Friday, 12 October 2007

Horses’ Doovers and suchlike

Nibbles, which are small things to eat before the start of the meal proper or to have with drinks, are a civilised pleasure and are mostly good for you, unlike snacks, which are nasty vulgar things you eat at any time, and are very bad for you.

Here, with some acknowledgement to The Oxford Companion to Food, are descriptions of six varieties of nibbles. These are the ones which have become popular world-wide, far beyond the confines of their countries of origin.

Hors d’œuvres

A French term which has been current in a food sense since the 17th century (in England from the 18th), indicating minor, usually cold, items of food served at the beginning of a meal. In the 20th century until quite recently the hors d’œuvres trolley was a familiar sight in restaurants, carrying up to several dozen little dishes containing such items as anchovies, sardines, slices of smoked fish, olives, radishes, sliced tomato or other salad vegetable and various sorts of sausage and other charcuterie.

This is a French word meaning 'couch', which has been a culinary term in France since the late 18th century, when it was applied to the thin slices of fried or toasted bread which served as supports for various savoury toppings. In the 1890s it became an English word referring to titbits of this kind. They do not really deserve to be listed along with the other five mentioned below: the word now sounds old-fashioned and is most likely to be found in contexts such as catered receptions or 'cocktail parties'. The modern practice of offering guests in Western restaurants a titbit before the meal proper begins, calling it an amuse-gueule (gob-tickler), may go some way towards extending the life-span of canapés, though these often depart from the standard canapé formula of small dead things on toast.


This interesting word came from the Persian maza, meaning ‘taste, relish’. The mezze tradition extends westward from Turkey into the Balkans, including Greece, and southwards to the Lebanon and Egypt, and through North Africa to Morocco, but in other Muslim countries the prohibition of alcohol has prevented the tradition from taking root. Even in those Muslim countries where mezze survive or flourish, they tend to be part of the structure of a main meal, while in Greece and the Balkans they are nibbles to be taken while drinking, or gossiping. Typical mezze will include simple things like olives or cubes of cheese, more complicated dips such as taramasalata, tsatsiki, hummus and more substantial dishes of tabbouleh, falafel, dolma and kebab.
It is generally acknowledged that Lebanese mezze are second to none, not only in variety and flavour but also in appearance.


This assumed its present form in 19th century Sweden, following old traditions of placing all foods on the table at once and of guests bringing their own contributions. Nowadays it is usually prepared by the hostess, without contributions, and consists of an assortment of cold dishes, sometimes supplemented by hot ones served either as the preliminary to a meal or as a full buffet meal. The term means ‘buttered-bread table’ but in practice the savoury items (cured herring, other seafood, cold meats, salads and cheeses) are presented with Swedish crispbreads and the like, and only a few items, if any, would appear as open sandwiches.
The smorbrod of Norway and smörrebrød of Denmark sound as though they would be similar to smörgåsbord, but both terms refer to open sandwiches, as the names (buttered-bread) suggest. In Finland, smörgåsbord is the name used by Swedish-speakers, while Finnish-speakers use voileipäpöyta.


These can be served at home or in a restaurant, but their essential role is to be eaten in a bar, or rather in a succession of bars. They have a philosophy all to themselves—tapeo is the Spanish tradition of going out before lunch to mingle with friends while drinking an apéritif. [This philosophy deserves a post to itself, which I will write in a week or two.]
Some of the most representative tapas come from the area of Castile which offers, for example, montados de lomo (small pieces of bread with a slice of meat on top), grilled chorizo, and morcilla (fried black pudding). From Galicia come many kinds of cephalods such as octopus and the Galician omelette, while Andalusia has seafood fried or dressed with vinaigrette. Apart from the many regional specialities, tapas such as unpeeled prawns and boquerones (fresh whitebait) are displayed on the counters of bars everywhere in Spain.


The word means ‘little bites’ and originally referred to the sweets served after a main meal. Nowadays it means either something light served before a meal, usually with vodka, or a snack eaten in a zakusochnaya—a stand-up bar.
Zakuski may be hot or cold or both. Cold ones will include, when possible, caviar. as well as salted and pickled fish, cheese, sausage and other preserved meats. Hot ones are always items which are simple to prepare and eat; pirozhki are favourites (little filled pies in a variety of shapes; larger ones are called pirogi).

All these descriptions of food, and the labour of typing the ALT codes for the Scandinavian diacritics, have made me feel peckish: I must find something to nibble.

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