In praise of the canapé
A short appreciation of the genius of canapés.
“A snip and a snack arranged on a tray and labelled in French makes a smart canapé”, so begins the 1953 recipe book, The ABC of Canapés. And indeed they are a smart snack. Small and perfectly formed, there’s little more one needs when circumstance dictates you must eat on your feet none other than eloquently (think gallery openings and other such affairs). It’s a world away from street food’s more forgiving convention of eating on your feet and dropping slaw on your shoe. No, such gatherings require leaving the lockjaw-avoiding head turn at home, and a canapé is the best way for it.
“Canapé” delightfully translates to “sofa”. Its intention, then, is as a cushion for your cuisine atop a square of toast, cracker or crispbread. These momentary bites both whet the appetite and back off hunger, their daintiness making it a natural fit for opulence. Their popularity grew during in American speakeasies and were the perfect antidote for an otherwise inebriated law-breaker. The size of a canapé lends itself to artful construct – balance is unavoidable where the precise plane of bread must accommodate the curves and folds of a smoked salmon, a dollop of crème fraiche or a delicate snip of chive. It is food art in one bite – there to be moreish, to satiate, and to look as classy as its setting. Anything less, and it’s the guest who turned up to the wedding in jeans.
These miniature beauties originated in France, with their first English reference thought to be in Mrs Beeton’s 1890 Cookery Book. One for the housewife’s party repertoire, the canapés’ position as a first-class delicacy has remained unchanged. They tick many a box when it comes to refined dining. For one, they circumvent the social awkwardness of holding a conversation as well as a plate. Instead you’re granted a blink departure from conversation. They’re small enough to give a quick once over with your eyes to test for salivation, and give you a window to nod as you chew.
Secondly, it allows for sneaky sampling – not something that can be done artfully when there’s a buffet about. Yes you’d quite like the beignet, but ooh, you’ve never had pomegranate with cheese before. Ah, there comes a tiny square of carrot cake, go on then. And all shamelessly consumed with not a judgemental eye roll in sight.
The canapé appreciates your little black dress or fine pressed shirt, and so reserves potential spillages for the main courses that may follow. You can continue to appreciate the art on the wall without the worry you’ve become a canvas.
So the next time you find yourself in the presence of canapés, appreciate their form and their function, for that is really great artistry at work.