Monday, June 05, 2006

1st June 2005 - a right royal affair

I am fortunate enough to have experienced some incredibly memorable meals in my life. The night at Nobu when my virgin tastebuds exploded with their first tasting of blackened cod, where the wine chosen by my host just happened to be from the exact small parcel of Sancerre which I had helped to make the year before in the Loire.

My first oysters, perched up amongst the painted stars that twinkle over the seafood bar of Grand Central Station in New York. My first (and last) steamed snail in a tiny but exquisite Japanese restaurant in Paris. The spankingly fresh and perfectly cooked seafood in The Cod Father in Camps Bay (South Africa). The juiciest crayfish on a braai in Hermanus, cooked by J on our first lengthy holiday together.

However, somewhat bizarrely, one of the most memorable meals that I've ever been involved with is one which I did not eat. The one which precipitated a wee meltdown a year ago and prompted my decision to make a career, indeed life change.

As you can imagine, this was no ordinary evening. It had been in the offing for at least three years. A private, royal fundraising event and boy, were the stakes high and expectations were even higher. And the one individual who was ultimately responsible, who coaxed and cajoled trustees, elicited donations, was aiming for a further £1million and had to swallow the foul-mouthed screams of a royal aid...... was, of course, me.

1st June 2005 was one of the most peculiar nights of my life, and if you were to tempt me with a few glasses of something expensive and fizzy, a few details may escape, such as the septuagenariann millionaire who offered me job of a somewhat dubious and personal nature. Other elements however are far too sensitive to be blogged and I'm afraid that I'm not prepared to discover the fate of those who contravene the official secrets act, even for you, my dearest reader. However details I can divulge are....

The venue: Clarence House
The hosts: HRH The Prince of Wales and the future Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla to you and I)
The guests: donors who had given up to £1million and those with the ability to give in excess of £100,000
The aim: to raise another £1million to re-open a royal palace

For three years I had worked on guest lists, cultivated people to the point of eliciting donations, persuading Lords to access their contact networks and yet, unlike any other dinner party I have ever thrown, the food was the very last thing on my mind.

So what did the guests eventually eat? Unusually there were no canapes which which to soak up the flowing champagne. And trust me, a late royal party tends to heighten tensions and encourage the bubbles to flow. But the menu read as follows:

Steamed Norfolk asparagus in puff pastry with a poached egg and white truffle butter

Highgrove Home Farm Aberdeen angus beef rib with red wine jus, potato and leek gratin

Highgrove red fruit sorbet with blackcurrant bavarois and sablee biscuits

Sadly I cannot report how perfectly the asparagus was executed, how succulent the beef and how delicately the dessert was performed, as despite protestations from guests on the night, we, 'the hired help' were not encouraged to sit for dinner.

Ultimately the evening was a success. It raised a decent sum of money directly, indirectly a fairly substantial amount can be attributed to that night and because the Prince of Wales had gained confidence in the charity, the venue of his mother's 80th birthday party was decided that evening.

But perhaps more poignantly for me, I have realised that this was an evening which was to decide my future. I don't want to plan dinner parties where the food is an afterthought. I want to plan my evenings, indeed my life, around food, around times and occasions with friends which embrace partnerships, both gastronomic and personal. I want to be creative, to have the freedom to think, to be listened to, not to be shouted at. Oh, and to make the occasional fairy cake.

Maybe this fundraising lark was not for me. Life was, and still is, ready for a change.

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