Summer Buffet Nears


April is tapping at the calendar’s door and already the pencils are being sharpened, and ideas tossed about, as the season of the Summer Buffet nears.

Those of my grandmothers’ generation held lunch parties at which cold collations were served, and these included various items en gelée (what I called “things in aspic”) for which I hold a dislike that is only akin to being presented with devilled kidneys.

The aspic element might have been lamb cutlets (prettily French trimmed) with a glaze of jelly or, my English Granny’s favourite, poached chicken breasts over which béchamel sauce was poured and then asparagus spears artfully placed on top before the aspic landed. Perfectly revolting.

Infinitely more palatable was the Savoury Mousse. Cucumber mousse set in a mold and turned out, the centre filled with prawns and watercress. Egg mousse, with the hint of anchovy essence. Rather perverse of me to be a fan of the mousse as it involves gelatine, which is more or less aspic, but one can’t see the jelly.

Moving forward to the the coming summer, there will be lunches galore. Some will be attached to fund-raising events, others will be jolly gatherings for no particular reason other than it’s summer.

One to which I’m lucky enough to be invited annually is held in a marquee in a field. Dodgy and very slippery flooring, the interior bedecked with flowers teetering perilously on pedestals and trestle tables laid with crisp white tablecloths (I would never suggest they might be linen sheets from an airing cupboard somewhere in the county) on which to place the spoils of the collation.

Round tables for 8 or 10 are set, flower arrangements smiling in the centre.

After drinks in an either steamingly hot marquee or shivering while watching a monsoon unleash its fury outside, for this is is June or July, luncheon is announced. A hundred or so souls queue, chattering loudly as they inch towards the serving stations.

Let us sashay along the line.

First, the salmon – a whale – with its couture cloak of thinly sliced cucumber. I walk on by, just stopping for a brief swoop into homemade mayonnaise. A chaffing dish of baby new potatoes, coated in butter and herbs, is tempting. “Just one or two, please…”

We shuffle forward to the cold beef. A vast piece of cow. Beautifully rare, carved with the skill of a surgeon. Is it greedy to ask for more than two slices, as I’ve ignored the salmon? Oh, look, a bowl of horseradish sauce, the horseradish culled from someone’s garden that morning and of eye-watering intensity: a dollop of that is added to my plate.

Cruising along, there are other treasures with which to stack the plate. Bowls of Interesting Leaves dressed in vinaigrette, platters of thinly sliced tomatoes, avocado and mozzarella bedecked in basil and olive oil, possibly the exotica of couscous salad which is jewelled with finely diced cucumber, sweet peppers, the smallest pieces of chopped dried apricots, herbs, lemon zest and a lemony dressing, on the list goes. If you’re unlucky, a puy lentil salad: a friend refers to it as Rabbits’ Droppings In A Bowl.

Beyond all of the above, there she is, the sovereign lady of the summer buffet: Coronation Chicken.

The original recipe, created in 1954 by the doyennes of the Cordon Bleu School in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, was an adaptation of the Jubilee Chicken created for George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, tweaked to accommodate the restrictions of what might be available in store cupboards because of rationing.

Looking at the Coronation Chicken recipe now, it’s a frightful performance. There are versions – very delicious versions – which don’t match the recipe but are referred to as Coronation Chicken. It doesn’t matter a jot. And the Saints of our Kitchens – Mary and Delia – have recipes for chicken salad which are not remotely “coronated”.

Whichever culinary path you chose to follow, cold chicken salad in spiced mayonnaise is a quintessential part of summer.

And for pudding? Well, it just has to involve meringue. And summer fruits. And cream. A lot of cream.

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