Bonnie May’s great ideas on hosting your social event of the year and her tips on hidden treasures where you can stage your party
From 18ths to 60ths (and a few more or a few less) anniversaries or birthdays; welcoming someone new into the world and, sadly, sometimes saying our goodbyes, while not forgetting our ‘I dos’ – there are lots of reasons to get together. Once the decision is made to host the social event of the year, then come the waves of panic…when, where, how many people, what’s the theme, décor and of course, what’s it going to cost? Often the latter will drive the answers.
Get organised and tackle the biggest task first: ‘Just how much do I want to spend?’ It seems like you have leapt from a romantic idea to wiping all creativity out of the equation, but being true to your ‘financial self’ from the outset will often allow you to enjoy the ‘exceeding all expectations’ emotion rather than the ‘never meeting it’.
There is something out there for everyone. However, try not to focus on one special occasion you’ve been to. The trick is to capture all the best bits of the parties where you were a guest, and then add your own ideas – and start to plan. Usually the single biggest spend is the venue. There are some absolute gems in our area, from Hedsor House www.hedsor.com to www. lodgefarmbandb.co.uk and from www. waddesdon.org to Tittershall Lodge (hot off the press…no website yet). But if you really want to have everything your way with no restrictions, my advice is to find yourself a field (or a rather large garden).
This can sound like a daunting task, but with a little help, and a few ‘party guidelines’, your imagination can drive the path to delivering that one-off occasion you have always wanted.
There are three main parts to this planning lark; the must haves, the nice to haves, and the cherry on the top. Make sure you work in this order, which will save a rather unpleasant conversation with the other half when you need to explain that the dancing girls are booked, but it’s sausage rolls on the menu and boxes of house wine on the bar.
Go ‘Google crazy’! There is a world at your fingertips so just type in what you are planning. If it is a ‘wedding in February’ simply search for that, or ‘Mad Hatters Party,’ do the same.
Print these out and start to build a visual collection of things you like. It’s also really good to be clear about what you don’t like.
‘Setting the scene’ is really important, and starts with the invitation. Make it clear what you are inviting people to, and whether sending it via email or snail mail make sure you clearly set a RSVP. Ensure there is enough info to save calls and correspondence you don’t really need; obviously timings and location, but the dress code and what time it ends is often missed out. Also suggest where can people stay – and pop in an easy to read map if you are off the beaten track.
So, now we have a space, obviously numbers are going to dictate the size we need, but also how the layout inside works – standing or seated, informal or formal, dancing or just drinking. This is something that the tent guys will help you with. Getting this sorted should be your first step, along with the tent you will need to have the glamorous conversation about access, signage, power/drainage and loos! These can often come at a cost you weren’t expecting. Also, summer or winter? Remember to ask about air con or heating. If the weather isn’t on your side, this can have a huge impact.
There are some great chaps on our doorsteps who are the best in the biz at talking tents for events. Furniture is often an extension of the structure and comes in many styles, ensure before you commit to anything that you have a very clear to scale drawing of how everything fits. Do not leave this to your mind’s eye! (Here talks the voice of experience, you only make this mistake once, I can tell you!)
For ideas see arabiantents.com, fairytalemarquees.co.uk, arabianandmoroccantenthire.com and casablancahire.com.
The tasty treats
Food and drink is the next big pull on the budget. Choose simple and wrap it in the unexpected, rather than a complicated menu that has lots of factors riding on the delivery. Canapés, finger food, the standing starter, bowl food, the buffet and then the sit-down. Is there a choice of dessert? Should you do cheese? There are pros and cons to them all, but make sure if you are bringing in a caterer that when talking costs it is all encompassing. I know when I put numbers together for clients I include the whole jolly lot as I don’t like surprises. That’s all staffing, service ware and the kitchen sink if required. Just make sure you have this all clearly documented as often the budget you then have left to play with falls into the ‘nice to have’ pot.
Dancing, Décor, DJ’s
This is where you can go all out. Tables, the theme, the entertainment and the WOW. You have to save something back for when you just thought there was no more! And very importantly the end… don’t let a party fizzle out. Make sure that you reach a point when you are in control of all the shenanigans coming to an end. This point should be when all your guests are wanting more, not tip toeing out the back door.
The big ‘do’ at home
For many of us it is a once in a blue moon chance to throw our creative balls in the air. Staying in is the new going out. TV shows are oozing with recipes to ‘tempt and tantalise’ but these invariably come with the requirement for you to be up in the middle of the night preparing it all. Really? All this effort in the name of impressing your friends? Nope, not here! CHEAT! It’s allowed, legal and it frequently happens in my kitchen.
Take your time on setting the table, make it look the best you possibly can. Do name cards, and use linen napkins, make sure all your service ware’s ready, and get creative with flowers. Use herbs and have the wine and water all ready to pour as you sit. Flavoured waters are great. I use tap water in carafes with lime, rosemary and cucumber, and it’s always a hit.
I’m a big fan of drinks and nibbles rather than seating everyone from the outset. It gets the social juices flowing, and makes sure you are included. A great bottle of bubbles, and even the humble cheese straw (check out these in Waitrose… not as good as my home made ones, but a close second) can take this chitty chatty hour to new heights. Add in pork rillettes (Heston’s are fab) with piccalilli on seedy toast, Braeburns and blue on sticks, Parma ham twiddles, and roasted sweet potato wedges with soured cream and pomegranate (buy the seeds only, all ready to go)… and there you have it.
The main chance
For your main, really think about oven space and the speed you can get this out in the dishes and ready to go. Heat your plates. I am not going to plant any more ideas into your heads for this course, just do your signature dish. Bangers and mash, or lobster thermidor…it doesn’t matter, just make sure it gets the wow factor it deserves.
The sweet trolley
As a child I loved going out for dinner and having all these delights to choose from – and can you imagine the over-excited me when we went to Guidos, www. guidositalianrestaurant.co.uk, recently and there it was, the sweet trolley! I am now on a campaign to bring it back. Again, a little cheater’s paradise. Look out for snippets of deliciousness. Try to find a long board to present these treats on. Mine is a piece of wood my neighbour made, see www.landscapetreework. co.uk (he can make them to fit your table perfectly). Load it with your favourites. Mine has shots of dessert wine
(personal favourite Tokai), blocks of fancy choc, meringues, little raspberry pots, lemon tart (bought) apricots filled with crème fraiche and blackberries, savoury cheese sticks, even Tunnocks tea cakes.
Rule Number 1 is you have to make your ‘do’ your own. I am the queen of email, so if you are having any quandaries over your next bash, pop a mail to me: bonnie@ bonniemayevents.com. I’ll try to come back to you with my thoughts…and if I don’t have the answer, I am sure to know someone who does.
Next month I’ll be looking at Easter and I’m going to be trading in chocolate for other treats. See www. bonniemayevents.com for more ideas and catering treats.