I have just returned from a cousin’s wedding in Bergamo Italy. The couple was, as was my grandfather, Waldensian--an ancient and obscure Protestant French-Italian sect that was documented long before the Reformation, and who lived hidden in the Alps, often in rocky caves, for centuries. The wedding was elegant and simple, as is the way among this sect. It was, however, still Italian; and following the service we sat down to a banquet that lasted no less than six hours.
The service itself lacked the decorations and majesty one might expect from an Italian Catholic mass. This was in a plain room...OK, it was a castle, but the chapel was quite simple nonetheless. There were no icons, and few attendants--a best friend as the groomsman, and the sister attending the bride. Some of the songs, like Amazing Grace, were familiar, chosen perhaps with the American contingent in mind. The others, less familiar, were haunting and delicate, no doubt ancient Waldensian hymns.
What came through the simplicity of the service was gentle, loving, attention. It was there in the eyes of my cousin and his beloved, between the people and their faith, and even in the banquet afterwards. Yes, it all comes down to food; and I learned so much about the secrets of a good meal by being part of it all.
Here is the menu: (Forgive me, I just couldn't bring myself to whip out the camera during the banquet...)
Shrimp with orange zest and aioli
Potato, mushroom and cheese tart (quiche, really)
Sorbettos (grapefruit and green apple)
Pork loin in puff pastry with some accent greens
Selection of mousses
A truly elegant meal, even a six-hour one, is as balanced by restraint as it is generosity. Overwhelming your guests, even with your largess, can itself become burdensome. In the case of this banquet, they did things so delicately that six hours of eating was pure joy! How did they do it???? It’s left me wondering, ‘What is the secret to hosting a large banquet or an intimate dinner that keeps people receptive and excited for whatever is next?
Let there be a reason for everything you plan to offer up. Here are a few tips:
1) Know who are your guests are and what they will be requiring. Health issues, age, lifestyle all come to bear when thinking about how much you want to serve. At this banquet, most of the courses were small and adorned only with a vegetable accent --a good plan for any guests who are eating for six hours! Although each was perfectly flavored, none of them was creamed up with sauce and such. When I’m serving ladies of ‘a certain age’, I’m less likely to pound out huge burgers and big smeary desserts. (I save all that for my son’s starving college friends.) Instead, I’m more likely to have small servings of one thing or another in ramekins or beautiful plates.
2) Go with a theme, even as simple as being seasonal. What’s in the markets, what’s in the air, what’s the celebration? The nice thing about a theme is that the guests know a little of what to expect, yet you have a jumping off point to be whimsical. Somehow, the whimsy is less chaotic and random, more appreciated.
3) Think of food as functional art. Everything offered should have a purpose and a plan. Serving in courses makes the meal flow more like a performance rather than a simple feeding, giving more attention to each menu item. The appetizer should not overwhelm your guests or fill them up (unless that’s all you’re offering--then you should call it hors d’oeuvres). Keep it light, and with something salty and/or tangy that stimulates appetites. The rest of the meal should progress in flavor and substance, punctuated perhaps by salads with an acidic vinaigrette, or not-too-sweet sorbets which provide a little relief between heavier courses. If I can, I keep the creamiest things to the end.
4) Keep a sense of timing. During my cousin’s banquet, for instance, the sorbetto and desserts were served buffet style, allowing people to stand up and mill around the room a bit. It allowed a longer break than you’d expect if you remained sitting. “Thank God!” I said. It made the main dish and dessert course so much more attractive! I thought it was a brilliant move.
Elegant hospitality, at its best, is love. Not the kind that wows the guest into intimidation, or burdens them with too much. It honors and comforts them, connecting them to the celebration, the times, each other, and you.
Speaking of celebrations, did you know Ezekiel’s Table is offering a new class each month? Full Moon Feast, I’m calling it. (My favorite time to celebrate!) You can come alone or with a couple of friends, and take it a little more easy. Read more about 'an option for individuals and small groups' on my website.