As London Fashion Week kicks off tomorrow, it's not just the designers who will be putting the finishing touches to their collections. An army of caterers, drafted in to provide perfect bite-sized morsels for the fashion crowd to nibble upon, will be busily finessing their menus. In recent years at least, the business of making canapés has been elevated to an art form – each small mouthful a chance for the chef to exhibit limitless culinary trickery. It has, it seems, all come a long, long way since the dark old days of pigs in blankets and cheese and pineapple on a stick.
"It's amazing to think that 10 years ago people didn't really know what a canapé was," says Victoria Blashford-Snell, caterer and author of three canapé recipe books. "We've been through many incarnations in a very short space of time. First, they got a bit a too clever and ironic; then they became incredibly over-fussy and complicated. Now I think we've come to realise the best are the ones that are fresh, clean and honest, that look brilliant, and in one bite taste absolutely stupendous."
One catering company that has its work cut out for it this Fashion Week is Nomad Food and Design, which, tellingly, was set up by a fashion photographer-turned-restauranteur, Martin Phillippe. Nomad opened in Paris in 1999 and it wasn't long before its ability to create canapés which perfectly reflected the various aesthetic demands of a brand had lured in many of the big names, including Dior, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint-Laurent, Hermes and Chanel. Business became so brisk that a second kitchen, headed by chef Tomasz Adamowicz, opened in London in 2005.
"One of the key things that Martin set out to do was to create something that was very different to the bog-standard French catering company," says Nomad's events director, Michael Namock. "It may sound quite hard to believe but when it comes to outside catering, Britain is way ahead of France. In France it's all very traditional and French. Martin set out to create a company that could create food to match any brief."
This willingness to experiment has, in large part, been the secret of its success. There is no such thing as a typical menu at Nomad, and recently it has done everything from sushi to fillets of beef and quails' eggs. Nomad was also one of the first companies to introduce radical molecular gastronomy techniques into the art of canapé-making.
"We recently did a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the French jewellery company Boucheron, where we used an espuma technique to create various foams such as pineapple and lychee, as well as a white peach and fromage blanc," says Namock. "Each foam was created in front of the guest by a chef using a gas-powered siphon, and was served in tiny, polished silver bowls with an equally tiny metal spoon."
The Nomad take on a classic lemon meringue pie, meanwhile, involves plunging a cube of lemon filling into smoking liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 180 degrees, then plunging it into a container of meringue. "When it comes out its texture completely changes," says Namock, "so when you bite into it you get a lovely crunch, a hit of lemon, and meringue that melts on your tongue."
Lyndy Redding is something of an old hand when it comes to making canapés. She started her company, Absolute Taste, 13 years ago and does most of Gordon Ramsay's launches and celebrity parties. She believes that Britain is now producing by far and away the best canapés in the world, with Australia possibly a distant second. "Caterers in London have taken it to a new level," she says. "We are way, way ahead of what they are doing in the States and Europe; some of the stuff you see them serving there makes me cringe. Even if you go to a big-name restaurant in France, you still get given a statutory canapé when you arrive, which might be a cruet with a bit of cream cheese in and an olive on top. Here we are making tiny bites of really lovely food served in really beautiful ways. It's no wonder that the best caterers in London are in demand all over the world."
Another canapé company looking set for a busy fashion week is Urban Caprice – the catering arm of Caprice Holdings, which owns The Ivy, Le Caprice and others. Its clients include Paul Smith and Louis Vuitton, and next week it will be providing canapés for 450 guests at Russian supermodel Natalya Vodianova's Love Ball charity gala at London's Roundhouse. After much deliberation, offerings are to include flaked Dorset crab and finger lime and samphire, and marinated Romney farm beetroot and feta and pistachios.
Other in-demand companies include Young and Wild (which follows the ethos of the 'slow food' movement), the acclaimed Moving Venue, and Smart Hospitality, based in Covent Garden.
Another company so fashionable it refuses to disclose any of its A-list clients is Rhubarb. Philip Owen, the menu designer there, believes the financial downturn has also provided a boost for the canapé industry: when the budgets to provide guests with a full sit-down meal dried up, all the emphasis was put into canapés.
"About four years ago, the trend in canapés tended towards something quite luxurious," says Owen. "We did things like caviar and triple-cooked chips. Then, last year, when things became more challenging, people were looking for comfort and familiarity. So recreating old classics, such as sausage and mash or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, in miniaturised form – very safe canapés – became very popular. Thankfully, this year there has been a movement towards more innovative, quirky stuff. We've been experimenting with savoury meringues, but instead of using egg white using a plant derivative called methylcellulose F60. We whisk it up with orange juice or beetroot juice to give it a fabulous colour, place it in a convection oven and it forms soft peaks just like meringue, which we then fill with creamed goat's cheese or whatever. It's light and perfect for the fashion crowd."
Things have a come along way since Imogen Edwards-Jones's 2000 book My Canapé Hell, in which she immersed herself in the London celebrity party circuit and dined out nightly on the nibbles it had to offer. "I would say I pretty much survived on canapés for the whole of the Noughties," she says. "But back in those days the canapé was only just beginning, so there were some real stinkers. The worst were at Planet Hollywood. I remember trying to interview John McEnroe and Boris Becker at some weird tennis party, and they were serving those revolting mini-burgers and I think bits of pizza. They basically had children's party food circulating. I think it was supposed to be ironic, as everything was in those days. As far as I can see, there's nothing witty about a revolting mini-beefburger."
Things, she says, got a little better at the end of the Noughties, "By then you would be getting, say, a cevice of sea bass, which was delicious, but they would serve them on those china spoons. It's incredibly difficult to talk, drink and try and be glamorous while shoving a spoon in your mouth like a toddler. Also what are you meant to do with the dirty spoon afterwards? Put it in your pocket?" Another downside she points out, is the dreaded canapé breath: "The amount of times I've had to listen to a boring, drunk man blowing old egg in my face! Really disgusting."
Still, she says, she's eaten some pretty incredible food in her time. One of the best places to find good canapés is at film premieres, because of the enormous budgets involved. The finest were individual quails eggs served at a Bret Easton Ellis launch party in a private flat in Notting Hill. "It doesn't get more exclusive than that, does it?"
So as the fashion week parties begin and the "canapé stalkers" trail the waiters round the room, just as Edwards-Jones did for all those years, thankfully the dreaded chicken satay, or a pastry base filled with onion that reeks of central catering company's deep freeze, will be relegated to a distant bad memory.
Namock thinks things can only get better: "In recent years, a number of young companies have come forward doing really innovative, quirky stuff which has really rattled some of the older, more established companies who have had it too easy for too long. We are young, we are innovative and we are very, very hungry."
Canapé tips By Philip Owen of Rhubarb
A canapé by definition has to be one mouthful. Anything more becomes messy and difficult to eat in a reception environment.
As it's just one mouthful, it's all about taste – really intense and well-balanced flavours.
It's important to consider what is the best type of base for your canapé, as there are many alternatives. At Rhubarb, we're always looking for things that are light, and low in carbohydrates. So we use watermelon boxes, artichoke fondants, beetroot cups, rice paper, or crisp and light little savoury cornets. Miniature Yorkshire puddings are a little bit old hat.
Wraps make a good base as well. We use grilled courgette as a wrap for creamed ricotta and sun-blushed tomato or lardo – which is a highly seasoned Italian pork product, a bit like pancetta, that we use to wrap our braised short rib of beef. Then we serve that on a spoon, with truffled cauliflower purée.
Canapés can be adapted to fit the changing season. For example, you could fill cornets with an asparagus risotto in May, courgette flower risotto in summer or a wild-mushroom risotto in the autumn.
Hot and cold canapés can work really well together, so don't be afraid to experiment. We do a foie gras mousseline with a Granny Smith sorbet on a croûte. So you get the ice-cold of the sorbet and the luxuriousness of foie gras, all at the same time.
Texture is a really important thing to consider as well. We do a savoury beetroot macaroon with creamed goat's cheese and pain d'épice. The macaroon is made from a plant derivative and it completely melts on contact with moisture in the mouth, intensifying the flavour from the filling. There is also an element of surprise.
Bringing out sweet canapés is a good way to indicate that the party is coming to an end. You can have a lot of fun with these canapés. At Rhubarb, we've done chocolate candy floss as well as a delicious chocolate and chilli soup which is refreshing, served with an orange granita on it. Cocktail canapé sorbets served on elegant teardrop-shaped spoons are another option. Pina colada sorbet with a pineapple wafer is particularly delicious.
Presentation is crucial – everything from colour to quantity and the plate upon which it is served.
Philip Owens is menu designer for Rhubarb catering, Rhubarb.net