Put that traditional three-course menu down – today’s best wedding food not only looks fantastic, it makes the big day run more smoothly too
Words: Annica Wainwright
What is it about weddings that brings out the smoked salmon parfait in people? In an age where it’s (just about) considered normal to queue for upwards of two hours for tables in London’s hottest pop-ups, I’m amazed how many couples still serve traditional – often downright dull – food at their weddings. Is it pressure from parents, inflexible caterers, or just that it’s ‘the done thing’?
I very rarely argue with my mum but we did have a falling-out over wedding food. I wanted a crayfish party reflecting my Swedish roots; she was worried what people would make of it. Messy, hands-on eating and expensive party frocks? Not a great combo in mum’s book. What if someone’s clothes were to get ruined? It took several heated discussions and 107 handmade linen bibs for me to get my way. Was it worth the effort? Hell, yeah. That meal made our day.
The most memorable weddings I’ve attended have all had an element of surprise – something that sets them apart from the rest. Quite often, it’s the venue that provides that wow factor. A great band can do it too. And so, of course, can the food – if you dare to ditch those ‘safe bet’ wedding favourites. Let’s face it: if a dish isn’t worthy of your Instagram feed – and I’m pretty sure yours, like mine, is a smoked salmon parfait-free zone – it has no place on your wedding menu.
By shaking things up a bit, you’ll also be able to use your budget more efficiently, spending money where it counts, instead of splashing it all on one meal. Once you start thinking about what people are likely to want to eat when, it will all begin to make perfect sense.
Remember that wedding you almost missed? The traffic on the M4 was terrible, you took a wrong turn somewhere near Swindon and arrived too late to check into the hotel, let alone grab anything to eat. In fact, you were still getting changed in the church car park as the bride’s car pulled up outside.
This, or something similar, will happen to your guests too – it always does. And, by the time these guys have sat through the ceremony, trying hard not to let their rumbling stomachs overpower your ‘I dos’, they’ll be hungry. Really hungry.
What usually happens next? Ah, yes, it’s time for drinks. And photos. You know, the bit where guests are left scrambling for cheese straws, getting progressively more drunk on prosecco, as the bride and groom are snapped, first on their own (from every angle, all around the venue’s grounds), and then with various members of the wedding party. If you sense a bit of resentment here, it’s because I’ve usually progressed from hungry to all-out hangry by this stage.
Here’s where you apply your first bit of catering sorcery, beefing up the canapé budget by striking starters off the menu for the sit-down meal. Four or five substantial bites per person will see your guests through the reception no matter how long it takes to track down relatives for that crucial last family photo. Go for carb-based dishes such as fried chicken on tiny waffles, salt cod brandade in potato skins, or crowd-pleasing roast beef in mini yorkshires to help soak up the alcohol.
Wedding days are long. If your ceremony is in the middle of the day, you’re likely to miss lunch, so make sure you start with a proper breakfast. Too wound up to eat? Steady your nerves with a peach bellini, then tuck into some eggs benedict.
With starters out of the way, you go straight into the main course, cutting bums-on-seats time by a good half hour (guests will thank you for this once the speeches start). For this part of the day, I’d recommend meals that can be served family style, as the sharing of food around tables creates a convivial atmosphere that suits a wedding very well. By making the meal itself a focal point, you can also cut down on decorations, leaving more money to spend on food.
Feeling flush? Tiered seafood platters, perhaps complemented by whole, salt-baked fish, homemade aioli, steamed asparagus and minted new potatoes, make seriously impressive table centres. Replace lobster and scallops with crab and mussels, and you can even do this on a budget.
A colourful spread of salads and dips (try Ottolenghi: The Cookbook for inspiration) will really brighten up a table, offering support to anything from barbecued chicken or beef to thinly sliced herb-marinated lamb. Serve meats on separate platters and add cheese or pulses into the salad mix, and you won’t need to worry about a veggie alternative – everyone can eat from the same spread.
Asian food was made for family-style sharing and now that Thai, Indian and even Sri Lankan cuisine is represented among London’s top restaurants, no one can claim curry is too casual for a wedding. Vegetarians can, again, be catered for without too much extra thought and, by mixing cheap, veg-based dishes with meatier mains, you can make your budget go a long way.
Fancy something British? Consider afternoon tea. Traditional without being boring, it’s a format that also fits well with the timings of a typical wedding day, where the main meal tends to be served in the late afternoon or early evening. Vintage cake stands look great on the tables and, by cutting out table wine from the booze budget, you can invest in champagne for the toasts.
The most straightforward cost-cutting move in wedding catering is perhaps to cut the cake. It’s expensive and excessive if you’ve already served pud and nearly always disappointing. Who would choose iced fruitcake over crème brûlée on a restaurant menu? No one, that’s who. So why not spend that precious wedding budget on desserts that your guests will actually enjoy?
If you want something to cut for photos, you could opt for a big round of cheese and then surprise guests with a fabulous sweet course – giant bowls of eton mess to share, gooey salted caramel brownies with soft whipped cream or a DIY ice-cream sandwich bar.
With dinner at 6pm and dancing past midnight, your guests will be hungry at the end. Most likely drunk too. Send them off with the best hangover cure you can offer: more food. If your venue has a curfew (few don’t these days), a street-food truck parked outside will also help you clear the room.
Putting on brunch the following day is a nice touch. Book a late one so people can sleep right through to checkout time. You’ll send guests on their way happy.
Take inspiration from London’s top street food vendors. These guys are used to serving Insta-friendly food at events...
@Allihopa_LDN Smoked fish with Scandi accoutrements. It’s kind of a big dill.
@BbqDreamz Daring Filipino flavours. Try the satay duck heart skewers and crispy pork belly with sesame green beans.
@Capishfood Italian American sandwiches, from meatball subs to sloppy joes.
@CLAWfood All about the crab. Sustainable bites include hand-picked devonshire crab burgers, fish roe fries and cajun-spiced pollock fish finger sandwiches on brioche.
@DecaturLondon Soul food from Louisiana: chargrilled oysters with garlic-pecorino butter and hot sauce; chicken and sausage gumbo; New Orleans beignets.
@farangLDN Next-level Thai street food. Think smoked shrimp som tam and red curry burgers with coconut chilli jam.
@FundiPizza From wood-fired ovens, Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizzas come with carefully sourced toppings. The tomato sauce really is ace.
@smokestakUK Ribs, brisket, smoke. It's all all about southern-style barbecue.
This article was first published in Squaremeal Weddings 2016