Howard Croft column: My dish flops but at least no Des O'Connor records
For many years, it has been our custom for Mrs Croft and I to throw a party in late November as a sort of gateway to Christmas, usually for about 40 or so guests. We have occasionally had to cancel, but only for good reasons: last year, for example, we were nursing our now late dog Rosie following major orthopaedic surgery and a couple of years before that when we were laid low by the dreaded winter vomiting disease, always a worry in November.
This year everything went according to plan: out of a guest list of forty-four we had only four no-shows. In they piled, eager for wine and ready to tie on the bib, most known to me, at least by sight. It was a jolly good evening, but by Jove the work involved beforehand was ridiculous. The event was on Friday evening and much of Wednesday, most of Thursday and the whole of Friday were filled with chores – shopping, cooking, furniture shifting, deep cleaning. And all those little jobs no-one ever talks about: taking down all the boxes of wine glasses from the loft, unseen for at least a year, and shaking out the mouse droppings. You may find, I warned people, the odd grain of basmati rice in your wine, but not to worry – a little fibre is good for you and slows down the absorption of alcohol.
And the stress – would anyone actually turn up? This is a particular anxiety for Mrs Croft, who many years ago, threw a party in her flat in Beauchamp Place, close to Harrods (where else?), and not a soul showed up. That was a humiliation never to be forgotten, especially as it was years before our doctors invented winter vomiting disease, that convenient excuse.
The catering was a triumph. It has been our practice in the past for Mrs Croft to knock out a couple of main dishes (lasagne and chicken curry usually) and me to lovingly prepare one. My signature dish, chilli con carne, has always been popular, but this year not so much. I fear the reason is that I have changed the recipe to one recommended by Saira Hamilton, hero of Masterchef, whom I have known since she was a slip of a girl of eleven. In those days, of course, she made no attempt to meddle with my culinary activities, but now that she is fully grown – if 5ft 1in can be described as fully grown – she does not hesitate to do so. I shall be telling her when next we see each other that it was a slow mover at this year’s do.
I now have a new signature dish with which I have stunned several lucky guests – steak Diane – but it is not suitable for offering to large numbers as it involves setting fire to it with brandy and buying fillet steak, a pricy commodity. The recipe I use I lifted from Antony Worrall Thompson, whose restaurant in West Kensington, the Notting Grill, Mrs Croft and I used to frequent years ago. He was usually in there sitting morosely alone at a table in a corner, not cooking, but scribbling on a note pad – planning his next book, perhaps. As chance would have it, son Edward and his wife are treating us to dinner at his restaurant near Henley, the Greyhound, a posh venue by all accounts.
If I catch sight of him there, I shall tell him how much I enjoy cooking – and eating – steak Diane prepared along the lines recommended by him. He may well remember us; on one occasion at the Notting Grill, Mrs Croft tripped on the steps down into the ladies’ and landed up on all fours under the sink. Thankfully, nothing was broken – he had obviously invested in good quality floor tiles – and my recollection is that we were not banned on that occasion.
One of our guests at the party commented approvingly on the absence of music. I take the view that music at parties interferes with conversation and that in any case Mrs Croft’s Dusty Springfield records would not go down well, not to mention her Des O’Connor favourites. However, I noticed one or two guests gazing longingly at the speakers, so perhaps we should lay on some entertainment next year. A session of cage fighting in the garden might go down well with some of our guests. I must mention this possibility to Mrs Croft when a suitable moment presents itself.