mail order junkie

Dinner for six please, postman

A crisis approaches. I have spent the past week in a pea-souper of a mail-order fog. I have been blithely ordering mosquito nets and sailing caps for a summer jaunt, completely forgetting that I have invited six friends to what I stupidly hailed as an "unmissable" dinner party.

Not only do I have no food. I have neither the inclination to dislodge myself from my sofa nor the time to waste in some trolley-barging, brain-curdling supermarket. What is more, my cutlery is "borrowed" from airlines and friends' picnics and my tablecloth so stained it is better suited to finger-painting.

To the catalogues, then. First task, presentation. HL Linen Bazaars has a damask tablecloth for pounds 12.99, but its "beautifully scalloped borders" and giant roses would ruin any appetite. The equivalent from Scotts of Stow for pounds 19.95, with its ivy-leaf pattern, is far more acceptable. I turn longingly to David Mellor's Catalogue for Cooks by Post. I leaf past a hand-turned burr oak salad bowl and a stylish reinvention of the Italian army coffeepot at pounds 42.15. The cutlery is all designer and desirable. I cannot afford it, not even the cheapest range, at pounds 41.50 for a six- piece set. I settle for the coffeepot and decide to polish up my own stuff.

Accessories next. Flowers cover for most eventualities: ill-smelling food, salad shortages and the screening of ill-matched guests. So I go for 12 white carnations from Flying Flowers for pounds 9.99 - a boring choice, admittedly, but they come direct from Jersey.

And now to the food. There is a fantastic choice of fish that swim in the postal system but, in an extravagant moment, I go for Fortnum's Osietta caviar at pounds 32.50 for a 50g tin. For my veggie friends, I plump for the Country Vegetable Pie from the Pie Man: pounds 2.60 for a guaranteed 8oz portion of fresh vegetables in a creamy sauce surrounded by pastry (they come in containers that go straight into the oven - very couch potato); and for the meat-eaters, pork, beer and garlic sausages at pounds 2.28 per lb from Eastbrook Farm Organic Meats. They say the pigs die happy. In their reincarted life as sausages, they travel in insulated, ice-filled boxes.

When it comes to veg, the Food Ferry, London's sublime home-delivery supermarket, has everything else I need, from lollo rossos to pralines-and-cream flavour Haagen-Dazs (pounds 3.18 a tub, so 41p cheaper than Sainsbury's). As long as I phone in my order by 11am, I'll get the goods in the 5.30-7.30pm run.

But will my guests be sated? They are street-shoppers, masochists, not eager to be pleased. I must try harder. So I order a mixed crate of wine from Lay & Wheeler, an oak-smoked Bubbeen cheese from Neal's Yard Dairy, and champagne truffles at pounds 11.25 a quarter from the feel- bad-just-by-looking-at-the-prices Fortnum's catalogue. As a finishing touch, I might mention to my guests that edible goods are not protected under the Mail Order Protection Scheme. That will give them something to talk about. What I will not mention is that the Little Black Number I am wearing is from the Freeman's, the mail-order junkie's cheapest fix.

HL Linen Bazaars (0121 552 0107); David Mellor Cutlery (01433 650220); Flying Flowers (01534 865665); Fortnum & Mason (01710-734 8040); Pie Man (0171-627 5232); Eastbrook Farm Organic Meats (01793 790460); Food Ferry (0171-498 0827); Lay & Wheeler (01206 7664446); Neal's Yard (0171- 379 7646).

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