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Margot Henderson's tips for entertaining

Get your entertaining principles right and it could lead to dancing, writes party maven Margot Henderson.

Last issue Fergus outlined his best party practices, but given that Margot Henderson, his wife, is a party professional, having catered London's most sparkling art- and fashion-world events with her company, Arnold & Henderson, we thought it would be remiss not to ask for her side of the story. Over to you, Margot.

I've been organising parties all my life, right back to when I was about 12, and I started organising my little brothers' birthdays in Wellington, back home in New Zealand. My mother was a health nut and I just felt my brothers couldn't go through the same embarrassment I had with the bran biscuits and carrot cake. So out went the brown flour and in came the white flour and sugar, just for the day.

But why have a party? All that work, all that stress? It's for all that fun. It's an awakening of the senses.

A good party has it all - it's a sensory explosion.

To feast our eyes, ears, taste and touch by entertaining, drinking and eating.

It's a wonderful moment when all your friends first come in the door; people are introduced, coats are taken. The clink of ice in the glass as gin and tonic is poured. I like a cocktail to get the party going. There's always a different drink for a different time of day.

A Black Velvet for a Sunday lunch, a G&T or Negroni for an evening soirée. And, of course, you can't go wrong with a glass of sparkling wine or Champagne.

A big bucket piled with ice and lots of bottles helps the scene go with a bit of swing.

It's always best to sit down to eat, at long tables, not too wide. The tablecloth shouldn't be too long, and the flowers shouldn't be too high. Everyone should see each other, hear each other. At a big dinner I catered for in Vienna, the tables were so wide and round, and the music so loud that guests had to resort to speaking to each other on their mobile phones. Mental. Keep things snug, instead; keep it intimate. You want everyone to be able to have a little flirt.

Music is tricky. Before, yes; after, yes. But please, not while you're eating. It doesn't aid digestion.

What to cook? It should be something special, but not too crazy - nothing that kills you in the making. You also should be able to sit down and enjoy yourself. Your friends have come to see you, not listen to you frantically cooking away, looking stressed.

It's nice to have some things on the table that everyone can pick at in a relaxed way. Rillettes and terrines work well here. Bowls of warm brandade and baskets of fresh toasted bread, followed by whole artichokes with vinaigrette are a beautiful beginning to any feast. Artichokes running down the whole length of the table with everyone happily sucking away, expressing their personalities with the way they place their leaves, is a beautiful sight to behold. I love all the action and movement and excitement and mess.

Some dishes certainly work better for parties than others. It's all about the shopping. Try to buy really good seasonal produce - fresh and happy. If you don't like the way it looks, don't buy it. One-pot dishes are good for stand-up parties. Risotto is tasty, and everyone loves it - all that butter and parmesan. We often serve it in paper cups. Less washing. Less hiring.

For stand-up drinks parties, I tend to serve a few simple canapés like really good crisps, a large bowl of olives and some radishes with their leaves left on. It used to seem so naughty to serve them that way, but everyone looks so glamorous munching on a radish, and women love them.

Cheese is important. Not too much choice, though - maybe just one whole cheese served with a green salad. And more wine.

Ahh, everyone is relaxed now and it's time for pudding: fruit tart with crème fraîche, crumble or a simple chocolate nemesis. Break up some glamour-chocolate roughly, then let them pick away at it with their coffee and digestif. Another winning combination is whisky - a malt such as Lagavulin - with shortbread.

Then, afterwards. A really good dinner party will end with dancing. That's my firm opinion. If the bride is seen dancing on the table at a wedding, it's a sure sign that marriage is going to last.

Feast, dancing, action!

Illustration Lara Porter

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