Hors d’oeuvres et Canapés


By Leo Teatero

Serve a platter of hors d’oeuvres or canapés and you will find people make a mad dash to get their hands on one. These tiny moments of happiness are enough to tempt any appetite. They are small and easy to digest little chunks of life, and my favourite thing to serve especially in my home. 

Hors d’oeuvres (pronounced “or derve”) and canapés (“can aah pay”) have been served in nearly all cultures. Historians and anthropologists believe this practice evolved quite naturally after we set aside our hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became sedentary. Perhaps an instinctive evolution of our grazing days, when small bites of fruit and nuts indeed set the tone for the long-awaited real meal. The related word canapés are savory little appetisers made with bread, cracker or pastry base, so they can be picked up with the fingers and eaten in one or two bites. They were originally served as a small toasted bread with a savoury topping before a meal. Canapés are a type of hors d’oeuvre.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks are depicted lounging with trays of fresh fruit, wine, olives and cheese. These also included fish and seasoned vegetables. Their orgy-feasting style surely inspired our modern-day hors d’oeuvres. Later in France, during the Renaissance (14th to 17th century), physicians recommended eating small morsels of salty meats prior to a meal in order to prepare the digestive system for the main course and to ensure proper digestion. At the end of the 17th century, smaller dishes began to be served on the dining tables that were “outside the main work” of the main dishes. These were known as hors d’oeuvre, which actually was an architectural term referring to an “‘outbuilding not incorporated into the architect’s main design”.

In France, the first mention of hors d’oeuvres was by François Massialot in 1691, in his book: Le cuisinier roial et bourgeois (The Royal and Bourgeois Cook) and explained as “certain dishes served in addition to those one might expect in the normal composition of the feast”. The idea of hors d’oeuvres was also depicted in a famous painting by Polish painter, Pieter Claesz, in 1623.

Of course, our style of formal dining changed drastically in the 19th century, becoming successive courses served one after the other, over a period of time. Some traditional hors d’oeuvres would remain on the table throughout the meal. These included olives, nuts, celery and salted radishes. The changing, contemporary hors d’oeuvres, sometimes called “dainty dishes” became more complicated in preparation. Pastries, with meat and cream sauces among other elaborate items, had become a course served after the soup.

History aside, the reality is that the foods we serve prior to the main course are designed to open your appetite and set the tone for the meal. They occupy the mind and belly while dining guests wait for the centrepiece of the main course that will satisfy their hunger.

Here is a list of some of my favourite hors d’oeuvres and canapés, and I’ll be featuring some of these as recipes over the summer, starting this week with the Rillettes de Maquereaux. Most are easy to make, while a few do take some time. Use this list as a jumping off point for inspiration for your own hors d’oeuvres.

Rillettes de Maquereaux

Caviar and Crème Fraîche Tartlets

Figs with Bacon and Chiles

Lobster Toasts with Avocado

Savory Mushroom and Parmesan Palmiers

Country Pâté Toasts with Pickled Grapes

Warmed Spicy Olives

Spanish-Style Tomato Toasts with Garlic and Olive Oil

Fresh Oysters with Red Wine Vinaigrette

Escargot with Garlic-Parsley Butter

Smoked Salmon Rillettes

Spinach Puffs

Crustless Mini Quiches

Crab cakes with Lime Chive Mayonnaise

Coconut Shrimp

Mini Shepherds Pie

Mini Beef Wellingtons

Pigs in a blanket with Herbed Mustard Dipping Sauce

Curry Chicken Samosas

Goats cheese with Oregano and Olive Oil on Toast

Mini Empanadas

Accras de morue portugais or Fish Poppers

Grape Focaccia

Smoked Trout Blinis with Crème Fraîche and Dill

Ham and Cheddar Croquettes

Oysters DuPont

Roasted Garlic and Sweet Potato Crostini

Zucchini Fritters 

For the modern host or event planner figuring out what to serve and how much, takes some trial and error before you really know the right number of pieces per person for different events. Luckily, given my experience, I have done the work for you and have come up with best estimates, by event type and time:

2-4 pieces per person, 30-60 minutes before dinner, cocktail hour
5-6 pieces per person, 1.5-2 hour event, preceding dinner time
8-10 pieces per person, 2-4 hours event, heavy hors d’oeuvres
12-15 pieces per person 4+ hour event, dinner replacement (sometimes called a cocktail dînatoire)

In the home, I love serving hors d’oeuvres for three main reasons. First, it gives my guests something to nibble on while I am still cooking the main meal. Secondly, it is usually easy to make and finally, it always makes people hungry and ready for more food. Exactly what I want when they sit at my table.

Here are some simple ideas of things to always have on hand to make instant hors d’oeuvre at home:

Baguettes are great for tartines, which are small versions of open-faced sandwiches. Cut the baguette in half at the middle and freeze in plastic. Will thaw in 20 minutes on the counter and 5 minutes in a hot oven.

Cherry tomatoes, sliced sausages with cubed cheese & herbs skewered with bamboo spears.

Small crackers, sliced meat and strong mustard.

Sliced cheeses.

Eggs to make devilled eggs.

Pickles, Olives and nuts (my favourite is thyme roasted salted cashews).

Smoked salmon (keep frozen, thaws in under 30 minutes on the counter removed from the packaging).

Vegetable and Yoghurt to make Crudités with Tzatziki.

Can of chickpeas, a lemon and some tahini paste, to make Hummus.

Canned cooked vegetables for veggie puree shots.

Rethink and reboot hors d’oeuvres as you plan your next cocktail, dinner or brunch. Imagine doing a cocktail dînatoire for 12 instead of the normal sit down dinner for 6 or 8 in your home. Let people lounge and relax where they please. Planned correctly it can be much easier than hosting a sit down dinner.

Imagine doing a wedding like this. I attended a wonderful Italian wedding where everything was hors d’oeuvres and food stations. There were a few tables for some to sit down, higher stools and bar tables, but mostly people walked around and socialised while they ate. The key here is to do it after an early evening ceremony, and don’t let the cocktail dînatoire last longer than 3 hours. You can even have cakes cut into hors d’oeuvre sized-portions. It’s also budget friendlier than a full reception, then a meal, and then a party.

I hope you liked my look at hors d’oeuvres and canapés. Now go forth and create tiny bites of tasty fabulousness!

Vivre ma France et bon appétit!