How to host the Perfect Dinner Party - Diplomatic Style

Andy and Julia Henderson with their daughters Emma & Amelia 

Andy and Julia Henderson with their daughters Emma & Amelia 

England, France, Cyprus – the countries of my childhood. They gave me a taste for travel and for food. As a young British diplomat, I worked in Switzerland, Asia and the Pacific, and Canada. Over the past 28 years, since marrying my diplomat husband, Andy (and giving up my own career), we have lived in the United States, Angola, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Algeria. We arrived in Johannesburg, which will be our last diplomatic posting, in early 2011. Along the way I have collected cookery books and influences from each country, and from the many wonderful people we have met.

Entertaining at home has been a part of our diplomatic life. As a young woman, I watched and learned from more experienced spouses, and made endless mistakes. As a starter at a dinner party in Canada, I was preparing French onion soup. The tea-towel I used to remove the baking tray from the grill caught fire. I dropped the tray and rushed across the kitchen to put out the flaming tea-towel in the sink. From the smoke-filled adjoining sitting room, my boss’s wife called to ask if everything was all right. Fortunately the baking tray landed on its bottom and I was able to plop the oozing melted cheese bread into the bowls of soup and proceed with serving the meal.

None of the guests commented further on the smoke!

As Andy's career progressed, the demands to entertain increased, catering for small intimate dinners through to 500+ guests, often hosting several events within a week, or even two in the same evening. In addition to arranging events for visitors to meet local contacts, breakfast, lunch and tea might also need to be offered and arrangements made for other requirements, such as a hairdresser coming to the house early in the morning to do the minister's hair. 

Over the next four weeks I will be sharing with you some of the tips that I have picked up which can help make entertaining enjoyable and fun. This week I am concentrating on the table together with providing a couple of simple canapé recipes to serve with drinks. 

Tip 1:

The table setting creates a sense of the occasion, whether formal or informal. If you want to cover your table but don’t want to spend a fortune on a table cloth, buy some fabric from a fabric store. Measure the width and length of your table and add 40-60cm to the length to allow the fabric to drop at the table ends. Most standard rectangular tables can be covered by using 150cm-wide fabric.


Tip 2:

The table can be laid well in advance - even the day before. Decorations need not be time consuming or complicated. Tying ribbons around rolled up napkins, putting some protea or gerbera heads in a few small round bowls and placing candles or tea lights around the table are all simple and effective. Alternatively a small plant, such as an orchid or arum lily, adds life and colour when placed in an attractive pot.

Tip 3:

Generally speaking arrangements of odd numbers look better than even numbers. For instance, you might use three round bowls each containing a protea head in the middle of a round table. Or for a rectangular table, try using two candlesticks and three small vases of sweet peas or alstroemeria, one vase either side of the candlestick and one in the middle. A mirror tile (available from DIY and tiling outlets) under the vase reflects light and adds sparkle to the table.

Tip 4:

Look around the home for inspiration and be creative. I once went to a lunch where the hostess had made an arrangement along the centre of the table of a selection of leather-bound British novels and had sprinkled pot pourri over the table cloth. While we may not all have leather-bound novels to hand, we usually have items of interest which can serve as a focal point.  In South Africa, you could use beaded or carved animals. For those with roses in their gardens, sprinkled fresh rose petals create a summery feel.

Tip 5:

Mix items up with candle holders and some small vases of fresh flowers. Or simply place a bowl of oranges or a combination of fruits in the centre of the table. (The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality.) Interest and style can be added by using non-matching plates and glasses. If you are holding a more formal or special occasion event, matching plates and glasses look smart and sophisticated. For special occasions, roll a napkin, tie a ribbon into a bow around the napkin and insert a flower, a sprig of rosemary or a cinnamon stick under the ribbon.

Tip 6:

If you like arranging flowers, and perhaps have a spare fridge in the garage, you can arrange the flowers a couple of days in advance, spray them with water and put them in the fridge until you need them.

Tip 7:

Round tables are great for entertaining. They lend themselves to whole table discussions as everyone can see each other. If arranging flowers for the centre of the table, make sure that the arrangement is not so large or high that the guests cannot see each other across the table.

Tip 8:

If you are catering for a large number with a lot of round tables placed relatively close together, arrange the chairs so that they are off-set from each other, not back-to-back. This allows more room for guests (and waiters if you have hired them for the event) to move around.

Tip 9:

Table cloths can be ironed flat in advance and left draped over a spare bed.

Tip 10:

Folding and ironing napkins into a special design or rolling them and tying with ribbons can be completed well in advance.

(Don’t forget that bathrooms should have fresh towels, some nice handwash and hand lotion and a few flowers. A perfumed candle is another nice touch.) 

What are your favourite tips - which will you give a try? Do you have any tips of your own you can share with us.  Let us know in the comment section at the bottom of this article: 


(Adapted from Claudia Roden’s ‘Tamarind and Saffron’)               

Serves 6

Although hummus is more widely known, my favourite Arabic appetizer has always been the aubergine dip, baba ghanoush. Both hummus and baba ghanoush conjure up memories of Saturdays spent with friends in the desert outside Cairo. We used to ride in the morning, then share a big bowl of hummus or baba ghanoush served with hot, freshly baked pitta bread for lunch, before heading off for a walk up the nearest sand dune. From the top of the dune we could see the ancient pyramids of Saqqara built c. 2630-2611 BC, the less well-known forebears of the Pyramids at Giza.

  • 1 kg brinjal/aubergines
  • 3 fat garlic cloves, crushed
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 tablespoons tahina (sesame paste)
  • Juice of 2 lemons

- Pre-heat the oven to its highest temperature.

- Prick the brinjals/aubergines and place on a baking tray in the oven for 30 minutes, turning them once, or until they feel soft.

- Remove from the oven and place the brinjals/aubergines in a colander or sieve over a bowl.

- When cool enough to handle, peel the skin away from the flesh. Discard the skin and put the aubergine flesh back into the colander or sieve.

- Mash up the aubergine flesh with a fork, allowing the bitter juices to escape through the colander or sieve holes into the bowl. Discard the bowl with the juices.

- Turn the flesh into a clean bowl and combine with the garlic, a pinch of salt, the tahina and lemon juice, mixing well.

Baba ghanoush can be served in a bowl alongside triangles of pitta bread and raw crudités – strips of pepper and carrot, and tiny florets of broccoli and cauliflower. Alternatively, by combining the ingredients in a food processor rather than mashing them, the mixture is fine enough to put a teaspoonful on the top of blinis, small toasted triangles of pitta bread or small rounds of toast, garnished with a piece of flat-leaf parsley. 



When I was growing up, prawns were an extravagant treat. Living in Luanda, Angola in 1992-93, during the civil war most foodstuffs were in very short supply but there were two items that were readily available: huge, delicious prawns and lobster. We never tired of either.

When putting together a canapé menu, I like to include a mixture of pastry or bread based items, use different textures and colours, and always provide one or two really fresh-tasting items. This canapé definitely falls into the ‘fresh’ category.

  • 2 large prawns per person (in their shell, if possible)
  • 2 mangetout per person
  • ½ cup of good quality mayonnaise (If you like garlic, try Brigid’s Creamy Garlic Mayonnaise from Dunkeld Fruit and Veg)
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons dill, finely chopped
  • Wooden skewers/toothpicks

- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil.

- Add the prawns and boil for 5 minutes.

- Drain in a colander and immerse in a bowl of ice cold water.

- Leave to cool.

- Bring a saucepan of water to the boil.

- Add the mangetout and boil for 1 minute.

- Drain in a colander and immerse in a bowl of ice cold water. Pat dry with kitchen towel or a tea-towel.

- Peel and devein the prawns. Pat dry.

- Thread one end of the mangetout on to a skewer, followed by the prawn tail, followed by the middle of the mangetout, followed by the prawn head and ending with the other end of the mangetout.

- Add the lemon and dill to the mayonnaise and serve alongside the prawns for dipping 

What are your favourite canapés? Do you want to share with us your quick and easy recipes - email us and we will get your featured on our next Global Recipes Blog.