They are a vital component of any successful dinner party or cocktail soirée. Get it right and the guests will be full of bonhomie. Get it wrong and, swooning with hunger, they will vow never to darken your door again as they seek out suitable hiding places for the offending article.

The importance of the nibble is such that, over the years, our idea of what constitutes an acceptable buffet spread has become more sophisticated. No longer satisfied with a simple array of cheese and pineapple sticks and the odd sandwich, we lavish time and money on complicated offerings designed to impress.

According to a poll of top chefs, food experts and critics, we are getting it wrong. In the case of the canapé, simplicity is the key. A survey of 40 food experts found the perfect party offering is not a carefully crafted caviar croustade but the humble cheese straw.

Casting off perceptions of the cheese stick as a pedestrian addition to the menu, the gastronomers described it as "pre-eminent among canapés", enticing guests with its "message of comfort and wholeness".

A wide range of canapés was judged on its "wow factor", taste and social rating, the latter defined as its ability to aid conversation at soirées. The cheese stick exalted in this area, according to the experts, earning a score of nine out of 10 because it can be used to "wave around and drive home important conversational points".

The sandwich came in a close second place, with the experts deciding that although it had as low a "wow factor" as the cheese stick, it will be well made, will always get eaten and is a sure way of lining the stomachs of enthusiastic drinkers.

Perhaps predictably, the worst offender was the much-maligned cheese and pineapple on a stick, described by the panel as a "1970s relic" which is "dull to look at, worse to taste". But other seemingly less offensive buffet staples, including chicken satay, mini profiteroles and mini roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, should also be banished, according to the poll.

The overriding message expressed by the experts was that, for too long, hosts have been preoccupied with trying to impress their guests with seemingly sophisticated treats, meaning that they are forced to grapple with overly ambitious mini meals, according to William Sitwell, the editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated, which conducted the poll.

"The problem with the canapé is that is has become over-complicated", Mr Sitwell said. "With hosts all too aware that the quality of the food reflects on the host, they make the mistake of offering elaborate, unnecessarily fussy canapés that leave guests feeling awkward as they battle to eat them with any sort of decorum.

"We have all been to parties where the food has been awful and you've come home starving, not having been able to stomach anything on offer." He added: "Equally, a good, solid menu of simple, appealing food can be incredibly effective and people will remember you for it."

BAD IDEAS

DEVILS ON HORSEBACK

Wrapping prunes in bacon has long been viewed as one of the more interesting interpretations of a party treat. Although their popularity with the general public has been in steady decline, they have been known to pop up on menu's of restaurants with a retrospective bent.

OYSTERS

They might be both an aphrodisiac and a delicacy, but oysters are also incredibly cumbersome to eat, making them a definite no-no at any party, according to the experts. A particular difficulty lies in the need to tilt the head back in order to suck out the oyster from the shell, a bad look, apparently, if you are trying to make friends and influence people.

GOOD IDEAS

QUAIL'S EGG

Described by the experts as the "impeccable party food", the quail's egg is the perfect size for a canape, easy to handle and filling enough to take the edge of any hunger pangs, according to the experts. The only word of caution is to make sure they are fresh, nothing worse than a bad egg.

COCKTAIL SAUSAGE

Perhaps not the obvious choice for anyone planning a party whose invite list isn't dominated by the under-fives, the humble sausage is apparently a winning choice because of its wide popularity. One presumable proviso would be to avoid the cheapest options on the supermarket shelf - lumps of cheap sausage fat are sure to raise an eyebrow or two.

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