October 22, 2008

A tale of two dinners, or never mind the jelly, where’s the Sauterne?

Filed under: Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 2:02 pm

The Rock of Gibraltar pub is a quarter of a mile lurch up the tow path from my boat and then just over the canal bridge. When I come in, the landlord, Stematos, Greek with a heavy accent, greets me extravagantly and almost gets my name right. He’s the optimist in the family. His wife, British and apple checked, has taken my measure more carefully and knows my custom isn’t worth bothering about. If I arrive for a late lunch and ask tentatively if they are still serving the wife will throw her hands on her hips and say, Well I won’t do baguettes at this time of day!

Which is code for saying that at 3 o’clock she will not do new fangled foreign yuppie sandwiches. She will only do the kind of good honest British sandwiches she’s used to from the days when a ham sandwich was a ham sandwich — meaning two slices of nice British squashy supermarket bread, buttered, with a single, thin slice of ham in the middle and if you look kind of hopeful and ask in a quizzical way mustard? tomato? lettuce? mayonnaise? she might be tempted to report you to MI6 or at least Customs and Excise for subversive tendencies.

The food at the Rock is usually not bad, though, and on Greek Nights it is positively good. There have been cold Saturday evenings when I have wandered in late and been hit at the door with rich smells of roasting meat and cumin and garlic and I don’t know what and found Stematos and Apple-cheeked, not behind the bar, but at a small table in a dark corner, making eyes at each other while they sucked the left over lamb bones from some eastern stew.

I’m not sure where the diners for Greek Night usually come from or how close to the edge of profit or ruin this pub hangs. The boaty people generally lurk at the bar grumbling because Stematos won’t let them order a side of chips without a main course. They tell me it is because he is Greek and doesn’t understand British ways.

Last night I had a very different sort of dinner. I am back, temporarily at least, working for one of the Colleges in the University of Oxford. Like all the undergraduate Colleges we have a High Table reserved for members of the Senior Common Room and their guests. The food eaten at High Table is not very different from that eaten below on formal evenings (though far from the every day cafeteria flow). On High Table there is sometimes an extra course. And there is wine.

In case you are wondering, High Table really is elevated a step higher than the rest of the hall. The students, graduate and undergraduate, book in advance and queue up outside the hall clutching their bottles of wine. The door they enter by is next to the door we enter by, but a step below.  A team of staff members checks them in, urges them to fill up one table at a time, and opens their bottles.

Meanwhile the grownups gather in the Senior Common Room and drink, beginning as they mean to go on. When all the students are settled and the chef is ready, an announcement is made in the SCR: Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served. Unless there are Peers of the Realm present, in which case it is, of course, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.

In the College where I now work the Principal sits at the centre, like Jesus at the Last Supper. All the students stand as she enters and all continue to stand as she bangs her gavel and pronounces grace: two Latin words (the seating layout and grace traditions vary from College to College).

There is a good deal of bustle as everyone is served. You can talk to whom you like for the first two courses, but it is very bad manners not to turn at the pudding course (not to be confused with dessert which is another matter, and room, altogether and only takes place on alternate evenings) to talk to the person on your other side. You must at all times hold both fork and knife in your hand during the main courses, and your fork and spoon during pudding. It is wise to keep an eye on the Principal during the final course, because when she has decided that you have had plenty of time to finish, whether or not you have, she will bang her gavel, everyone will stand, she will pronounce two more Latin words (the closing grace) and every one, ready or not, will file out.

But what I want to tell you is the really big difference between this whole carry on (to use a British term) and any dinner down the pub is not really the food.  Almost all the food I was served yesterday could have turned up in any institution in the country, including Her Majesty’s Prisons (okay, the first course was special, but the rest was basically sliced chicken, soggy stuffing, soggy potatoes, overcooked peas and worse).

But the words! The menu! Now that had class.  That was really, really grand. So I give you last night’s dinner. I nicked the menu to copy, just for you. Not chips down the pub but:

Parma Ham, Ricotta Cheese and Asparagus Rosettes with a Light Watercress Dressing. Served with Montana Marlborough 2006.

Apple and Chervil Sorbet

Ballotine of Poussin with an Artichoke, Borad Bean and Cumin Farcie, Fondant Potatoes, Corgettes, and Fresh Peas in Chervil Butter served with Cornas Noel Verset 1990.

Mixed Berries set in a Sauterne Jelly

Petits fours

You could just eat those words, couldn’t you?


  1. Good lord, I don’t even know what half of that food really is! Will there be a translation?

    Comment by Liz@Inventing My Life — October 22, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  2. It all *sounds* delicious, but I believe you when you say it isn’t – a university dining hall is a university dining hall, whether or not there is a “high table” and you’re allowed to BYOB. It’s still institutional food and sounds suspiciously like the menu served at my high school senior prom. Which was every bit as appetizing, I assure you.

    I’d just as soon eat the single slice of ham on the squashy, buttered bread.

    Comment by Jan — October 23, 2008 @ 4:14 am

  3. Oh, so many responses, I barely know where to begin:

    1. I MISS those ham sandwiches. If God had meant us to put all that folderah such as tomatoes and lettuce on our sandwiches, He would have grown them that way.
    2. I MISS Greek food in London. I lived on it mainly the last year I was there.
    3. I MISS the English (British?) habit of drinking continually and convivially. That is really where the Brits have us beat.
    4. I MISS England when I read your posts!!!!

    Comment by ByJane — October 23, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  4. Jane — I am so glad if I bring England back to you. One of the things that became so clear to me when I was away for five months is how much I missed England too. I am home here in a way I may never be anywhere else again.

    Jan, yes, it sounded delicious, but it really wasn’t at all, though the parma ham, ricotta and asparagus was not bad.

    Liz, I don’t really know how to match those interesting words with what I ate…

    Comment by Duchess — October 24, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  5. What were the two Latin words? Were the Latin words at the end different or the same? Do you remember in Zuleika Dobson “Pedby’s Grace” — he was a mathematician and couldn’t read Latin but had to read the grace and his false quantities would be remembered for ever, laughingly, by the latinists.

    Re an earlier instalment — I remember “Let your light so shine before men” etc. being read, in my Episcopal childhood, just before the “offering” — in other words being taken to mean “Pony up, people.” I’m glad you have a nobler perspective on it.

    Comment by T P Perrin — October 26, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

  6. Very interesting but doesn’t make me miss being there. Maybe I’m just too American. :)

    Comment by Midlife Slices™ — October 26, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  7. The two words before dinner are Benidictus benidicat — may the Blessed One give a blessing. After dinner it is Benidicato benidicatur — let a blessing be given by the Blessed One.

    At Hertford we added Per Iesum Christum Domninum Nostrum. But no doubt we were showing off.

    Comment by Duchess — October 29, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  8. […] seated and waiting.  A gavel was banged and everyone stood for the grace.  This (as I have mentioned before) is usually two Latin words uttered by the Principal or, in her absence, the Senior Fellow, but on […]

    Pingback by DuchessOmnium - Island to island » Burns Night — January 26, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  9. […] As I have written before, I have more than once fallen foul of the 3 o’clock Baguette Watershed, meaning no foreign muck after that hour, but she might just stretch to a slice of ham between two nicely buttered slabs of honest British bread, if I ask especially apologetically.  […]

    Pingback by DuchessOmnium - Island to island » Along the tow path — April 7, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

  10. I love to taste some greek foods because they are very spicy.`;”

    Comment by Nathan Rodriguez — June 21, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

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