If one is not clubbable by oneself, cultivate a friend. Last night a friend and I attended a “Summer Cocktail Party and Dinner” at one of the larger and more palatial clubs, built by the architect who designed the British Museum. The club also included a townhouse that had belonged to a royal princess. It used to be said that a British Gentlemen’s club is rather like a ducal townhouse with the Duke upstairs, dead. I suppose that applies to the older, 18th century clubs; this club was big enough for a couple of deceased dukes and perhaps a dead Doge as well.
The interiors of these clubs are often very grand, with large rooms, elaborate ceilings and walls, and numerous interesting portraits. (Well, some of them are interesting.) This club was that sort of elegant building. There were four bars set up in the large Smoking Room (where now you cannot smoke at all), each with its own bartender and each making a different cocktail. There was also something sparkling and at something nonalcoholic. I was slightly surprised to a number of men who were drinking a cocktail called “It Girl.” Perhaps it conjured memories of happier times.
The cocktails on offer were “Gin Basil Smash,” “Star Gazer,” “Presidential Margarita,” and, of course, “It Girl.” There was also “Apple Sparkle,” only apple juice, elderflower, and “Mint Sparkle.” I did not get to the “Apple Sparkle.”
Dinner was served in the princess’s old dining room, on four parallel tables with a high table running the full length, joined onto the ends of the shorter tables. As soon as I arrived, I was very pleased to see at my place four wine glasses and a water tumbler, which the redoubtable Miss Manners said was to help keep her on her seat. (I have only twice disagreed with “Miss Manner”: I was absolutely correct on one of my disagreements and still think I was right on the second. I am, like many professors, very brave when it comes to words, even with redoubtable women.)
An array of glasses, expanses of polished flatware, and crisp white linen tablecloths and napery always made for a comforting sight when one enters a dining room. My Parisian Uncle told me only wash wine glasses in hot water alone. I am not sure I know any oenophiles with such sensitive taste buds, but I still follow his advice. (He would also ask my aunt not to wear perfume if he knew the wines were going to be special, so as not to interfere with the bouquet of a great wine.) I don’t know if the club’s kitchen follows this practice; I doubt it, given the European Union’s love of meddling. (Trade agreements are fine, but a “United States of Europe” seems an amazingly daft idea to me, completely ignoring diverse cultural backgrounds and historical rivalries.)
Those not interested in food may want to skip this paragraph. The menu included a starter of Roast Fillet of Salmon with “Salt Baked Heritage Beetroot And Samphire Salad” with “Pea Cream Salmon Crackling” and tomato vinaigrette. The white wine served with it was a recent Saint-Véran. The main course was roast lamb, asparagus and wild mushrooms, with a “Minted Madeira sauce.” The main course, roast lamb, was accompanied by Dauphinoise potato, broad beans, runner beans, and carrots; the accompanying red wine was a Côtes de Rhone. Dessert was an “English Strawberry and Clotted Cream Parfait”,with “Raspberry Elderflower Coulis” and “Chocolate Dipped Strawberry and Almond Biscuit,” served with Sauternes. The port for the Loyal Toast was a Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage, and the meal ended up with “Coffee and Club Mints.”
The only drawback was the fact, after lovely cloudy and cool days, London was hot. I would have enjoyed the meal more in could weather with a little chill even on the red wines (which should be no more than 64 degrees Fahrenheit). Unfortunately, the temperature was really warm for London, which made it hard to keep the wine at the right temperature when the room temperature itself would warm the wine. The British are not as addicted to ice as we Americans; we like our drinks really cold. However, to chill a red wine too much dumbs it down and deadens the flavor. To serve it too warm makes it insipid.
Conversation at this club was very good, though I think I miss the old rule that you talk to the guest on one side of you half the meal, then the other for the rest of the meal. Traditionally, the hostess would “turn the table” and you would switch conversation partners. Sitting was “boy-girl-boy-girl” (or “female-male-female-male”) and customarily you did not sit by your wife – think how much fun comparing notes could be on the way home! All this “formality” may have been stilted and not suitable for our hugger-mugger lives, but it meant you might spend only half a meal with a bore, unless you were really unlucky. In any case, no one would be left out, which can happen easily in a conversational free-for-all. (I suppose one could be the bore oneself, though this obviously would be most unlikely.)
My companions all agreed on the necessity of free speech, especially at universities; I am not sure I mentioned Milo Yiannopoulos’s new book in favor of very free speech. Milo might be a bit too flamboyant for some of the more traditional club members.
If you have kept reading so far, I hope you like wine, clubs, and free speech. If washing wine glasses and etiquette do not amuse you, let me tell you something that may. London has urban foxes! In the garden of the house where I am staying, a vixen and her cubs often play. Many folk dislike them and try to get rid of them, but I am fascinated. And amused!