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The joy of the laidback dinner party

The joy of the laidback dinner party

When I think of the happiest moments in my life, it’s not the big ticket events, the grand parties or holidays. I’m happiest tying on an apron on Sunday morning, anticipating a roast leg of lamb and a table full of loud conversation by lunchtime, or opening the front door on Friday night and letting a gang of friends tumble into the hall, a mess of laughter and tissue-wrapped bottles of second-best wines from the corner off-licence.

With planning parties, the thinking, imagining and unfurling are the purest of pleasures, but host, know thy self. It might sound relaxing to delegate – and in these free-wheeling, sneakers-or-stilettos, anything-goes times, it most certainly is if you’re a laidback type. But I’m a control freak, so the thought of relying on anyone else to make a pudding brings me out in hives. It’s easier for me to hold everything by a short rein and make a million lists. This way, I can enjoy my own party because I’ve done all of the worrying beforehand.

I do set the table in plenty of time, because if it looks beautiful, people are far more forgiving about what goes on it. It doesn’t take much to elevate it from the ordinary: a scattering of candles and some flowers or greenery cut from the garden in small glasses spread along the table are as pleasing as more elaborate arrangements and set a relaxed tone, which is truly what we all want.

I’m very guilty of repeatedly inviting my best beloveds, but I do try to include a few new people each time – it makes everyone perk up. However relaxed your gathering, it’s still important to introduce people properly and make it clear what you expect from your guests. If you’re serving and want people to start as they get their food, do tell them; if you want them to help themselves to side dishes, make that clear too. And if you’re the guest, start, help yourself, for goodness’ sake. With new people or shy people, I like to give them a job such as serving drinks or handing round snacks. It breaks the ice in the gentlest possible way.

My idea of hell is a dinner where every component is a RECIPE comprising elaborate method and ingredients, which means the host is weeping into the split sauce while everyone pretends everything is fine as they cling onto their gin and tonics rather too hard. Dinner as gladiatorial combat, inspired by competitive cooking shows, has ruined us for a simple roast chicken and salad followed by bought ice cream. But all sane people – that is, the kind of people you want around your table – prefer the latter to the former. Keep it simple. Some charcuterie and olives, a main course you can prepare in advance, something bought for pudding. Everyone’s happy, nobody’s crying.

When it comes to etiquette, the new rules are the same as the old rules, they’re just a little less starchy. If you’re the host, keep the conversation moving along; if you’re the guest, don’t leave it all to the host. Talk, sparkle, never discuss parking or bins (the new politics and religion), and don’t forget to say thank you. And yes, an email is fine. Flowers are better.

Debora Robertson is a writer and editor specialising in food, homes and gardens. She has columns in The Telegraph and Delicious magazine, and is co-author of Manners: a Modern Field Guide. Her newest book, Notes from a Small Kitchen Island, will be published on 7th July. @lickedspoon