I haven’t yet caught any of Jamie Oliver’s new Channel 4 series Together, in which he cooks the kind of stuff you can rustle up for groups of family and friends without experiencing a total nervous collapse. But I love its title, and not only because it makes me think of Lukas Moodysson’s 2000 film of the same name (the best movie about a Stockholm commune ever made). Few words are to me more lovely than together, and all the more so following months of painful, enforced separations. In the ear, its syllables seem to ring like an old-fashioned doorbell.
In the grind of lockdown, there were moments when the sight of my kitchen made me feel physically ill. My relationship with my fridge, in particular, began to be vaguely abusive: I was always slamming its door in a huff. No wonder, then, that the great opening up induced in me a state of ecstasy that could only end in near bankruptcy.
Having sworn on a copy of Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must Have Been Something I Ate never again to let a certain pasta dish pass my lips, I duly went mad with my credit card. Perilously, I just could not get enough of Maison Francois, a glamorous French restaurant in London’s St James’s where they serve old-fashioned oeufs en gelee and deliver your rum baba to the table in a beautiful wooden trolley.
Now, though, I’m entering a new stage. I think we all are. The summer is over. Indoor life beckons. Some of us need (urgently) to rein in our spending. But still we crave company, more precious than ever. As Channel 4 has cleverly divined, it is time to get friends around our tables again. Only we’re all so out of practice. What seemed fairly straightforward 18 months ago – supper for eight people; bosh! as Jamie would say – now seems weirdly challenging. Next month, friends are coming here for dinner, and every time I think of it, I imagine them all furiously grinding salt over their plates while I try to pretend that, honestly, the chicken is supposed to be rare.
All we can do at this point is to deploy our old, hard-learned and now half-gotten rules with utmost rigidity. Here are three of mine. First, clever salty snacks before supper – I won’t say nibbles – go a long way to making people feel happy even before they sit down. Buy some ready-rolled puff pastry, cover it in a little beaten egg, grated parmesan and some anchovies, roll it up from both sides till they meet in the middle, slice, chill and bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes. I promise you: even people who don’t like anchovies love these.
Second, it’s a very bad idea indeed to try out a new recipe in these situations. A long time ago, I was cooking for someone I wanted to impress (and yes, that word alone – impress – does indeed shout: you fool, catastrophe up ahead!). So I made a new (to me) savoury dish involving almonds and rose water. It tasted as if I’d marinaded the whole thing in Floris bath oil. Such was my humiliation I have not seen the person in question since. Relatedly, if something does go wrong, don’t go on about it. No one will really mind. It’s lovely to be cooked for, even if the sound of a smoke alarm does rather get on the nerves.
Lastly, try to clean up a bit – or a lot – before you go to bed. I know I sound obsessive compulsive (and in truth, I am: like my granny, I cannot leave for the station or the airport without making sure that the tea things have been washed). But honestly, no matter how weary or how drunk you are, it’s worth it. There’s nothing worse than coming down in the morning to sticky plates and smeared wine glasses – and the memory of such things is far more likely to put you off playing host again than the fact that your bearnaise was lumpy. Far better to spend your Sunday picking at leftovers and thinking about how fantastic your friends are than standing at the sink in your Marigolds while your head pounds like a drum.