One of the difficulties of being a ‘one-man band’ running a site such as this, is that I have no ‘newsroom’ colleagues with whom I can discuss contentious matters that I cannot post – either because they are the subject of injunctions, or because information has been entrusted to me on a confidential basis for background and I have given my word not to reveal it. At times I feel as though my head will explode as I search for a way to write something that will not land me in trouble, nor lose me good friends.
I envy those who have an editor to advise them; though no doubt they envy me my freedom to write ‘what I chose’ rather than ‘what I am told’. I have several good friends who are journalists – but also competitors, so it would be unwise of me to discuss interesting titbits with them; I do, however, have one very good and loyal friend, a writer in a similar position, who I can trust implicitly. We meet for lunch every few months, and it is an occasion that I value immensely, for the chance to take advice and discuss those titivating details that may form future posts if substantiated.
The large hotel restaurant we normally meet at – the tables are spaced far apart, and my friend, through deafness, has a booming voice; Mr G tells me that on one occasion when he joined us, a family of German tourists on the table behind us was transfixed, as in a tableau of the ‘Fall of Pompeii’, with food permanently halfway to their open mouths, as they struggled to take on board every last salacious detail of the laws surrounding ‘digital penetration’, and how they pertained to a particular celebrity – was closed. So it was that we booked into the ‘Midsummer House‘ restaurant for lunch.
I have long known the Midsummer House – it was for sale at the time I bought a similar riverside property nearby, but was somewhat out of my price range. Not prohibitively so, just tantalisingly so. Far more annoying to feel that if only you had pushed yourself slightly harder…
On the banks of the river Cam, overlooking the gloriously unspoilt Midsummer Common, what was once a humble dwelling is only accessible by a footbridge. I could never have turned it into the dining experience it is today. My Cottage Pie just wouldn’t be the same…
As you step over the footbridge, liveried staff stand to attention by the garden gate, ready to swing it open for those they know can only be their customers. Nobody else uses that path. Another liveried flunkey would prefer to relieve you of your top hat and cane – but settles for your country fleece and battered satchel without the briefest grimace. They are far too well trained. Hand forged hangers are affixed to the side of your chair, the better to hold your £3,000 Chanel handbag clear of the immaculate floor; they don’t work on a €20 satchel from a Marrakech market. It flopped obstinately on the floor.
More flunkeys fuss round you – we estimated the staff ratio was in the order of three to each table. Champagne bottles rise as majestically as newly ordained ambassadors from the craftsman built oak cart which glides silently to your table – we settled for sparkling water…
My friend – I can’t keep calling him ‘my friend’. I shall give him a name. Hmm, Shakespeare week, Midsummer, a man who flits between the fairies and the nobility? It will have to be ‘Bottom’. Not that there is an inch of the ‘ass’ about him; neither foolish nor preposterous; witless or fatuous; he does have a genuine ability to communicate with people from all walks of life – and though he doesn’t realise it, he is a true Quaker; he spends his life supporting others.
So Bottom, G and I settled into these comfortable armchairs, at a huge round table a comfortable distance from the other diners, and commenced our conversation.
‘So do tell, what you said on the phone sounded intriguing’,
‘Well, you know the case of [redacted], well the barrister said in court….’
The words died on our lips – three more flunkeys were approaching the table, one carrying a silver salver, one to unload the salver, and one to deliver the speech…
‘As an amuse bouche we have a sliver of celeriac, deep fried in Icelandic seal’s blubber, and toasted with almond oil, and next to it, a soufflé of truffle and we suggest you eat from left to right, and the truffle in one mouthful, like this so….’ (One might be exaggerating the ingredients of this offering – by the end of something like nine courses the brain was a trifle, well, trifled….)
We ate as we were instructed, tiny delicious offerings in strict rotation, and nothing ever tasted so deep fried in Icelandic seal’s blubber than something that had been deep fried in Icelandic seal’s blubber – it was delicious.
‘So, anyway’ said Bottom, as we smacked our lips over the last morsel, ‘what the barrister actually said was’…his voice trailed away…
A flunkey had returned brandishing a solid silver crumbier with which they deftly removed the one offending crumb despoiling the table, and before they had finished, another approached bearing crystal glasses with a minuscule portion of hand reared grape grown to the strain of Mozart’s fifth in B flat minor – reduced to a jelly with a foam of something or other. Can’t remember, I wanted to know what the Barrister said…
Two teaspoonfuls later, we returned to the tale.
‘I’m quoting this from memory, not his exact words, but’…
Too late! Three more were approaching, bearing great silver trays, and upon each tray was a vast white platter, and in the centre of each platter was a dimple of maybe an inch and a half across, and in the centre of each dimple was laid reverentially wafer thin slices of avocado (Bottom’s favourite as it happens, but I fancy he mostly prefers at least a half of an avocado, rather than a tenth split between all 20 patrons of the restaurant…) resting beneath the avocado was the crab equivalent of a human pound of flesh. A gram of genuine Cornish crab.
‘Quick, tell me what he said’…
…and yet another dinner jacketed soul was there with a copper saucier containing freshly grated wild sorrel which we were told would enhance the flavour. As it did. Quite beautiful. Both mouthfuls.
Never did we swallow without a gastronomic experience – they were avid voyeurs of the bobbing Adam’s apple – they knew precisely the moment at which you gasped for air between mouthfuls, and which was the sigh of the second mouthful. This was not just utterly impeccable service, nor merely tortured food for the sake of it – this was Victual Theatre.
A baby scallop, practically a foetal scallop, arrived next, encased in pasta so fine it could have made a wedding veil, with a sliver of cauliflower carved with a surgeon’s scalpel by a chef so skilled he could have fed the five thousand out of one floret, and somewhere in that mouthful a lone egg from a Beluga sturgeon.
Each course described at length by one of the trio who waited on us – the roasted anjou pigeon had been waited on hand and foot, had never had to fly to feed itself, so had never developed anything so unrefined as a muscle – it was the very definition of tender. Its leg had been ‘wrapped in a single shard of wild garlic’, encased in pastry that had never heard of Mr Jusrol, and then deep fried with morel. What can I say? – I have always been a fan of pigeon, and this pigeon outpigeoned every other pigeon that has ever come my way.
The cheese course (French style, after the entrée) was an entire 20 minute performance, with each individual diner invited to a lengthy discourse as to the merits of a couple of dozen versions of curdled milk rolled in this and that.
But I really, really, wanted the low down on the gossip.
By the time the ‘aerated pear’ arrived, I could but sympathise with it. Apparently the pear becomes aerated after being encased in a cryo-vac machine…I daresay I would too. It tastes like no other pear you have ever tasted. It surrounds a single example of the juiciest blueberry God ever beamed the sun down onto, all encased in a melted bar of Milky Bar or something. Near impossible to shatter without sending it skidding the other side of the restaurant. I managed. Just.
No sooner managed than the ‘deconstructed torte’ arrived of passion fruit, and the darkest of dark chocolate. With a ‘foam’ of Yoghurt.
And coffee. In the whole of France I never encountered such a paper thin coffee cup, with a handle made for the gentile wives of aristocrats. And a soupçon of the finest coffee. Probably extruded by Ethiopian civets. I don’t know, I was still trying to catch up with the legal gossip…
It was a magnificent meal. The finest ingredients. The most skilled of chefs. Not that they ever serve anything that requires such a mundane tool as a knife – but one is provided; hand forged couteaux by Laguiole – Mr G and I had lusted after such items many times in France, but at around 150 quid per knife, we had opted to cook the beef a tad longer…
It is a beautiful environment; from the riven Welsh slate floors to the different oaken trolleys that glide silently round the room
The service is beyond belief. A carefully choreographed theatre of gastronomic delight. It is very special.
My cottage pie would never have done justice to the setting.
My only quibble is that if you have an entertaining friend, normally a fund of scurrilous gossip and useful advice, that you had been looking forward to listening to – it is not the place for you. The food is centre stage, not your companion.
Bottom managed to finish the tale in the taxi back to the station – much to the amazement of the open-mouthed taxi driver.