A brief history of British food

The Bar: cushion

A few days ago, I went to The Complete History of Food, presented by Bompas & Parr. Despite the fact that the title was a bit of a misnomer (there was nothing “complete” about their history, and, given that it was sponsored by a cognac company, it didn’t really feel much like a history of food), it was an entertaining and unusual night out with two of my best pals, Nikki and Billy. (Apologies in advance for the poor quality of my photos, but the light was very dim in there, and I only had my phone.)

We started in a dark wood-panelled room, which had the ambience of a gentlemen’s club after hours, or perhaps the room where the body was discovered in some Agatha Christie murder mystery. (It was clearly a library, although the bookcases were mostly empty.)

Room 1 [Edwardian]: The Doctor

There, a chatty young man gave an introduction on what we could expect to see later. He claimed that he was “The Doctor” (although I didn’t spot any bowties or extra-long scarves), and that he would prescribe our first cocktail based on the medieval elements of Humours.

Room 1 [Edwardian]: The Doctor

Our “prescriptions” were indicated by coloured stickers stuck on our lanyards and, after a rather cheesy recorded introduction, we were sent off down a darkened staircase to find the next room. At the bottom of the stairs we went through a doorway, only to find ourselves having to jump onto stepping-stones through a flooded basement. “Be careful, there are eels in the water, and they’re feeling a bit frisky tonight!” warned our guide for this part, but we made it through the room without incident, and boarded the wooden ship at the other end.

As you might imagine, walking across a flooded room filled with eels to drink in a wooden ship moored in a cellar should be a singular experience, and it certainly was. The ship was very dark, mostly lit by candles, with the sound of waves washing up against the hull. There was a jar of leeches on the bar, and for one brief moment I worried that they might be some bizarre ingredient in our cocktails, but fortunately that was not to be.

The three of us had been given different prescriptions, which gave us an opportunity to try three of the four cocktails on offer. I’d been diagnosed with an excess of phlegm (not far off as it happens; my sinuses are always stuffed up, which is gross, yes) and my prescription was supposed to boost my yellow bile (lovely). My “Choleric” cocktail was a fruity mix of cognac with rose-water, although I must admit I didn’t detect much of the rose flavour as it was overwhelmed by the huge amount of ice in my drink (hmmm… since when did they have ice cubes in medieval London?) and the slightly salty flavour of the rather boring amuse-bouche that came with it — a piece of toast with artichoke and red cabbage. Although it was tasty, it looked and felt more like a party nibble and didn’t feel like it had been particularly chosen well to accompany the drink. I was also a bit disappointed with the extremely haphazard way the drink was poured, as the woman standing next to me got twice as much as I or the other chap did (maybe the bartender fancied her).

Having joined the three of us in the middle of a conversation about beards, The Doctor had suggested that Billy was a “chin-stroking melancholic” and should have something to boost his blood. To that end, he was prescribed the “Sanguine” cocktail, a spiced mead, which was nice but sweet, and came accompanied by a teeny portion of fig covered in beetroot sauce.

Ironically, given the fact that Nikki is pregnant and can’t drink alcohol, she was prescribed the tastiest cocktail. She told the doctor that she was far too knowledgable about the state of her yellow bile at the moment, so he prescribed a “Phlegmatic” cocktail, which fortunately wasn’t made with phlegm, nor did it encourage it. In fact, it was a bloody marvellous combination; a cognac and apricot martini paired with porcini and truffle popcorn. The popcorn was extremely moreish (even though none of us are fans of porcini), and the flavours really complemented each other, with the buttery richness of the truffle lightly cutting the sweetness of the apricot. I was a bit jealous that she’d got a better prescription than me, but soon stopped complaining when she handed me most of the martini to finish after she’d taken one teensy sip (there are benefits of going to cocktail-themed night with a pregnant woman).

I was getting quite relaxed in the dim candlelight, chatting to people I could hardly see as the sound of waves came and went, but we had to move up to the next room, so up we went. Literally. First we piled into a teeny box of a lift, then using the lift as a time machine (which was certainly no TARDIS) we left the medieval spice boat and went up to the roof for a twenty-first century “deconstructed” champagne cocktail and a meaty Rocher, overlooking the London skyline. Although the views across London were great, and the herb-garden covering the bar was pretty, aromatic and practical, in hindsight I wish there’d been something a lot more futuristic at this point. But that’s just wishful thinking, because at the time I was too busy admiring the view, discussing herbs with the charming French bartender and gasping in amazement at fizzy grapes to complain about anything.

Room 3 [Contemporary]: the Roof Garden

Unfortunately, besides the fact that it looked exactly like a Ferrero Rocher, I don’t remember much about how the Rocher D’or tasted. Obviously it tasted of meat, which was less of a shock than I expected, given how it looked, but I think the problem was that I was so bloody hungry I was actually too hungry to pay enough attention to the flavours. And there were only the teensiest blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em singular specks of gold flake on each one, which barely justified their poncey name (not a problem, really, but everyone else’s review seems to misleadingly imply that they were smothered in gold, which they weren’t).

Room 3 [Contemporary]: the Roof Garden

The cocktail, on the other hand, was a definite talking point. It was a classic champagne cocktail, but made with chardonnay instead of champagne, and with grapes as a garnish. Somehow, as the grapes soaked up the alcohol, the cocktail became paler and flatter, and the grapes got fizzy! Amazing. (Definitely one to try at home, although I suspect there’s some secret trick they didn’t share with us.)

The view was pretty good, too.

Room 3 [Contemporary]: the Roof Garden

Then we all trooped downstairs again to find ourselves in yet another darkened room, this time with a vintage lampshade barely glowing and a vintage television flickering with vintage adverts. Ostensibly this was a celebration of the mass-production of the 1950s, and we were handed sheets of card and told to enjoy our TV dinners.

Room 4 [1950s]: TV dinner

Our TV dinners were in fact scratch’n’sniff meals, although to be honest they smelled a bit disgusting. There was some debate between Billy and myself, as I was convinced that the roast chicken in fact smelled of coronation chicken (something that Cook Sister seems to agree on), and the peas smelled of mint toothpaste. Overall, it wasn’t very appetising, and even now, days later, the artificial smell still lingers on the cards (which we took home as souvenirs), only now it smells even more disgusting! Fun idea, but not quite a success.

By this point we were wondering where our actual real dinner was and if we would ever get to eat it, but it was time to move onto the next room, down another set of stairs. There was nothing to eat or drink in the next room, the only thing to do was bounce. Or get bounced. Inside the room was a giant inflatable stomach that filled the four walls rather alarmingly, but a brief bounce around was quite good fun. (For anyone concerned about it, the pregnant woman sensibly eschewed this part.)

Room 5: inflatable stomach

Then we followed a trail of mushrooms down a corridor, past a couple of rooms with hand-written “no entry” signs pasted up on the doors. One door was open, and the room was filled with junk and equipment. It was a peek behind the scenes, but it slightly spoiled the magic, as did the signs written in biro. The mushrooms reminded me a bit of mushroom tunnels, and looked almost as though Fairyland had gone through some kind of urban development.

Room 6: mushroom corridor

At the end of the corridor, and down some stairs filled with flickering images projected onto the walls, we finally came to the dining room for our main course, which was good as by this time Nikki and I were ravenous (although we nearly wandered into the bar by mistake, as it was the first door we saw when we got to the bottom of the stairs). In the dining room we were greeted by a female maitre d’ in a pretty dress. Unfortunately, given that this was the room for the grand Victorian banquet, although it was a pretty dress, it wasn’t a very Victorian one (more like a noughties version of a sixties version of the twenties). I’d been feeling a bit sad that the staff hadn’t been in period costume where possible because I think it would have enhanced the historical aspects of the theme and helped us immerse ourselves in each period to better effect. Probably nobody else noticed or cared, but this was one of those moments where my disappointment was reinforced.

Because the dining room was full, we had to wait a few moments before they could seat us for our own moment of recreating the famous new year banquet inside a Crystal Palace Iguanadon in 1853.

Room 7 [Victorian]: dinner in an Iguanadon

Waiting meant that we actually got to have our dinner seated inside the replica of the Iguanadon at Crystal Palace, rather than at one of the many tables at the edges of the room. Admittedly, in reality it was slightly awkward as I was over-conscious of not wishing to disturb the two women already seated at the other end, and the decor of the table cloth and place setting made me think of some stuffy municipal dinner, rather than anything as fantastical as eating dinner inside a dinosaur. Again, that was probably just me — and might have had something to do with the fact that I only had the back wall to look at, rather than out over the small balcony into the main room, like the other two.

Room 7 [Victorian]: dinner in an Iguanadon

Unfortunately by this time I was so hungry that once again I didn’t really pay enough attention to what we were eating, a confit of duck with puy lentils with a black champagne sauce, although — tasty as it was (which was very) — I can’t say I really tasted much champagne in it, nor could I work out how they’d made it black. To be honest, the room was so dimly-lit there wasn’t much way of telling what colour anything was anyway. The duck was nicely cooked, falling-off-the-bone tender, and the puy lentils were perfect. Sadly, the bread rolls they provided were a disappointment; the fact that our waiter arrived carrying a huge tray piled high with them only reinforced my mental notion that they’d been bought in bulk from a supermarket, which undermined the feeling of “decadence” that the chefs claimed to be aiming for in this room (at least, according to the programme).

The cocktail at this juncture was a bit disappointing too; a summer punch made with cognac, green tea, apple juice and elderflower. Much like my first cocktail, it seemed to have far more ice than necessary (if you must insist on ice, then one or two cubes is much better than five or six, especially in short glasses), and its light fruitiness didn’t complement the meal as well as a glass of wine or something with more body would have done (I also would have liked the option of a glass of water at this point, and I’m sure Nikki would have as well!). However, it was quite refreshing as a digestif at the end of the course, and would probably work very well on a hot summer’s day eating cucumber sandwiches and strawberries-and-cream. Of course, it wasn’t really a digestif because it wasn’t really the end of the meal, and there was one more course to go: the Renaissance Dessert.

Room 7: Renaissance Dessert

I was quite surprised on entering the dessert room to discover that there was first an anteroom showcasing the gingerbread Gherkin from the Parliamentary Waffle House (which I sadly didn’t get to visit, because I always passed when I had a full stomach). As impressive as it sounds on paper, it was — again — too dark in the room to really see it properly, and it was hardly the reason we were here. In fact, other than as an excuse to show off what they can do, I have no idea why it was even there: it’s not like any of us got to taste it, and it wasn’t even appropriate to the Renaissance Period anyway.

Although, to be honest, the rest of the dessert room wasn’t really very Renaissance, either, as it was being soundtracked by cheesy 1980s pop music and it was full of pink frilly curtains that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an 1980s soap opera. (I wanted to compare it to Barbara Cartland’s boudoir, but another blogger already beat me to it, so I won’t, in case I’m accused of copycatting. You get the idea, though.) Behind all the pink frippery was a giant cake turntable, with dishes laid out on it for us to take (here’s a 5 second video).

Room 7: Renaissance Dessert

This dessert was one of the highlights of the evening: an iris jelly with candied orange, ambergris posset and one perfect raspberry. The jelly had the colour and shape of a really good creme caramel, so the light, slightly citrussy flavour came as a (pleasant) surprise. The texture of the jelly was wonderful, too, firm but yielding, and it was complemented very well by the sweet dollop of creamy sauce on the plate.

Room 7: Renaissance Dessert

The sauce provided one of the funnier moments of the evening, as there were people already tucking into their dish when the food guide started telling us what had gone into it. “Does anyone know what ambergris is?” she asked, to a responding chorus of “yeahs” from our corner (hey, we’re nerds, we admit it). The look of slight shock and horror on some peoples’ faces when she explained it was regurgitated by whales was mildly amusing, because I bet those same people eat honey without ever wondering or worrying where it comes from, even though it’s regurgitated by bees. Billy muttered something about how expensive ambergris is, which prompted me to ask whether it had been gathered ethically. The guide was quick to reassure me that no whales had been killed in the collection of the ambergris, but I was no closer to finding out how it was (or is) sourced (but that’s what Wikipedia is for). However, it was one of the only moments of the evening where people were confronted with the idea of where their food had come from, and I liked that it got them thinking and talking. I wish there’d been a few more moments like that, really, especially from an event marketed as The Complete History of Food.

Room 7: Renaissance Dessert

Amongst the pretty pastel-coloured frou-frou frills and sugared ornaments, there was a funny little technical gizmo which provided much amusement. This was basically a table fitted with a heart monitor. You could stick your finger in the hole and make the table vibrate, and of course there was a plate of jelly on top of the table to wobble with as much thrust as you could muster. Sadly, because I have short, stumpy fingers, I couldn’t even reach the sensor properly, so I couldn’t manage much in the way of thrust, but Billy did better — here’s a video.

And after that, dinner was sadly at an end, so we popped into the bar to prolong it a while longer. Unfortunately, after ending on such a fun note, the bar was something of a disappointment, especially for Nikki. There was only a choice of two cocktails: a pre-mixed Parisian Rendezvous punch, or a rather boozy cognac Sidecar. It’s a real shame that the Parisian Rendezvous had been pre-mixed, because without the alcohol it would have made a very refreshing drink, and even though the evening was sponsored by an alcohol company, I think it’s poor service not to provide an alcohol-free option, especially as they had the drinkaware website brashly emblazoned on our lanyards.

The Bar: Courvoisier

And this brings me back to my main problem with the night: it was misnamed. As a History of Food it wasn’t really a great success, no History of Food would forget to mention potatoes, or honey, or fish (although there were eels in the water, there were none in the food, and the ambergris doesn’t count because whales are mammals), or rice, or bananas, or cheese (I’ve just realised there was no cheese! How can you have a food event without cheese?) Instead, what they gave us was a very entertaining cocktail party with some food attached. Often, it felt a bit like the spectacle was the most important part of the night — especially the scratch’n’sniff dinner, or the inflatable stomach — and that was fine, but it meant that we sacrificed sating our appetite at the expense of sating our other senses, which is not really what we were there for. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound like I didn’t have a great time, because I really did enjoy myself. It’s more that the down notes of the evening dragged the high parts down as well, so that the overall good feeling at the end of the dinner was somewhat spoiled by the rather lacklustre experience in the bar afterwards (and to add insult to injury, we had to pay extra for that bit, which none of the reviews mention).

The Bar: Napoleon

I’m still glad I went, and I did enjoy myself a great deal. After all, it’s not every day you can drink cocktails in the bowels of a wooden ship in a flooded cellar, or nibble gold leaf and fizzy grapes in a herb-covered roof garden, or experience a scratch’n’sniff TV dinner, or jump around inside an inflatable stomach, or walk along a corridor that’s been colonised by mushrooms, or dine on duck inside a dinosaur, or eat whale vomit and iris jelly, or wobble a plate by the power of your pulse alone. And I’m very grateful I got to do all of those things, because they all add up to a wonderfully eccentric evening of fun times with two of my best friends. And frankly, experiences like that are worth a little disappointment in less important areas.

the toilet: warning

Other reviews (and much better pictures) from:
Eat Like A Girl | Gourmet Chick | Fernandez & Leluu | Londonist | Cook Sister | the Telegraph | Domestic Sluttery { Crafts’ Council | London Eater | The English Can Eat | Caroline’s Miscellany

One Comment to “A brief history of British food”

  1. Rather than History of Food, to me, it felt like “An evening with courvoisier” – but I think I am still bitter about the lack of virgin cocktails ;)

    It was fun.. and worth it all just for the awesome popcorn (don’t forget the absinthe in that first cocktail of mine too!) and delicious duck confit. But I wasn’t expecting to go home hungry.

    A very mixed night


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