Since this is a "how to" issue of OFM, I thought I'd write a few notes on how to be a good host. Of course, this should be blindingly obvious, or so you might have thought. But the upshot of the weird 21st-century gap between desire and ability in the matter of hosting - for which, I think, we can probably blame the television chef - means that it very much isn't. Only the other night, I met a friend for a drink, over which she regaled me with the story of a dinner she had recently attended at the flat of an acquaintance. Her host was one of those people who makes a Big Deal about her munificence and talent as a cook, and as a result, my girlfriend was mightily looking forward to supper. Imagine her surprise, then, when at around 10pm - oh, the waiting! - Lady Bountiful finally dished up one dolly-sized bowl of rice to be shared among all 12 of her guests. "Help yourselves!" she cried, as if she had just provided them with a suckling pig and all the trimmings. "Come on! Don't be shy!"
So, that's the first thing. If you're going to go to the trouble of inviting people over - and you don't have to, you know; it's not the law - at least make sure there will be plenty to eat. It might be nice to give them something they wouldn't ordinarily have at home - though it's also the case that most of us would rather be handed a plate of really delicious roast chicken than a badly made dish featuring a split sauce and some 24 carefully "sourced" ingredients, none of which quite go together.
On a related note, don't inflict your own tedious dietary regime on your guests. Just because you don't eat potatoes, doesn't mean other people don't want them. And believe me when I tell you that repeating the line: "Oh, I do adore broad beans, don't you?" over and over isn't ever going to take their mind off their absence. It probably goes without saying that trying a recipe for the first time two hours before your friends arrive is never a good idea. But just for the record: IT'S NEVER A GOOD IDEA TO TRY A RECIPE FOR THE FIRST TIME TWO HOURS BEFORE YOUR FRIENDS ARRIVE. Seven years on, and I still can't forget the curdled expression on the face of a woman (the girlfriend of a friend) to whom I fed a delicious poultry and rosewater confection which tasted mostly like Avon Skin So Soft. Her feelings moved over her face like clouds scudding across the sky, distaste turning first to amazement and then, more crushingly, to embarrassment. She managed three forkfuls, and I felt her pity in every one.
That's the food, then. The second thing is timing. People don't want to be hurried to the table; they can go to Pizza Express for that. But nor do they want to wait until midnight to eat. Reckon on a 40-minute aperitivo session before you all sit down, and give them something to pick on while they drink: anchovies on toast, say, or a few cheese straws. I like olives a lot, but I've noticed that no one else ever eats them. People are as alarmingly blind to olives as they are to litter and graffiti, perhaps because they suspect their host has been serving up the same bowl of olives over a period of several years. (Which they doubtless have, given that no one eats them; it's a vicious olive circle!)
What about the end of the meal? Yes, it's possible that you may not ever want your guests to leave. But it's also possible that a meteor will strike your kitchen just as you're serving your pavlova. Probably, you'll start longing for them to leave some time around midnight. At which point simply say, very charmingly, and more in sorrow than in anger: "And now, I'm going to have to ask you all to leave, for it is way past my bedtime." If you have done your job well thus far, no one is going to mind - or only in the sense that they will leave wanting more.
And that's it, really. We could fuss about drink, but in truth, you just want there to be lots, and of as good quality as you can afford. Candles are lovely, and kind to wrinkles, and flowers are good, too, so long as people can see over them. But I am not Martha Stewart, or anyone even resembling her; all I really care about in the matter of table settings is that there are proper napkins around, and that's a personal fetish of mine that we really can't go into here.
As for how to be a good guest, well, that's easy. Turn up on time. Take pleasure in your dinner, and praise the cook. Get tipsy, but not drunk. Enjoy yourself.
In Picture: No one ever eats olives: people are as blind to them as they are to litter and graffiti' Photograph: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images