Food & Drink: Pass the suckling pig please, Auntie

A few weeks ago a reader wrote in with some angry words about catering in general, and catering at weddings in particular: expensive, of poor quality and little variety. I would add, generally joyless. The gentleman is right. Catering, one of the higher culinary arts, suffers from gastronomic arteriosclerosis.

I grant that all those remote cousins and aunts one sees ever so rarely, and even the bride, have a vested interest in the tradition of the wedding lunch or reception. They do not want to change the way it was done in their mothers' and grandmothers' days. It is with the food as it is with the clothes, the decor and the ceremony itself.

I confess to having been lucky in this regard. Number One daughter, marrying in Rome, followed Italian custom and took the wedding party off to a local trattoria for refreshments, then held a party in the hills where we had suckling pigs solidly cased in salt. This seemed so sensible a procedure - al fresco, unpretentious - that when I remarried just over a decade ago, again in Rome, the wedding party adjourned to a bottiglieria (a step down from a trattoria) for a meal at less than 10 quid a head that would be hard to beat.

Why then do we ensconse a group of people, overdressed, hot and uncomfortable, in a hotel, 'rooms' or a club, and feed them microwaved, rewarmed, dried-out meats, little wedges of anonymous fish or paste on stale bread and creamed, wilted salads - the whole tasteless tra-la?

Good catering is absolutely feasible, even for the hordes. I watched in admiration at motor races as the hospitality suites produced, race after race, delicious meals for up to 200 people on the exiguous facilities of motor-homes. I have watched many cooks in such conditions: preparation in one place, cooking in another; and, given food that can cook slowly and be transported in its original container, there is nothing wrong with a chafing dish to keep it warm.

Part of the trouble is, I think, with the choice of menu. Weddings are indiscriminate affairs. One does not know exactly what Auntie Sue likes or whether Grandma can chew, if the bridesmaids can take anything spicy, whether garlic is impolite.

By considering all the negatives, one winds up with a poor compromise. Apart from the cake, which is de rigueur, what need is there to follow conventional wisdom about what should be eaten at a wedding? Why the usual slab of cold salmon and not fresh baked fish? Why a joint and not a daube?

This retrograde thinking about wedding food lies in our notion of suitability, of what one can serve guests and what one cannot, and in the way that people are obliged to eat - standing up or balancing on the edge of an awkward chair, a glass in one hand, a paper napkin wedged in the other, and no hands for plate, knife, fork and so on.

The best place to eat, if a cook's aboard, is at home; but few of us have dinner sets running to 100 servings. The next best place is a friendly restaurant. The least good place is one of those gastronomical morgues 'hired' for the occasion and catered from without.

The best food is limited in variety, cooked with love, and served hot and plentifully with decent wine (which wedding champagne seldom is); the next best is a well- selected menu served in courses by a competent restaurant; again, the least good is that brought in, as for an airline, from outside.

But if one must have catering, at least let the caterers be young, ingenious and flexible; let the menu be discussed in detail, and the order of its serving; let the aim be not a meal that is trouble- free for the host (and the caterer) but one designed to give pleasure, even surprise. This is, after all, a (supposedly) once-in-a-lifetime event. Why should it not be gastronomically as well as sentimentally memorable?