If your parties tend to go with a whimper rather than abang, then read on. It doesn't have to be complex or expensive, but throwing agood party does need a little forethought.
SET THE SCENE
First off, you need to set the scene. Fairy lights aren't just for Christmas. Plain white lights nestling in flowers and foliage will make any table look truly magical, or you can buy strings of lights to suit your theme – pink flamingos for a kitsch Seventies party, for instance.
Start as you mean to go on by leading guests to your doorwith pretty punched lanterns made from tin cans, adding a tea light and hangingthem from trees or setting them on walls.
WHAT TO DRINK
When your guests arrive, the first thing they will do is accept a drink from you, so you’ve got to get it right. But what to serve for your party depends on location, food and, indeed, the mood you want to create.
In the depths of winter you want something spicy andwarming, soft on the palate and welcoming. This will help start things off asyour guests come in from the cold. Try the medalwinning ChÃ¢teau Guiot 2003,CostiÃ¿res de NÃ®mes from Majestic, which combines juicy fruit flavours with aherby nose ’s also great with nibbles.
If you're only going to offer one or two wines, then you'rebetter off with popular choices. Try a Chardonnay such as Roux PÃ¿re et Fils, aclassic, mouth-filling oaked Burgundy (Laithwaites, Â£6.62) and a lively, fruityBeaujolais such as George Duboeuf 2001 (Oddbins, Â£5.79). But, if you want tokeep something stylish in reserve for those who like the bone-dry variety, whynot try Tesco Finest Riesling (Â£5.69) - it's full of crisp citrus flavours andelegantly structured. And if you're really pushing the boat out for a serious celebration,then it has to be something fizzy. But you don't need to break the bank. A winesuch as Cavalier Blanc de Blancs Brut (Oddbins, Â£4.79) is a fantastic-valuesparkler that will dance on your palate.
PLAY THE GAME
When most of the guests have left, you may choose to wind down the party with a big red wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy, or offer everyone a coffee, a Cognac and some delicious Godiva Les Elements chocolates.
Whatever your chosen wind-down drink of the moment, playinga board game is the perfect accompaniment. Suddenly cool again, the best gamesinvolve everyone, feature lots of calling out and frantic activities, and cancater for odd numbers of players. Our favourite word game is Who’s In The Bag(Â£15.99), whereby one person describes famous people to his team, includingdoing impressions of them, against the clock.
Also making a big splash this autumn is Carrom (Â£34.99).Played on an elegant hardwood board, it’s like a miniature version of poolwithout the cues. Poker is the in card game, so make it your theme with lowlights over a green-felt table for instant party credibility.
PACK IT UP
Filo pastry sheets, painted with melted butter and cut into squares, can be stuffed with all sorts of fillings. Try cubed brie and a dab of cranberry sauce, sautÃ©ed wild mushrooms with sour cream, artichoke hearts and chÃ¿vre or puy lentils spiced with harissa and spring onions. Fold them into parcels and bake or deep-fry for a rich yet crispy indulgence.
Make smoked salmon pinwheels by spreading salmon slices with cream cheese or ricotta, mixed with a little crÃ¿me fraiche. Roll them up, chill for an hour and slice across. You can make the salmon go further by spreading a tortilla with the cheese mix, then a layer of crisp lettuce, then the salmon.
ROLL WITH IT
If you have any filo left over, quickly stir-fry 4oz beansprouts with a clove of garlic and ginger, wilt 6oz young spinach leaves in the pan, stir in 4oz peanuts and 3tbsp dessicated coconut. Then mix 1tsp lime pickle with a little coconut cream, stir, and fill the filo ’Oc. A great selection of guitar heroes, both upbeat (Jet)and moody (The Doves).
The Burt Bacharach Collection, WEA, Â£12.99 For the smoothest vibes in town, here are 62 songs across three CDs with amazing voice singing classics of love and loss.
The Rough Guide to Bluegrass, World Music Network, Â£7.99 OBrother Where Art Thou? Â fired abluegrass revival, and this is one of the best compilations. Perfectly soothingaccompaniment, for the last few hours.
It's expensive offering guests individual drinks but we alllike a choice of quality red or white wine. So best opt for French wines for anallround pleaser. Allow half a bottle of wine per person for a two-hour drinksparty and choose a wine that's elegant, but not too complex - or some may findit hard going after the first glass. Don't be afraid to ask your local wineseller for advice.
Even if they are not driving, many people prefer to pace their drinking these days. So make an allowance of two glasses of water or soft drink per person to keep them happy. Try bitters with tonic water on ice for a sophisticated soft option.
If it's a big party, companies such as Majestic or any supermarket will supply glasses for free, along with bins for chilling drinks - one for wine and one for soft drinks. Most big retail chains will also hire out glasses for a nominal sum and a desposit. Any breakages are simply charged against the amount that you have left with them.