up? A let-you-down? Originating from the French word for sofa, the name of this amuse-bouche plays on the analogy that the garnish sits on top of the bread (or whatever the base may be) just as people sit on a couch. It was, of course, the French who started the canapé trend back in the 18th century—the English then started serving this palate pleaser at the end of the next century. Traditionally canapés were built with stale bread, but this deliciously decorative food has gone through a fair bit of change over the last few years.
I can remember a time when an open Danish sandwich was the smart canapé of choice. They were usually little triangles of lightly buttered rye bread piled with pickled herring, scrambled egg, cured reindeer, curious cheese, or best of all, little pyramids of prawns. Only they weren’t often little enough to pop into your mouth whole. There would be a cascade of pink prawns down your front and onto the floor, and then you had the dilemma of deciding whether or not you’d spend the next five minutes picking them up or simply rub them into the carpet with your shoe.
See also: Luxury Food
Canapés of complexity
Since then, of course, canapés have evolved into creations of immense complexity, variety and sophistication: they have become a whole side industry in themselves. At any party involving drink, you may be faced with multiple mini-courses consisting of mini-Yorkshire puddings filled with anything from cold rare beef with horseradish to slices of foie gras; glass spoons bearing tempting mouthfuls of Thai-style prawns or fish curry or ceviche of scallops; chicken parfait in crisp chicken skin; retro-mini cornets of newspaper filled with fish-and-chips; sesame coated tuna with a sweet and sour chilli dip. There isn’t one that isn’t adorned by micro-leaves and edible flowers.
Sometimes canapés can appear a reductio ad absurdum of food, but in many ways, they are a paradigm of much of what is happening in professional kitchens today, shrunk to easily mouthable sizes, funky, fun and fab to eat.
Your average home cook may have some difficulty in replicating these dainty delights, but canapés still have an important part to play in the gastronomic entertainment at home, not least because they give you a chance to show of your own culinary inventiveness as well as allow you to have all sorts of fun over finding cheery stuff to pair them with.
Whether it’s Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve or just a party among friends, canapés (of both the sweet and savoury variety) can be an impressive addition to any table—especially when paired with the right kind of drink. Little bites and nibbles are an integral part of any foodie occasion and they can be just as delicious when served after dinner, especially in the place of more ‘traditional’ desserts. Making bite-size mince pies, Christmas puddings and blood orange tarts will allow guests to try a variety of festive desserts and add a decorative, colourful flare to any table.
See also: Oysters & Crépinettes
Champagne is the default tipple, and, let’s face it, it always goes down well with (almost) everything. Your guests feel flattered by Champagne, but don’t let your imagination stop at there. It could be argued that other fizzy drinks—Cava or Prosecco di Conegliano for example—go even better with some canapés. We are beginning to produce some seriously stylish fizzy white wines such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview Bloomsbury here in the UK. I have a penchant for Muscat d’Alsace with certain canapés, manzanilla sherry with others (those involving chicken livers, for example; the austere subtlety of sherry cuts through the richness of the liver). And something like the Hungarian Debroi Harslevelu goes fabulously with Asian nibbles.
Given the fact that you will almost certainly be eating and drinking after a canapé session, it seems only wise not to overdo things. There’s such a temptation to hurl yourself on tempting titbits that, by the time you come to dinner, somehow the more formal menu has lost its appeal. And your head has that distinctly singing sensation that is a prelude to a hangover the next day. So, as provider or consumer (or both), take it easy. There’s still a long way to go.
Read more on the Master Chefs for recipe ideas on the best canapes for the festive season.