Nothing makes me happier than a tableful of friends laughing as I assemble a meal. I'll lean among them to lay down a new platter of something tasty, while they'll be busy dipping and dolloping, sharing stories and ideas.
That's not what I learned at mother's knee, however. In my parents' generation, entertaining was a show of culinary prowess. There were three courses of rich elaborate food, each dish decorated to within an inch of its life before it was seen. A "good hostess" conformed to strict and ambitious ideals. It felt as though our family's survival depended on my mother's hairdo, a perfect aspic coating or a precision sauce.
The guests would share platitudes and bray while standing uncomfortably for drinks. Back in the kitchen, my mother, hysterically anxious, would swear and scream at me and an unfortunate au pair. Absurdly complex concoctions were bubbling in multiple pans. Special crockery (too fragile for the dishwasher) was to be warmed. Butter had to be curled.
One unforgettable Christmas, Mother got so fretful preparing the lunch that she took tranquillisers in order not to spoil the family gathering. As we heaved the turkey on to the table for Father to carve, poor Mother laid her head on her arms where her plate was waiting, and fell asleep.
As often happens between generations, I have veered to the opposite extreme. In my house, what matters is to create a cheerful, authentic atmosphere where friends will discover new things about one another, and party. Food quality is important, but lengthy preparation is not. My first desire is to enjoy the people who've convened.
The meal is more of a gathering force for laughter and self-expression than a performance to be judged.
I prefer it when friends descend unannounced. Cooking a large meal in advance can feel laborious and be tinged with Mother's mores. Whereas it's joyful to put together an impromptu feast from my fridge, garden and pantry as the conversation kicks off. Surely that's why architects created open-plan.
I feel proud to strew purple chive petals and olive oil over a block of feta, and present it next to a loaf of good bread, while I'm working out what to make next. Pretty soon the seeds are toasting while florets are steaming. A lemon is squeezed. The next appetiser has emerged. I hand out a fistful of bamboo skewers, and an informal pronging begins without so much as a plate or fork in sight. As fingers are licked and shoulders lean in around a shared platter, everyone can relax.
Of course composing miracle feasts from the cupboard requires a stock of quality raw ingredients - fresh herbs, interesting crackers, nuts, lemons, good oils. It simply cannot be done if your fridge is full of sliced bread and ready-made lasagne portions. Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food gives recipes for quick combinations from the pantry, and Lucas Hollweg's Good Things To Eat expresses this relaxed foodie philosophy well.
Presentation is a large part of the mix. I may have just stuffed ordinary bread to warm in the oven, but the table becomes stylish when each person has their own fresh dipping oil in one of the shiny tin bowls I bought in Mumbai. Similarly, random fridge provisions become a whole and appetising proposition once plonked on a single antique board that's long enough to carry them all, alongside a handsome knife and tongs.
I've noticed people round a table become more animated and interactive when they can put together their own flavour combinations, stuff their own spring rolls, skewer their own veg.
Funky mismatched glassware and themed op-shop crockery add uniqueness to my every meal. I ponder at the time of shopping, so the elements are ready to play with the instant friends turn up. Candlelight and quirky dishes provide a warmer welcome than matching frills of parsley positioned on matching plates.
Spontaneous storecupboard catering also requires a certain confidence in flavour pairings. I know that the anise flavour of my tarragon will make something spectacular out of the mushrooms and yoghurt in my fridge, that the sweet density of beetroots, butternut or honey will make music with the citric sharpness of any goat cheese. If you're not blessed with taste instincts already, Niki Segnit's extraordinary Food Thesaurus is an education in this way with food.
Let's not fall into the trap of focusing only on the meal, however. For a satisfying gathering, I want original conversation, curiosity, new ideas. I love bringing new people together. With old familiars, I encourage storytelling by throwing the whole table a provocative question - what did your parents want you to be? What's something you never want to do again? How brave do you think you are? What do you envy about the opposite sex? Soon, others are co-creating the confessional, and the joy of sharing is at play.
Spontaneous fun and unpredictable intimacy are the heart of any great social gathering. So I'd encourage you to take the pressure off this Christmas, don't worry if the plates don't all match and, instead, cast your mind back to the meals where you've truly connected with others. If we're going to call it "entertaining" then we might as well create the atmosphere where we have the greatest fun.
Rosie Walford coaches individuals towards a creative and intrinsically rewarding life. thebigstretch.com.