I've been to two weddings already this year and can't actually recall what I ate at either of them," says bride-to-be Melissa Williams. "I think it might have been chicken or it could have been fish. All I know is, it was a bit dry, a bit cold and instantly forgettable."
We've all been there haven't we? Stuck in a warm, airless marquee, a little too much champers swilling around inside us, ploughing our way through an unidentifiable fish course followed by medallions of mediocre meat. By the time the desserts come out and the speeches start, things are a little hazy to say the least.
It's a scenario that Williams is hoping to bypass for her own wedding next month. She is forgoing the traditional three-course, sit-down dinner and opting instead for simple fish and chips, served wrapped in paper just as they would be in any high street chippie. "I've been to one too many weddings where the tastiest thing on the table is the bread roll," she says. "I want something that people will actually want to eat."
It turns out she's not alone. Margot Henderson, wife of St John's Fergus Henderson, has been doing catering for more than a decade. "That horrible, corporate, round table seated arrangement just isn't what people want any more," she says. "Instead we're doing lots of long, communal tables and serving food in big platters placed in the middle so everyone can share. People don't want an uptight formal meal, they want to celebrate and have fun. It's much more relaxed and feast-like."
Chances are if you've been to a wedding organised by a switched-on bride in the past couple of years you'll have noticed this trend. Out goes the starter in favour of canapés served at the champagne reception. Out goes the tough-as-old-boots meat served on silly square plates and in comes something more suited to feeding large quantities of people like Thai noodles, chicken curry or simple gastropub food such as meat pies. And out goes the interminable pudding, coffee and wedding cake routine guaranteed to send you into a stupor for the speeches. Nowadays wedding cake is served as dessert and that's that. It means guests are seated for just two courses and dinner becomes a much breezier affair.
"I've never understood why people have such a one-dimensional attitude to wedding food," says Guy Maddon, who served Thai food at his wedding last week. "In the past few years virtually all the weddings I've been to served fillet of beef or beef Wellington – the obvious "posh" choice. But after a long afternoon eating you're expected to then get up and dance so it's not necessarily the most appropriate choice. I'm a huge fan of hearty English food and I'm a huge fan of weddings but I don't think the two are a match made in heaven."
We can look to those harbingers of good taste, the WAGs, for popularising the trend for the formal sit-down for so long. It's 10 years now since the Beckhams flogged the rights to the happiest day of their life to OK magazine and from that day on we have lurched from one excessive WAG wedding to another. Author Imogen Edwards-Jones spent a year researching her recently-published book Wedding Babylon, in which she managed to persuade wedding planners and other well-placed insiders to spill the beans on the industry. "One thing I was told by all the wedding caterers is that WAGs notoriously always ask for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings," says Edwards-Jones. "Christmas dinner in the middle of July? I find that hilarious. The theory is that it's the one meal of the year that they allow themselves to actually eat because the rest of the time they're all on horrifically punishing diets."
Victoria Beckham apparently requested roast turkey for her 250 guests, "which of course is impossible to do in a marquee without the meat tasting like a dried-out old slipper", says Edwards-Jones. The caterer suggested guinea fowl instead but neither of the Beckhams knew what that was. "They were both very dubious at the tasting and it wasn't until Victoria pronounced it 'just like chicken' that it got the go-ahead."
These days the average British bride spends over £20,000 on her wedding and about £3,500 of that goes to the caterers. "The bride is considered to be a financial sitting duck," says Edwards-Jones, "everyone takes their slice of the action and all prices get multiplied by 10." So a £175 wedding cake, for example, comes in at well over £1,000. Also, if you want to get married in an established venue you'll usually have to pick one of their recommended caterers. "I've got a friend whose getting married this summer at a smart venue in London," says Maddon. "There are about six companies on the list of approved caterers and the average cost per head on that list is upwards of £100. And that doesn't include drink. You'd struggle to spend that on a meal in a really top restaurant. It's a total rip off."
Thank God then for the recession. Where the wedding industry is concerned, it has kicked in not a moment too soon. Finally we have an excuse to put a stop to all this nonsense and start being a little more tasteful and creative about wedding food. Spit roasts, which are a highly- economical way of feeding large numbers, are becoming massively popular. "We've really come into our own during this the recession," says Stephen Marsden MD of spit roasting company Spitting Pig. "We're enjoying a massive boom and are booked up until next year. Not only is a hog roast a great wedding centrepiece, but one pig easily feeds 100 people. Plus they're always sourced locally so you can be sure you are getting the freshest meat."
Garden parties, afternoon teas and bbqs are on the rise. And so too is bowl food – little portions of one type of food, say noodles or pasta, which are bigger than canapés but small enough to eat while standing. But any fans of meat curling at the corners and blackened hard-boiled eggs are in for a disappointment. "The buffet is dead," declares wedding planner Mark Niemierko. "These days people bring bacon butties out later in the evening to soak up the alcohol and ensure the dancing continues. It's much cheaper and much more delicious."
This year Niemierko has done everything from a candy-coloured Marie Antoinette-style "dessert room" overspilling with miniature ice-cream, jellies and crème brûlées to a French-bistro-style bar and full-on Bollywood night. Another wedding planner, Kathryn Lloyd, says she has seen an increase in "food stations", that is small stalls serving different types of food – inspired by the set-up at music festivals. "I think it's all part of a larger trend of people being more switched on about food generally," says Lloyd. "We all know our celebrity chefs and we all watch cookery shows on TV. People are far more aware of what our dining options are – everything from sushi to European to modern British and this had filtered through to weddings."
Still, for every Kate Winslet-style sausage-and-mash wedding dinner which speaks of love, there's a lobster, foie gras and 6ft chocolate cake monstrosity, as chosen by Jordan and Peter Andre. Despite the recession, there's still plenty of opportunity for today's bridezilla to rear her ugly head.
"I think some people lose sight of what getting married is all about," concludes Melissa Williams. "It's not about whether your napkins are a perfect colour match to the detail on your bridesmaids' dresses or whether the champagne flutes you have hired are tall enough. It's about two people being in love and wanting to spend their life together. I think far too often we all forget that."
Tiers and tiaras: Wedding cake trends
There is nothing like the cake to signify the style and era of a wedding. Once we were happy with a dried-up bit of fruitcake smothered in rock-hard icing but today's bride is more demanding, says Kathryn Lloyd, a leading wedding planner. Thankfully, the traditional fruit cake has given way to more bespoke flavours and the tiered format has evolved into cupcake mountains, profiterole towers or cascades of Ladurée macaroons. Here, three famous cakes tell the whole story.
1981: Charles and Diana
The ultimate traditional all-fruit wedding cake. This hexagonal five-tiered number was made by the Royal Navy Cookery School. It reached over 5ft tall, was wrapped in royal icing and featured some very 1980s styling – lots of bows, ribbons and floral spray arrangements. Two identical cakes were made in case of accident and the second tier, as was the tradition then, was saved and used for Prince William's christening.
1999: Victoria and David Beckham
The Beckhams' cake was an extravaganza of late-1990s decadence. There are no other words for it. The three tiers were separated by oversized fake apples and the entire thing was dressed with masses of ivy and vegetation. On top were two figurines of Posh and Becks wearing nothing but ivy leaves which kickstarted a trend which ran throughout the early 2000s for bride and grooms choosing to place miniature versions of themselves on top of their cakes. The majority of the cake was made from polystyrene and was cut with an inscripted ceremonial sword. This highly-theatrical, big-drama styling was required, as this was the first big footballer's wedding to be sold to the press.
2008: Coleen McLoughlin and Wayne Rooney
The Rooneys opted to have two cakes, one for the bride and one for the groom, which is an old American tradition. One was a fashionable croque-en-bouche, or profiterole tower, which Coleen had covered in chocolate rather than the more traditional toffee. The other was a white four-tiered cake made by Slattery Patissier and Chocolatier in Manchester and featuring three flavours – Victoria sponge, chocolate and fruit cake. Here they've chosen something for everyone. These are very much cakes designed to be cut, eaten and enjoyed. Both cakes are simple and understated, a welcome relief from the excess of the early 2000s and bang up to date.