Yes you can throw a classy party for peanuts! Prue Leith’s chic yet cheap canapés, Claudia Winkleman’s failsafe floorfillers and fool-your-guests wine for just a fiver
- Mary Killen recently went to a party for 50 which cost £200 – or £4 per head
- The quality of food and drink doesn’t matter that much – it’s the guest list
- Willow Crossley says lots of party decorations don’t have to be expensive
Following two Covid Christmases, we’re all looking forward to this year’s party season. Only now we’ve been hit with a cost-of-living crisis (sigh) and the word ‘budget’ hardly screams ‘party extravaganza’.
But, fear not, you can throw a posh party for peanuts — in fact, for as little as £5 per person — with the help of our stellar line-up of experts…
SET THE BAR LOW . . .
By MARY KILLEN
Mary is an etiquette expert best known for appearing on Channel 4’s Gogglebox.
I have just been to a very stylish party for 50 which cost about £200 in total, or £4 a head. One reason for the success was the venue — a borrowed artist’s studio with an open fireplace and a log fire crackling. But the prime driver of satisfaction was the low expectations of the guests.
Following two Covid Christmases, we’re all looking forward to this year’s party season. Only now we’ve been hit with a cost-of-living crisis (sigh) and the word ‘budget’ hardly screams ‘party extravaganza’
Our host had contacted each household in turn saying he’d love to see us and had the chance to borrow a great premises for a party. He said we didn’t need to bring anything as he had some ‘reasonable’ wine, but would we mind if it wasn’t ‘very grand’ because he is fairly broke at the moment? Oh, and by the way, there would just be cocktail sausages, and so we should factor in having to go home or to a restaurant to eat afterwards.
It was a stroke of genius. I imagine the majority of the fellow guests were relieved, as we were, that we’d not be faced with displays of extravagant spending which would be impossible to compete with when we gave a party of our own.
Get the Party Started with Claudia’s Floorfillers
Bearing in mind I am 50 but feel 110, I like to go big very early. There’s no slow build-up, no gentle way in. It has to be fast, excitable, urgent partying and then bed by 10pm. So the way to get spicy on a deadline is as follows . . .
1. The drinks need to be delicious and lethal. My favourite is Baileys with rum. I know it sounds dramatic and slightly sickly but after the second, it tastes like Toffee Crisp in a glass. If your guests want something less like ice cream, freezer-cold vodka is just the ticket.
2. A heaving cheeseboard with crackers makes everyone happy. At first, people will be polite and take small nibbles. By 9pm, friends will be inhaling actual chunks of Cathedral City. Fancier cheese not required as your guests won’t know the difference after their third Baileys and rum.
3. One word. Beyonce. Here’s my playlist . . .
crazy in love (Beyonce)
Even if you’ve had a bad day, this will fuel you on the dancefloor like a double-shot coffee.
GET LUCKY (DAFT PUNK)
JUST because this requires minimal movement.
IT’S RAINING MEN (THE WEATHER GIRLS)
I defy you not to scream ‘Come on, girls!’ the second this comes on.
NO DIGGITY (BLACKSTREET)
This needs no explanation.
JUMP AROUND (HOUSE OF PAIN)
It’s basically just jumping. You don’t need special moves. You don’t need a trick pelvis. Just bobbing up and down with some vigour? Perfect.
LIVING FOR THE CITY (STEVIE WONDER)
You’ve said your goodbyes, you’ve got one foot out the door and this comes on. Get back on the dancefloor and give it your all.
UPTOWN FUNK (BRUNO MARS)
If you want to shout all the right words, sort of, at the same time as your gang of friends, this is the song you need.
I could have picked almost any Prince track. There is nobody cooler.
MR BLUE SKY (ELO)
This makes everyone happy, even if it’s grey and miserable outside.
JUST DANCE (LADY GAGA)
If Gaga is asking, we should do as she says.
- Claudia’s new gameshow The Traitors is on BBC1.
As told to MICHAEL HOGAN
We arrived expecting grotty student wine and cheap pink sausages and were pleasantly surprised to be given quality boxed wines from Waitrose (an average of £6 per bottle) and top-of-the-range Notting Hill butcher cocktail sausages. These were so delicious, we all ate about ten.
By Helen McGinn
Wine might be one of life’s little luxuries, but the cost-of-living crisis is making cheap bottles more tempting than ever. Here’s my pick of the best for around a fiver. Seriously, your guests will never know . . .
Marques de los Zancos Rioja Blanco 2021
New to the Tesco range, this looks more expensive than it is thanks to the super-smart label. Unusually for a wine from Spain’s most famous wine-making region, this white rioja hasn’t been anywhere near an oak barrel so it really is all about the fresh lemony flavours with a touch of green apple. Unbelievable value for money.
Wine Atlas Feteasca Regala
Head for off-the-beaten-track regions and in most cases, if you know where to look, you will find truly great value. As is the case with this gorgeous white from the Banat region in Romania. This particular grape can produce lightly floral wines when made well — as demonstrated by this from one of the biggest and most consistently good producers in Romania, Cramele Recas. Watch your guests’ jaws drop when you tell them how much it costs — or keep quiet!
Villa Verde Montepulciano D’Abruzzo
Italy is another great place to forage for good-value wines at the cheaper end of the scale. This one, made from the montepulciano grape grown in the Abruzzo region on the eastern side of the country about halfway down the boot, is an absolute belter. The wine is made by the biggest co-operative winery in the region, hence why they can make something so good at such a keen price. Think vibrant black plum and cherry fruit flavours with velvet soft tannins.
Specially Selected Australian Shiraz
The wine buyers at Aldi have been quietly working on improving their Specially Selected ‘own label’ range for a few years now, and this one’s a cracker. Made from the shiraz grape grown in South Australia, this is big, bold and really rather beautiful with buckets of bramble fruit flavours and a generous peppery kick. It is also 14.5 per cent alcohol so tell your guests to sip slowly, preferably on the sofa.
Guests feel comfortable if they know what they’re saying yes to. And on this occasion we knew to expect that we would get a warm welcome from our popular host; would see other people we knew well; and that there would be no music and, therefore, no requirement to take part in Highland reels or karaoke.
The important thing to remember is that people are delighted that somebody else has had the mental stamina to organise a party. Everyone enjoys socialising — even if the men grumble that they can’t face going out, they always enjoy it when they get there.
The quality of food and drink doesn’t matter that much. All that does is the guest list — you know who makes you feel happy about life rather than small — the lighting (must be flattering) and the time slot.
Don’t be over-ambitious. Just invite people for drinks from 6.30pm to 8.30pm and then make it clear they are welcome to stay as long as they like if they are enjoying it — and the wine hasn’t run out.
DECORATIONS FOR NEXT TO NOTHING
By Willow Crossley
Dubbed the UK’s Queen of Flowers, florist and author Willow created arrangements for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding.
When it comes to party decorations, more is more. But that doesn’t have to mean spending more. It’s just about putting in a little extra time and effort to create a sense of occasion.
At home in the Cotswolds, when I go to a party, whether the decorations are homemade or come from Harrods, what really matters is that you can see that the host has put the time and energy in.
Plants are a great, cheaper, alternative to flowers. Just pick up a selection at your local garden centre. I love scent at a party — cyclamens (£4.99, crocus.com) are a favourite of mine and amazing at this time of year.
To add a little party to your plant, take it out of the plastic pot, wrap it in a piece of baking parchment and tie it with a ribbon. This will give it a charming, rustic feel. I keep ribbon from presents throughout the year, but a spool of ribbon can be bought from as little as £1.85 on Amazon. You can source greenery without spending a penny by foraging for bundles of British evergreen foliage — holly, spruce and eucalyptus all last well without water.
This can be used to make a wreath: start with a wire coat hanger — the hook is ready-made — and mould it into the shape you want. Twist reel wire (£4.95, amazon.co.uk) round the hanger.
Make little bundles of foliage and twist them on to the wire ring and finish off with a big bow. Any leftover spruce can be put over your door or mantelpiece, or tied up your bannister with a ribbon.
When it comes to ‘tablescaping’, there’s no such thing as ‘too much’. Towering bowls of fruit always look decadent.
The quality of food and drink doesn’t matter that much. All that does is the guest list — you know who makes you feel happy about life rather than small — the lighting (must be flattering) and the time slot
Don’t be over-ambitious. Just invite people for drinks from 6.30pm to 8.30pm and then make it clear they are welcome to stay as long as they like if they are enjoying it — and the wine hasn’t run out
I pile up big bowls of tangerines and stuff them with cloves (you can get a tube of these for as little as £1 from Tesco). Tablecloths can be expensive — and there’s always the risk of wine sloshes. Charity shops are a great place to pick up cheapies — or you can use an old white sheet you don’t need any more. A runner will smarten it up.
I like to use brown paper or leftover wallpaper down the centre of the table and drizzle it with PVA glue, then douse it with glitter. You can then ask your guests to ‘graffiti’ this so you have a keepsake from your party.
Candlelight makes an evening feel special. You can buy the expensive hand-dipped kind, but regular tea lights and plain household candles (from as little as 50p from Tiger) produce the same effect. Pick one colour — I love bright red and gold. My ‘go-tos’ are H&M and Zara Home.
n @willowcrossleycreates, willowcrossley.com
Prue Leith’s Staggeringly Good Nibbles
by Prue Leith
With party season kicking off, my mind turns to canapes, but somehow caviar on a blini isn’t quite the thing in a recession, any more than smoked salmon and avocado with a pomegranate-seed topping.
So how to do party food without breaking the bank? And also, without having to spend for ever fiddling with little bits and pieces?
Tiny things are fine if a waiter is handing them round on a plate with a handful of napkins in the other hand, as in posh cocktail parties. But if you are entertaining on a budget, how much friendlier and more satisfying to have a groaning table full of good things, rustic and enticing, and have the guests make their own?
The answer is to have a series of delicious but inexpensive dips into which an assortment of biscuity things can be dunked. The base for the dips could be the obvious hummus, but ‘poshed up’. Buy a big tub of plain hummus (Ramona’s Heavenly Hummus is £3 for 500g, ocado.com). Divide it into three. Flavour one heavily with finely chopped black olives (90p can, Waitrose) and fresh garlic. Flavour the next third with a whole red pepper, pureed, a squeeze of lemon and a touch of chilli. And the last third with a heap of finely chopped herbs.
Other offerings could be cream cheese dosed with fresh chopped onion and a good sprinkling of crushed coriander seeds, or a combo of cooked pureed aubergine, garlic, olive oil and herbs. Or a mix of smoked haddock (two fillets, Asda, £4.40) or a smokie (smoked herring) flaked with a little mayo and topped with chopped chives and coarse black pepper.
Then what to dip into them? Crudites of raw veg look pretty but don’t make too much — you’ll end up turning them into soup tomorrow. Even the most health-conscious guest loves a carb, and bready or biscuity bits go faster than crudites.
Supermarkets are packed with ready-made tortilla chips (48p), cheese biscuit bites (£1.59), big twirly whirly cheese sticks (70p — these are better than I make, and I buy them from Aldi). Or you can make or buy a big flat focaccia (£1.95, ocado.com), cut it into fingers and toast them in a hot oven until crisp round the edges.
ANCHOVY TOAST WITH PEAR PICKLE
This is 2022’s salmon blini and, thankfully, it’s far less expensive. We used to have this in coffee bars and pubs when I was young in South Africa, but now it’s popping up on the menu at smart restaurants.
It’s as simple as Marmite on toast and you could substitute Marmite, spread thinly, instead of the anchovy paste/sauce. Both owe their popularity to the salty umami flavour, and both would be enhanced by something sweetish and tart, as here with the pear pickle.
Any creamy cheese goes well with anchovy or Marmite so you could spread your toast with first butter, then anchovy or Marmite, then a layer of cream cheese and top them with a row of grape slices or thin line of some sweet jammy glaze (hoisin sauce, redcurrant jelly, balsamic glaze or honey).
This is the simplest and most irresistible snack. Because it is so delicious, I’d reckon one bread slice per person. If you stack them as we have in the picture, they will stay crisp.
l 4 large slices of white sandwich bread
l Butter for spreading
l About 2 tbsp anchovy paste (tube £1.40, Waitrose)
For the pickle
l 2 large ripe pears, peeled and diced
l 1 tbsp sugar
l 4 tbsp apple cider vinegar
l 4 tbsp water
l ½ tsp ground ginger
l Squeeze of lemon juice
Simmer the pickle ingredients together in a small pan with the lid on until tender (15–30 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the pears). Allow to cool.
Toast the bread to a good dark brown. Spread it generously with butter, then sparingly with anchovy paste. Cut each piece of toast into four fingers and divide between two plates. Serve with the pear pickle.
TIP: Anchovy paste is not that easy to find, though large supermarkets sometimes stock it in tubes. You can still get a very strong version of it as Gentleman’s Relish in large supermarkets and you can buy anchovy paste online. Or you could blitz canned anchovies to a paste in a blender.
- Bliss On Toast by Prue Leith (£14.99, Bloomsbury).
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