You don’t go to an event laid on by Bompas and Parr to expect the expected. Admittedly my first encounter with the duo, a ‘scratch and sniff’ screening of Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’, however unusual it may sound, did what it said on the ticket; the film was indeed accompanied by a scratchable card impregnated with scents appropriate to particular scenes [some to delight, some to, well, disgust is probably the safest word]. But the interval gold leafed hotdogs served by cherubs in gold body paint, and the naked looking guy submerged in a help-yourself perspex vat of Minstrels did come as something of a surprise. Surprising too was the number of Minstrels a person could eat whilst making no apparent difference to the fill level, but I digress. I was too late to get tickets for their ‘Alcoholic Architecture’ breathable gin and tonic cloud bar, and only found out about their ‘Architectural Punchbowl’ – a building flooded with over 4 tonnes of punch over which guest floated before sampling – after the event.
So we approached the setting for this summer’s ‘The Complete History of Food’ with some excitement and just the right amount of trepidation – this was unlikely to be dull, but what exactly were we in for? The event took place in a former embassy on Belgrave Square, and such is my fascination with such grand homes [OK nosiness] that I’d have happily wandered round the deserted building for a couple of hours. Empty, though, it was not, having been cleverly crammed in its various corners with a range of ‘experiences’ referencing food and drink from medieval times to the present day.
We were greeted in a dusty library by a doctor of medieval medicine who diagnosed the way in which an imbalance in the bodily humours [black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood] could cause us to be either choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, or sanguine. Turns out I was in a melancholic frame of mind, though it was close run thing between that and sanguine – I think that the tantalising smell of cooking wafting in from somewhere nearby may have caused a disturbance in my humorous flux. Diagnoses in hand we were led down some stairs, across a bridge and some stepping stones in a flooded basement and into what appeared to be the belly of an ancient galleon for canapés and cocktails specifically designed to right our imbalances [too late for one of the party who ‘imbalanced’ on the stepping stones and got a bit of a soaking!]. For me this meant a lemon and sorrel popsicle accompanied by a Courvoisier Exclusif pear and cardamom sidecar. Delicious, and the melancholy only returned as I got to the bottom of the glass and found I had to leave to be whisked off to Contemporary London out on the roof terrace.
Upstairs, against an amazing rooftop panorama, chef Alexis Gauthier had prepared an amuse bouche called Rocher a l’Or, ‘a port reduction centre, surrounded by duck foie gras, coated with caramelised almond and rolled in gold leaf’. These were a triumph, and would turn out to be the second most striking food morsel of the day. Yes, I was in an embassy, and with these Rochers I was being truly spoiled! [Sorry, but that was a once in a lifetime opportunity.] The nibbles were washed down with a creation from Lounge Bohemia, a champagne cocktail made with flattened champagne but containing a miraculously fizzy grape. I couldn’t prise the secret of the fizzy grapes out of the barman, but I did manage to extract a second glass of the cocktail. I’ve heard one reviewer describe this as more 80’s retro than contemporary – but isn’t 80’s revival the cutting edge of contemporary right now?
Onwards and downwards, via the winding stairs to a room transplanted whole from the 1960s and – it had to happen somewhere – a scratch and sniff TV dinner. The whole scratch and sniff thing is fun first time around but, like the card it’s printed on, soon wears thin. Neither was the next experience, a bouncy-castle digestive tract supposedly representing the emergence of new fangled dietary ideas in the early twentieth century, that much of a highlight. And now two whole rooms had gone by with nothing to eat or drink! I was almost tempted to start gnawing at the corner of my cardboard TV dinner as we wound round more corners and corridors where the walls and floors now sprouted psychedelically magical mushrooms. I had to check that other people could see these, fearing that a mixture of cocktails, aromatic chemicals and five minutes in a bouncy castle might have induced hallucinations, but if so we were all suffering equally, and on we wound.
Until, finally, we arrived at the source of the aromas which had haunted us around the building: a recreation of the 1853 Iguanodon Dinner, where diners were seated in and around a life-size model of the dinosaur, one of those which has ever since graced Crystal Palace Park. The great lizard itself was full when we arrived, so we were seated in the shadow of its snout. Could I actually feel it breathing down my neck? Probably more of those hallucinations. Whatever was on the menu in 1853 we ate duck confit with puy lentils, beetroot, and black champagne sauce, courtesy of the chefs of Bistrotheque. By now a decent glass of wine would have gone down well with this really quite decent plate of food, but event sponsors Courvoisier don’t do wine, so a ‘Josephine’s Tea Garden’ punch was served instead, and given what had gone before you could be forgiven for feeling just a little queasy after a tumbler full of it. Which would be a shame, given the triumphant finale to come.
There was just the one dessert being served from a giant rotating tiered cake covered in sugar sculptures under a multi-coloured chiffon awning [no, I checked again, and I have photos], rather than the three hundred served by the courtly Earl of Leicester to Elizabeth I in 1575, but what a dessert! Candied orange, iris jelly and, sublimely, an ambergris posset. Oh that posset. So silkily, waxily, smooth is the rare, famed substance unglamorously regurgitated by the sperm whale that to eat it is to feel your tongue, cheeks, and lips balmily soothed almost to the point of numbness, not unlike the after effects of the dentist’s lidocaine. The Iris jelly and candied orange partnered it perfectly too, and all of this was accompanied by a mercifully un-buggered-about-with Courvoisier XO. I took two, and wanted more. So enthralling was the dessert that we almost didn’t notice the machine that caused a jelly to dance to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Almost.
So, what was a boy to do at the end of all this? Well it seemed prudent to retire to the Courvoisier Bar lounge for a quick cocktail, after all we hadn’t seen one for all of 20 minutes, as a sort of stepping stone back out to reality. A digestif decompression chamber, as it were. Thirsty work this history.