Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Tribute To Saint Valentine

Balloons marked
the entrance to my
driveway as the sun
set on February 11th
For me, it started in 2015, when Valentine's Day happened to fall on a Saturday for the first time in several years. I had been lamenting for some time how restaurants always seemed to jam extra tables into their dining rooms on Valentine's Day and, despite hiring extra help for this super busy evening, always seemed overwhelmed by the crowds, resulting in a less than satisfactory gustatory experience and certainly not a romantic one.

Squeezing one more time into a dining establishment where patrons were jammed so close together that I could hear the conversation at the table next to me better than I could hear my own date seemed untenable, especially with the big day arriving on a Saturday, already the busiest dining-out evening of the week. So as Valentine's Day 2015 approached, I decided to throw my own dinner party instead, inviting dear friends over for a hearty winter meal.
I collected a variety of Valentine
decor from IKEA in 2015

My inaugural event was a big success, so I began a new tradition. Each year since, on the Saturday closest to Valentine's Day, I have invited friends to share in a decadent, retro winter feast inspired by my own Swiss roots: a three-course, all-fondue dinner. In 2017, that was Saturday, February 11th.

In 2015 I didn't own a single Valentine decoration, never before having been moved to garnish the house for a holiday that seems anticlimactic to a single person. So that year, for the first time, I stocked up on heart-shaped candles and hanging paper ornaments and set about thinking about how I could create an atmosphere of warmth on an evening of typically frigid temperatures here in the mid
Faux floral swags came from

Flowers came to mind, lots of beautiful, spring-evoking blooms. I ordered faux floral swags and candle rings in luscious pastels from Grandinroad.com to supplement the forsythia and peach blossom branches I'd kept in labeled plastic bins in my basement for decades.
I designed the invitations, printed
them out and sealed the
envelopes with wax

That first year was magical. Snowflakes fluttered against the windows of my dining room as a crackling fire warmed my guests while we ate. This year, the weather was predicted to be several degrees warmer on the day of my party, but it didn't deter my festive mood as I opened my boxes of Spring and Valentine décor and set to work transforming the house into a flowering testament to the coming verdure.

Invitations were mailed one month in advance, the envelopes fastened with sealing wax impressed with my monogram to denote a special air of festivity. I set about festooning the dining room in Valentine-themed adornments, many from IKEA, and began to take stock of all the china, flatware, stemware and fondue pots I would need for my event.
Each couple received a gift
bag with a copy of the
menu, a chocolate rose
and a can of gooseberries

In the weeks leading up to the big day, I created personalized place cards for each guest, affixing them to pierced tin containers which I filled with an assortment of Lindt chocolate truffles and a giant, foil-wrapped Hershey's kiss. I rolled up printed menus and sauce lists, securing them with a long-stemmed chocolate rose and a pretty floral hair clip. I created a game to entertain my guests between course changes, collecting Valentine-related trivia questions for the table to ponder, and wrapped small gifts for the winners: a can of Oregon state gooseberries with a recipe attached for a yummy gooseberry crunch, nestled into a gift bag filled with Tobler chocolates.

I selected a play list of melodic, woodland-themed acoustical music featuring harp, flute, didgeridoo and guitar. I picked out special bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Belgian pale ale, kirschvasser and chocolate zinfandel, and found a recipe for a special anjou-champagne punch, for which I simmered a potent cinnamon simple syrup. I froze a dozen half spheres of water, each hollowed in the center which, once released from their plastic bowl molds and overturned, would hold a small tea light to line my front walk.
Special fondue plates from
Switzerland have separate wells
for dipping sauces

There were 11 kinds of fruit for
dipping in chocolate
and chopped nuts
The day before the big dinner, I took off from work in order to enjoy putting everything together instead of having to cram all my preparations into the day of the party. I cut sourdough bread into fat chunks for dipping into a heady first-course fondue made with three Swiss cheeses: Emanthaler, Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois, the latter imported for me by a Swiss bakery in Washington D.C. 

prepared five different dipping sauces for the main course, a succulent fondue bourguignonne consisting of bite-size chunks of specially aged filet mignon from Wegman's which, once dipped into hot peanut oil and sizzled to desired doneness, could then be slathered in horseradish sauce, chunky barbecue sauce, onion-mustard sauce, balsamic-bleu cheese sauce or garlic-paprika aioli, all homemade and surprisingly low-fat, as I employed nonfat Greek yogurt, sugar-free tomato sauce, 1% skim milk and light mayonnaise in their making. 

I cut up an array of fresh and candied fruit for the decadent dessert course, a rich chocolate fondue finished with Gran Marnier, into which my guests would dip slices of fresh honeydew and cantaloupe, banana, kumquats, pineapple, blackberries and strawberries, pickled watermelon, maraschino cherries, mandarin orange sections, and goldenberries, a sweet-tart Peruvian ground cherry of the tomato (nightshade) family. 

I blanched haricots vert and plunged them into individual shot glasses filled with Thai ginger-curry sauce for an appetizer, and prepared a crudité tray of dolmades (rice-filled grape leaves) , senfgurken (mustard pickles) and Greek olives stuffed with roquefort.
I greeted my guests with green bean
"shots" and glasses of
pear-champagne punch 
Each place setting held a tin of sweets

I may have appeared calm, but every
burner on my stovetop was working
hard in preparation for this dinner
I set my table carefully, relishing the moment my guests would feast their eyes for the first time upon all the candles, glass baubles and rose petals scattered among place settings adorned with my vintage gold china, flatware and crystal. I tied a faux sheepskin pelt to each chair, affixing it with a rose-colored elastic sash, to which I then fastened a spring floral swag. I washed and readied six of my favorite fondue pots, filling burners with fondue fuel for the meat course, preparing votive candles for the cheese and chocolate courses. I ironed and folded napkins, and personalized eight wooden skewers with the name of each guest for the meat course, as metal fondue forks must never be plunged into boiling cooking oil. And finally, I gathered real red roses and baby's breath into a low arrangement for the center of my table and arranged fresh spring bouquets for my other rooms. I was ready.

We enjoyed appetizers in the living
room before it was time to move
to the dining room for dinner
The day of my elaborate dinner was warmer than usual for the middle of February, almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit, when usually daytime temperatures are only a little above freezing this time of year. Still, as evening fell and the time approached for my guests' arrival, the night air cooled quickly and I was glad for the fire crackling in my fireplace.

The evening was a smashing success. My guests enjoyed one another's company immensely. Animated conversation filled my little farmhouse, ranging from national politics to the flora and fauna inhabiting a nearby nature preserve to which we are all connected in various ways. Everyone enjoyed pondering the trivia questions I had prepared, while I switched out chunks of bread and fondue pots of melted cheese for chunks of meat and pots of boiling oil and, finally, replaced the meat and oil for bowls of fruit and pots of melted chocolate with Gran Marnier. There was scintillating conversation and much laughter. 
My dining room was cozy and
romantic. Pictured from left to right:
Donna, Klaus, Jack, Liz and Joshua

Dessert was soon finished, yet the animated conversation continued. I showed everyone the master bathroom I remodeled last year, and when we returned to the living room, people took their seats and the conversation continued. I was immensely flattered that my guests were having such a grand time!

It was 3:00 a.m. before I finished
cleaning up and went to bed after
my guests departed. What a
wonderful time we all had!
It was well after midnight when my friends departed and I began the epic task of cleaning up, reliving every wonderful moment as I rinsed dishes, put away leftover food and drink, and returned my dining room table to its more diminutive size. I can't say that I created a romantic evening in a passionate or erotic sense, for that was not my intent. What I wanted to do, and I dare say I succeeded, was to create a romantic ambiance in honor of Saint Valentine that fueled an intimacy of enduring friendship. Dear acquaintances, reunited for an evening of fun and food, found their affinity for one another deepened over fondue and conversation. What better way than that to celebrate the patron saint of love?
"Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together" ~ Woodrow T. Wilson

1 comment:

  1. Dear Lynell, what an awesome table setting and menu.
    I wish I was there to enjoy all the yummy things, Love from Australia, your friend Eva