Christmas is probably the only time I bother with appetisers or canapés proper; usually I am quite content to stick a bowl of fancy crisps on the dining table, and let my husband make sure everyone’s drinks are topped up. But Christms is different. Even this Christmas which is different in a variety of ways. Christmas demands canapés.
And, given the Vintage Chef moniker, I tend to favour the old-fashioned, the retro, the kitsch; the deviled eggs, the vol au vents – and the devils on horseback.
The dish is thought to date back to Victorian times, when it would be served not as an appetiser or hors d’oeuvre, but as a savoury: a kind of palate-cleanser that came after the main meal to be eaten with the dregs of wine; they have since migrated to canapé status. As is so often the case, the etymology or rationale behind the naming of the dish is in dispute: some suggest that as with devilled kidneys, the devil in the name refers to the heat in the mustard that some recipes employ – but few recipes require mustard, so this seems unlikely.
Others state categorically that the dish is named after Normal invaders who wrapped bacon around their armour to intimidate their conquests. To be fair, if a Norman warrior approached me on a horse wrapped in bacon, I’d probably be pretty intimidated, but that’s about as far as the plausibility goes. Their antonym, angels on horseback, refers to shucked oysters wrapped in bacon and skewered, but there is no consensus on whether the angelic shellfish sheds any light on the diabolical prune origins.
Devils on horseback have long been a Christmas favourite, but despite their classic status, they’ve rather gone out of fashion. You can’t move for pigs in blankets in the supermarket, and every sort of canapé you can dream of (24 mini chicken kievs, mini dressed crabs, a dozen Marmite crumpets), but devils on horseback are much harder to come by. But luckily, they’re ridiculously easy to make. In fact, I’m slightly embarrassed to be giving you this recipe, as it barely qualifies for recipe status – just three ingredients, prunes, bacon and brandy – but I promise this isn’t simply me clocking off early for Christmas and phoning in my final recipe column of the festive season.
Instead this is my one-woman campaign to bring back the devil on horseback.
For such a simple dish, it has a lot going for it: the prunes are soaked in brandy, until they are plump and boozy. Once rolled in streaky bacon and secured with a cocktail stick, they are baked. Baking rather than grilling or frying means that the prunes caramelise slightly and become jammy, dark and sweet, and the smokiness of the bacon pairs perfectly with this treacly sweetness. If you don’t have cocktail sticks, don’t be put off the recipe: just arrange the wrapped prunes so that they are seam-down on the baking tray and can’t unravel while cooking.
Devils on horseback
Makes: 24 canapés
Takes: 10 minutes, plus soaking
Bakes: 15-20 minutes
16 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
1. Pierce each of the prunes once with the tip of a knife, and place in a shallow dish with the brandy. Leave to soak for a couple of hours or overnight.
2. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Take a soaked prune and wrap in half a rasher of bacon, and secure with a cocktail stick. Place on a lined baking tray, and bake for 15-20 minutes until the bacon is golden and crisp. Serve warm.