22 August 2014

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Best of British


We predict that this summer’s party season will be all about home-grown entertainment

red arrows - goodwood_114.jpgSpring has sprung, and that can mean only one thing: the summer season is just around the corner. Despite our occasionally unpredictable weather, we Brits throw a mean summer party. And there’s plenty for us to celebrate right now.
William and Kate’s wedding should remind us all why we have a monarchy, over and above the occasional comic value provided by the minor Royals. Horse-drawn carriages, mini Union flags, red-white-and-blue bunting, Pimm’s, Pimm’s and more Pimm’s… Surely even the most passionate republican will find themselves swept away by the party atmosphere (though the sensible ones will have taken full advantage of the escape opportunity provided by two consecutive bank holiday weekends). And this, of course, is merely the warm-up act for next year, when the Olympic and Paralympic Games descend on the capital.
If you’re organising a summer party you should make the most of our moment in the sun (weather permitting) and celebrate the best of British. And as you’ll discover over the next seven pages, it’s easier than you think to give your event a British – or even London – focus, from the theme and the way you decorate your venue, to the food and drink you serve.

Decoration & Theming

Get your event off to a flying start by setting the scene for a great night

Before you start decorating your venue, you have to choose one. This is a tricky decision at the best of times and it only gets trickier when you’re organising a summer party and need good outside space. But a word to the wise. This is Britain. The one thing you can’t depend on is the weather. So don’t make the mistake of getting swept away by venues with beautiful gardens but mediocre internal space.
‘People are so keen to find a venue with good outdoor space for summer parties that they tend to compromise on the venue itself,’ says Katie Beard of The Ultimate Experience (tel: 0845 263 7121, squaremeal.co.uk/ue), which runs a programme of shared parties at the HAC’s Artillery Garden and the new Pavilion at the Tower of London. ‘Remember, if the weather is poor you won’t be able to enjoy the garden, so put the venue first, then tailor everything to match that. A Midsummer Night’s Dream or English Eccentric party will be much harder to make work if you have to move into a conference room. You need a light and airy venue for a summer party, ideally with glazed walls and nice views so that even if it buckets down it won’t be too dark.’
And that is key: as any good event organiser knows, you can save a bundle on decoration by picking a venue that matches the spirit of the event. A point appreciated by Michelle McGing, who’s organising this year’s summer party fund-raiser for the English National Ballet, with a theme of ‘English eccentric with a touch of Hollywood glamour’ (29 June; for ticket info, tel: 020 7581 1245).
‘We went round the houses on venues,’ says McGing. ‘Ideally we’d be outside but if it’s too cold our dancers won’t be able to perform, so we looked long and hardUnion Plate - Union_Plate.jpg for a venue with an outdoors feel, and settled on The Orangery at Kensington Palace (tel: 020 3166 6115, squaremeal.co.uk/kenpal). It’s so beautiful it doesn’t really need decoration – we’ll just have flowers on the tables and lanterns outside.’
When it comes to floral decorations, opt for home-grown seasonal flowers. Sue Barnes of event florist Lavender Green (tel: 020 7127 5303, squaremeal.co.uk/lav-green) has the following suggestions for traditional British flowers for a summer party. ‘Delphiniums are tall
and impressive and great for table centres, and stocks look fabulous
en-masse,’ she says. ‘Peonies are eternally fashionable; sweet peas are the most wonderfully nostalgic flowers and English roses will always evoke the feel of a summer garden.

Dare we suggest fancy dress?

Your guests will undoubtedly approach a summer party in a lighter frame of mind than they would one in the depths of winter, and will be more open to dressing to a theme. But don’t put them to the test – keep it low-effort. A ‘Summer Festival’ theme is as relaxed as things can get. ‘Classic British Movies’ will bring out the Celia Johnson in any girl and, to horrible effect, the Leslie Phillips in most men (still, an improvement on Robin Asquith). A sense of humour never goes amiss. A ‘British Seaside’ theme gives guests the chance to veer from the cheeky to the ridiculous. Mad Men sparked a spate of parties with a 1960s Manhattan vibe; surely it’s time for ‘1950s British Suburbia’ event, complete with floral pinnies?
There’s a lot of interest in London right now and that’s set to continue through the summer. ‘With the Royal wedding and the Olympics, the buzz around London is tangible,’ says Colin Docherty of Event Prop Hire (tel: 0845 0940 816, squaremeal.co.uk/eph). ‘People are proud of the capital, and we think that’s why we have seen a huge increase in the number of London-themed nights.’
Certainly, the Event Prop Hire stand at this year’s Confex at Earls Court got a lot of attention, thanks to its British-themed props, including a Union flag Chesterfield sofa, red phone boxes, bulldogs and even a replica Downing Street. We are in a Royal wedding year, so don’t skimp on the red-white-and-blue bunting.


There’s never been a better time to put together an all-British menu

The past few years have seen a huge resurgence of interest in our islands’ culinary history, culminating in February’s opening of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental, which plundered long-forgotten British cookbooks for inspiration. Don’t get the wrong idea – we’re not advocating ye olde medieval dining (though, to be fair, it has its time and place), just suggesting that a summer party is a great opportunity to support home-grown produce.
‘There is an exquisite larder of foods from across the British Isles, rich in flavour and texture, which can be used to create menus for summer parties with a “Best of British” theme,’ says Jonathan Morris of No.11 Cavendish Square (tel: 020 7307 2474, squaremeal.co.uk/no11cav). ‘Live food bars can serve seafood including Scottish salmon, langoustine, mussels and scampi. A barbecue station can dish out Herefordshire beef sirloin, English cobs and Coleman’s mustards alongside a cheese bar with heritage apple chutneys.’
pineapple spit dinner by heston_2011 - IMG_2070.jpgImpress your guests by committing to regional produce as far as possible. You can put a local twist on things even if you’re holding a party in the City. For instance, you can ask your caterer to use ‘London Cure’ salmon smoked by H Forman & Sons on Fish Island, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Village, or De Beauvoir ‘Hix Cure’, smoked by Mark Hix at his North London home. Free-range Blythburgh pork sausages from Suffolk can be glazed in a honey-and-mustard dressing using honey from the London Honey Company. Line-caught Thames jellied eel canapés might be a step too far, though.
Event caterers DeWintons (tel: 020 7627 5550, squaremeal.co.uk/dewintons) suggests putting a modern twist on British Foods enjoying EU Protected Designation status, in dishes like Swaledale ewes’ cheese beignet with gooseberry purée on walnut and watercress salad, and Chocolate-dipped Cornish clotted cream ice-cream bombs with sautéed strawberry and green peppercorn coulis. 
Even traditionally continental foods are being produced in Britain. If the St Pancras Grand is able to serve up all-British charcuterie platters, there’s no reason why you can’t. Trealy Farm in Monmouth, Wales, is winning awards by the trough-load for its bresaola and pancetta (which is just begging to be wrapped around English asparagus in the May-June season). Chorizo can be ordered from The Bath Pig, sloe-gin-soaked salami from the Real Boar Co, based in the Cotswolds.
Seasonality is everything, and the best caterers will help you take full advantage. Native Rock oysters, sadly, will be off the menu (April to August is spawning season), though Pacific and European oysters, which find our waters too chilly for oyster-nookie, make a great alternative.
Summer, though, is all about fruit. Strawberries are a given, but look beyond the cream. Scott Macdonald, executive group chef of Mint Hotels (tel: 0845 601 3009, squaremeal.co.uk/minttol), advocates brushing them with sugar and water and barbecuing them for a couple of minutes each side. ‘It’s a real crowd-pleaser,’ he says.
While we’re on the subject, if you see the word ‘barbecue’, beware if it’s followed by ‘style’. ‘They’re very different things,’ says Simon Mitchell of Impulse Events (tel: 0870 383 4595, squaremeal.co.uk/impulse). ‘Ninety per cent of caterers and venues will do their “barbecues” in the kitchen on a gas grill and then bring it out to serve. We always insist it’s done on charcoal, in front of the guests.’
Whatever you serve up, there’s a big trend for sharing, says Matt Peat of Urban Caprice (tel: 020 7286 1700, squaremeal.co.uk/uc). ‘For banqueting we’re providing long tables and simple, honest food to share,’ he says. ‘People want a relaxed atmosphere, in contrast to the formality of a few years ago.


A mead revival may be a way off, but there are still plenty of British booze options

First things first: a British-themed summer party should always have Pimm’s. Lots and lots of Pimm’s. That’s the law. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we can move onto other options.
Global warming might cause a few problems here and there but the flipside is English sparkling wine that can bear comparison with Champagne. The drawback, though, is cost. English fizz offers poor value compared with mass-produced continental wines such as Prosecco. You’ll have to make a judgement call on this one…
Rosé will disappear by the tanker-load, and again we’d recommend going abroad. Don’t give up hope, though. There are plenty of true Brit booze options. The days when gin was so cheap that it presented a threat to our social fabric are long gone, but it still won’t break the bank, and what could be more British? It’s also deliciously on-trend.
‘We’re going to be doing six new gin cocktails this summer,’ says Bruno De Nascimento, the gong-laden mixologist at the Dorchester (tel: 020 7319 7071, squaremeal.co.uk/dorchester). Bruno’s own favourite? ‘Gin fizz or Tom Collins. It’s so easy to make. At the Dorchester we do a version with crushed strawberry using Sipsmith gin.’ Sipsmith, if you didn’t know, is brewed in Hammersmith, so is about as local as you can get for a London event.
Just down the road, the InterContinental London Park Lane (tel: 020 7493 3131, squaremeal.co.uk/ic-london) has launched the Arch Bar, where it’s ‘Gin Hour’ every night from 5.30-6.30pm. Its award-winning mixologist, Stefano Filistad, has this suggestion for a great gin-in-a-jug summer cocktail, Prudence: ‘Muddle 90 basil leaves with 80ml sugar syrup at the bottom of a jug. Add 490ml of Lillet Blanc, 210ml of Sipsmith gin and 35ml of lemon juice, then stir vigorously. Add lots of ice and stir well again. Strain into Martini glasses and garnish with basil leaves.’

pimms - Henley_Regatta_Fawley_Meadows_(8).jpgSomething for everyone
If you want a vodka option, fear not. You needn’t import a Lada-full from Russia. The World’s Best Vodka (official: it won last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition) is distilled from good honest British potatoes in Herefordshire by Chase. Or consider Brecon Five, from the award-winning Penderyn Distillery in Wales’s Brecon Beacons National Park. Whichever cocktail you choose, make sure it’s one that can be mixed in large quantities. Nothing’s more annoying than waiting an age for a drink while the bar staff shake individual glasses of cocktails.
Cider, served with lots of ice, will be popular (we’d serve Aspall Peronelle’s Blush – a cidery take on the kir royale made with a blackberry liquer). And, of course, don’t forget about beer. You’d have to be living under a bush not to have noticed that real ale is knocking tentatively at the door of hip. Your guests might not want to down pints, but why not serve up tasters of attention-grabbing celebrity beers such as Gold (by Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley) or Rick Stein’s Chalky’s Bite?
Bear in mind is that people drink differently at different times of the year. ‘Summer parties tend to be less drunken than Christmas parties,’ says The Ultimate Experience’s Katie Beard. ‘It’s light until almost 10pm and the evening tends to be more leisurely. People want to be outside, not downing shots at the bar.’
Luckily, for those in for the long-haul, Brits have always had a strong line in crisp non-alcoholic drinks. Fresh lemonade is a classic, and will vanish by the gallon on a hot day, as will homemade ginger beer. If you want to be really trad, lay on some dandy lion and burdock. Fentimans, which has been brewing ginger beer and other non-alcoholic beverages in Northumberland since 1905, is the brand you should ask for. Look for the dog on the bottle.
Finally, two things. First, don’t economise on the ice. Believe us, it’s better to have too much than too little. And second, don’t even consider serving drinks in plastic glasses unless the health-and-safety police put you in an arm lock. ‘Always use glass,’ says Urban Caprice’s Matt Peat. ‘Don’t be stingy. Champagne tastes better in a glass – fact. Steer away from plastic full-stop.’


Mix it up with old-school party games and a sun-soaked iPod playlist

Summertime has a dramatic effect on the British. A spot of sunshine and we transform from a nation of grumps into Pimm’s-swilling party lovers. Which is great news for event organisers. People approach summer parties in a happier frame of mind, and are more open to entertainers and even – dare we breathe the words? – organised fun.
First, ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you just want to put a smile on people’s faces, or do you want to incorporate a teambuilding element? Whichever you opt for, make sure your guests know what to expect. You don’t want them turning up anticipating a little light jazz of a summer’s afternoon and finding themselves shanghaied into a no-holds-barred ‘It’s A Knock-Out’ contest. And, as ever, think about the setting. ‘Try to tie entertainment into the venue,’ suggests The Ultimate Experience’s Katie Beard. ‘At our events at the Tower of London, for instance, our entertainment tends to have a medieval flavour.’
The entertainment can make or break any event. But don’t go over-board, advises the English National Ballet’s Michelle McGing. ‘It’s best
to keep it simple,’ she says. ‘At fund-raisers in particular, guests get so much flung at them it’s important to leave them the space to have fun.’
And what sort of fun should you provide at an English summer’s party? Well, activities that engage your guests are always a good idea, says Urban Caprice’s Matt Peat. ‘People want more interactivity, whether it’s planting a sapling, or creating a mural. Anything that brings the event alive is good. People are very keen to be photographed – we’re doing
a lot of flip-books [a stills camera captures you several times a second as you throw silly poses, then a flip-book that you flick through to create
a moving image is printed instantly].’
New Hall Hotel & Spa - croquet.jpgThink hard about the music. ‘A jazz trio just doesn’t cut it,’ says Impulse Events’ Simon Mitchell. ‘You need something more up-tempo and modern. We sometimes use a DJ accompanied by a saxophonist. A little steel band creates a wonderful atmosphere, too.’ And what about five tunes that just have to be on any summer party playlist? ‘Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Rio by Duran Duran, Club Tropicana by Wham!, Mr Brightside by The Killers and Walking on Sunshine by Katrina & The Waves.’
If you really want to go for it, what could be more English than a few school sports day contests, such as an egg-and-spoon or three-legged race? Certainly, the standard of athleticism your guests are likely to demonstrate will be reminiscent of the average English nursery school. But remember, that not every guest arrives at a party, summertime or otherwise, with an insatiable urge to engage in team games. Good hostesses can make the difference between a guest being a wall-flower and having a miserable time or getting involved in group activities and having the time of their lives.
Less active options abound. Croquet is always a favourite, but be warned – it can be fiercely competitive and illegal betting will be rife. Traditional fairground games go down well, too, such as ‘splat-the-rat’, coconut shys and old-school skittles.
But for a truly English summer party game, nothing beats ‘dwile flonking’. The roots of this East Anglian sport (if it deserves the name) are shrouded in mystery, but essentially it consists of throwing a beery rag at people. Provide T-shirts and shorts and be cautious when choosing a referee – tradition dictates that he or she should be ‘dull-witted’.

News, Offers & Bright Ideas

Kick back with a glass of Pimm’s and feast on treats from the BBQ at No.11 Cavendish Square (tel: 020 7307 2474, squaremeal.co.uk/no11cav). Its Summer Soiree package offers exclusive use of the Orangery and courtyard garden for £76pp (min party size 100).

Designed by Lutyens, Bloomsbury’s BMA House (tel: 020 7874 7020, squaremeal.co.uk/bma) has a stunning courtyard garden and summer packages for 50 to 350 include a sparkling wine or Pimm’s reception, BBQ and music for £65pp.

London Zoo’s (tel: 020 7449 6562, squaremeal.co.uk/zsl) summer packages include BBQs overlooking the lions, cocktail parties on the Outback terrace, and receptions in Gorilla Kingdom. From £45-£65pp for up to 2,000 guests.

Follow the paper trail to Stationers’ Hall (tel: 020 7236 1507, squaremeal.co.uk/stationers), next to St Paul’s Cathedral. Its garden is great for cocktails and BBQs, which include rustic burgers and wild boar sausages. Garden party prices start at £47, for up to 250.

Party people should head to The Adelaide (tel: 0870 383 4595, squaremeal.co.uk/impulse) in Primrose Hill. Its new summer deal means the venue and huge garden are all yours for £50 a head, including unlimited drinks, BBQ, DJ and disco.

The Tower of London leaves its ghoulish past behind to host summer parties in The Pavilion (tel: 020 7940 6060, squaremeal.co.uk/tower-p), a temporary structure set within the moat. Shared party nights cater to 10 to 150 guests for £119pp, or the whole Pavilion can be hired for up to 600 for dinner or 1,000 for drinks.

Summer events at Ascot (tel: 0870 727 8765, squaremeal.co.uk/ascot-race) win by a nose, with a triple-decker marquee, Pimm’s receptions and buffets or BBQs for between 50 and 2,400. From £54pp.

The terrace at Northbank (tel: 020 7329 9299, squaremeal.co.uk/northbank) has great views of the Millennium Bridge.
Terrace 1006_Northbank1.jpg Its BBQ package is £17.50pp, with room for 40 seated and
50 standing. The bar and terrace can be hired together for up to 100.

The roof terrace at Coin Street Conference Centre (tel: 020 7021 1650, squaremeal.co.uk/coinst) is ideal for post-meeting drinks and comes complete with lawn. It takes up to 200 from £500 an hour, with food and drink packages available (closes 7pm).

The courtyard at Ironmongers’ Hall (tel: 020 7776 2300, squaremeal.co.uk/ironmongers) leads into the wood-panelled Luncheon Room, handy for bad weather. BBQ packages including drinks from £75pp for 30-45.

The Summer Marquee at the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn (tel: 020 7458 7800, squaremeal.co.uk/grays-marquee) in High Holborn is set in five acres of gardens. Available from the end of June to the end of July, packages from £45pp.

Camp it up at Sandown Park Racecourse (tel: 01372 477747, squaremeal.co.uk/sandown-p) in Surrey – its popular Summer Music Nights are back, with Scissor Sisters and Tom Jones performing (July 20 and 27 respectively). Packages from £99pp.

It’s BBQ madness at The Deck (tel: 020 7452 3796, squaremeal.co.uk/deck): the light-filled venue with a terrace at the National Theatre is offering four barbie menus, with everything from Jamaican jerk chicken to Key Lime pie. Exclusive hire for 100 is £110 pp, including food and drink.

The rooftop garden at Skinners’ Hall (tel: 020 7213 0553, squaremeal.co.uk/skinners) near London’s Cannon Street is perfect for summer parties. Options include cocktails, canapés, barbecues and themed stalls, from South American carnival roasts to wok-cooked Thai. Up to 300 people; packages from £52pp.

RIBA – Royal Institute of British Architects (tel: 020 7307 3888, squaremeal.co.uk/riba) will make the most of balmy evenings on its refurbished terrace with new cocktail-hour packages. It can host parties over three floors, for up to 150. The full four-hour package, with canapés, costs £65.50pp.

Mayfair’s finest, The Naval & Military Club, AKA The In & Out (tel: 020 7871 0577, squaremeal.co.uk/naval) boasts a secluded courtyard. It has put together a special Summer Party Proposal with BBQ, canapé and bowl-food options, plus drinks, from £47pp.

HQS Wellington (tel: 020 7871 0577 squaremeal.co.uk/hqsw) on Victoria Embankment has launched an All Aboard package for summer, including unlimited drinks plus food (with a BBQ option), for 57pp.

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, spring 2011

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