Generally I’m not that fussy about how people use words. Language is for the living and it evolves as we do. Read any Chaucer poem and you’ll see how far we’ve come. I’m not for jumping up and down at the omission or misplacement of an apostrophe, but there is a problem when we start to use words interchangeably when they are not.
Food has many terms that have become commonplace in our lexicon, often taken from the French and nestled neatly into English. A simple example would be ‘vol-au-vent’. It needs no explanation as to what it is but it literally means “flies like the wind” a reference to just how light the pastry on a vol au vent should be.
If you are ever offered an Aperitif it should be a drink before dinner. The word comes from the French term for an alcoholic drink that stimulates the appetite. The route of the word is the Latin verb, ‘aperire’ which means ‘to open’ – essentially an aperitif should ‘open up the appetite’. Aperitifs were considered quite medicinal and were alcohol flavoured with strong herbs and spices. That distinctive taste of vermouth is no accident. The nice thing about indulging in an aperitif is that it is traditionally considered medicine or a health drink, you’re not actually drinking! So the idea was that you sharpened your appetite and gave the system a little bit of a boost too.
Now you may find yourself enjoying an Aperitif with a canapé. The canapé became popular in France (yes the French again) in the mid 1700s. Traditionally a canapé is a little carbohydrate base; toast, pastry or a cracker loaded with a variety of different foods. The canapé was also meant to pique the appetite. They are generally salty or spicy and encourage those eating them to drink some more. The canapé should be small enough to eat in one bite and you should be able to hold a drink and eat a little pastry tower without too much trouble (that’s if it really is a canapé). The word itself has little to do with food and more to do with furniture – the original root describing a lounging couch or sofa. It is assumed that someone suggested that the little pieces of toast or pastry topped with savoury food looked like a sofa covered in cushions so the word took on the additional meaning.
Meanwhile hors d’oeuvres are closely related to the canapé. Hors d’oeuvres are a more substantial canapé. In the 1900s any good restaurant worth its salt anywhere in Europe kept a hors d’oeuvres trolley. Pies, salads, terrines and tarts of many varieties would have adorned the trolley. The idea was that rather than looking at the menu and choosing by the description of the dish, you could actually see the dishes and choose with your eyes, not unlike the dessert trolley in some establishments today. The word is an architectural word meaning, wait for it, out house or out building. Effectively it was a building separate to or not incorporated in the main design. In food therefore it became something outside the main meal. Hors d’oeuvres became popular in Paris and it was a great way for chefs to put their work on display.
Now tapas is something we are all familiar with. Tapas are simply a little bite of food that goes with a drink. Spain has developed a whole cuisine around it from simple olives to slices of chorizo or lovely steaming calamari rings. Tapas has also become common outside of Spain too. Like most popular trends Tapas began with the masses and was borne out of simple lifestyle. In the traditional Spanish working day which began at first light due to the heat, the main meal was at 1pm and then workers would take a siesta, returning to work in the cooler late afternoon. Then from the middle of the evening until bedtime they would socialise, drink and eat lightly – mainly finger food. The word comes from the Spanish word for ‘lid’. In the evening when the Spanish drank wine the tavern would serve little slices of bread that you could rest on top of the glass to keep the flies out of your wine; very clever.
The digestif; this is another alcoholic beverage that is specifically served after a meal and, as the name suggests, it aids digestion. Liqueurs and fortified wines such as port and sherry are frequently served as digestifs and the tradition is very popular on mainland Europe particularly.
And finally, one that gets us all, the difference between dessert and pudding. Now personally I would rarely use the word ‘pudding’ to describe the sweet course after the main, finding it to be very British and not something I would have grown up with. ‘Sweet’, ‘afters’ and ‘dessert’ are all much more familiar. I would use the word pudding if indeed it was one; Christmas pudding, sticky toffee pudding, bread and butter pudding or rice pudding. And therein lies the difference, pudding is generally heavier, cooked and a little stodgy while dessert is usually lighter, uncooked such as fruit or maybe jelly, sorbet or mousse.
It really doesn’t matter if you get them all mixed up, it’s not the end of the world. However it is unfair to tell someone you are serving hors d’oeuvres when in fact you only have canapes. What you risk is hungry guests and that’s never a good thing.