From eggs stuffed with fish paste to mini bagels: How our taste in Christmas nibbles has changed over time

· Asda and food historian chart the changing face of the canapé through the festive decades

· Exclusive old archive images from Good Housekeeping reveal our older tastes and love of pastry

· Party food sales rockets this Christmas as Asda expects to sell over 24 million canapés – more than ever before

As Brits get into the full swing of the festive party season this week, leading retailer Asda reveals it is expecting to sell over 24 million canapés this Christmas. The supermarket has teamed up with British food historian, Kate Colquhoun, to explore how festive party food has changed through the decades, evolving from the humble anchovy to traditional pigs in blankets and modern street food bites.
Bite-sized beginnings: from ‘whets’ to ‘canapés’ (Pre 20th Century)
Going back to the first half of the 17th century, meals ended with a small dish of anchovies or other savoury foods like eggs or cheese on toast. “These end-of-meal nibbles are the origin of our very British tradition of serving cheese and biscuits at the end of dinner, but by the 1660s we started serving small bites at the beginning of a meal such as oysters and olives to kickstart appetites” says Kate Colquhoun.

These salty bite-sized foods that started the entertainment off were not known as canapés back then. “Small savoury foods were known as ‘whets’ served in order to boost thirst and whet appetites. Then, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when French chefs were considered to be the height of posh in the UK, ‘canapés’ were born – a name given to toasted bits of bread topped with various savoury things,” explains Kate Colquhoun. The word “canapé” draws on the French word “sofa” with the garnish sitting on top of the bread, just as people do on a sofa.

The fashion for pre-dinner canapés was at its height when Mrs Marshall – the Delia Smith of the 1890s – opened her enormous cookbook with recipes for ‘hors d’oeuvres and savouries’ both hot and cold. “In those days it all had to be made at home and the party favourites of the era were caviar on toast, parmesan rings, oysters, small anchovy pies, profiteroles and endless moulded ‘croutes’ or ‘tartlets’ that would today try the skill and patience of the most advanced pastry chefs,” notes Kate Colquhoun.

Parties and Pastries (1920s)
After the First World War, the arrival of convenience foods were more common and fewer households had cooks to help them so many turned to cook books. Kate Colquhoun observes, “Canned fish and meat, bottled olives and gherkins were kept for when guests arrived without warning. When the economy took an upswing and everyone wanted to party in the 1920s, cookbooks were united in advising housewives that pastry was the answer to the question of entertaining and no one seemed to hesitate.”

From 1925, Good Housekeeping had Christmas party food recipes for Jam Puffs and Veal and Oyster Patties, different to the pigs and blankets or sliders we may serve today. Pastry was also described as an accompaniment that ‘no housewife should ever be without.’

Help Yourself Canapés (1930s)
As the Great Depression hit the following decade, belts were tightened as unemployment skyrocketed and simpler canapés where guests could help themselves became more the norm. “Partying was less about ‘standing out’ than ‘fitting in’ and people poured over magazine advice for what to serve guests. The fashion was to help yourself from a side table or tray wagon of pates and thick mousses or battered croquettes. Hard-boiled eggs were stuffed with fish paste and cream crackers dolloped with soft cheese and a bit of gherkin were party canapé staples. So, too, were anchovy biscuits, fried bread topped with sardines or herring roes and tomato jellies – dishes that used a combination of fresh and canned food,” says Colquhoun.

Ration to Fashion canapés (1940-50s)
Rationing stretched long into the early 1950s and canapés were still cobbled together with whatever could be found until the young Queen abandoned rationing and more ‘fashioned’ canapés started to take over. “The pressures on the mid-fifties aspirational ‘hostess,’ almost always in a frilly pinny, heels and full make up, grew and grew. In Constance Spry’s super-successful recipe book (1956), which was a staple in housewives’ homes, she had chapters on how to fashion the perfect cocktail party, and included more than a hundred recipes for different kinds of canapé,” says Kate Colquhoun.

Spry’s famous recipe book included canapés such as rolls filled with meat, mushroom, devilled eggs or chicken, oysters wrapped in bacon, savoury choux buns, chicken liver pate, caviar and prune and dates ‘kebabs.’

Supermarkets and freezers to the rescue (1960s-present day)
During the 1960s and 1970s, more women got jobs outside the home and as time became increasingly precious, canapés became more practical. “Supermarkets and freezers came to the rescue to preserve ingredients and provide ready made canapés – and so did cooks like Margueritte Patten who told us to entertain more practically publishing books filled with colour photos and detailed instruction. Prawn cocktail, avocados, peaches and hostess-trolleys were all the rage along with brandy snaps, meat balls and vegetarians were on the up,” Kate Colquhoun observes.

Colquhoun adds, “Choux buns were still favourites, still made by hand; quiches had come of age; pate and celery were on every menu, toasted cheese made a party come-back three hundred years after it’s first heyday and blinis with the ‘new’ taste of soured cream and lumpfish ‘caviar’ were the last word in style.”

As we moved into the 1980s, the ‘taste of home’ became popular for our multi-taste society as multicultural cooking TV programs and recipe books started to dominate. “From Claudia Roden’s Middle East, Maddhur Jaffrey’s India and Ken Hom’s China, we have never looked back. By the 90s, canapés were becoming more exotic. Thai wontons, satay sticks, samosas and spring rolls were party staples and supermarkets were rushing to the rescue of households working ever-longer office hours,” says Kate Colquhoun.

Fran McCargo, Party Food Manager at Asda comments, “Christmas canapés are now a staple of the Big Day. We’ve seen such a huge demand this festive season that we’ve had to bring forward our Christmas party food sales by three weeks this year, as Brits are certainly getting into the festive party spirit early!

“We are also seeing a trend for customers wanting to add their own personal touch to canapés, so we’ve stepped up the range this year to include DIY canapés kits that provide all the ingredients to help you piece together the perfect canapé with ease such as Chicken Tinga Taco Cups and Salt Beef Mini-Bagels.

“At Asda, we know how stretched people are for time at Christmas and have everything from traditional pigs in blankets, innovative seafood shots* to black pudding croquettes as well as a twist on modern favourites.”

Commenting on current canapé choices, Kate Colquhoun says, “Today at Christmas we choose from the best of the past – pigs in blankets, pastry sausage rolls and mozzarella sticks, which are re-invented from 1930s croquettes. The globalisation of canapés has also continued and we now enjoy street food reinvented as finger food such as spring rolls, samosas, pastry bites, mini burgers, tacos, plus all those traditional continental meats, olives and anchovies that we’ve taken to our hearts over the years. We’ve evolved canapés over time by adding something new or giving traditional foods new twists but despite all the telly cooks urging us to do it ourselves, convenience is King. Beyond it all, the urge to entertain, to amuse and party, at which food is always central, is as part of our community DNA now as it has been for countless centuries.”

Ends

*Asda’s Extra Special Seafood Shots will be available from 15th December 2016