“Follow the pineapples” Ms Marmite Lover announces, holding one under each arm like dumbbells. Resplendent in a mustard yellow dress (echoing the colour of a Marmite jar), flame red hair prettified with a black fascinator, and a frilly white pinny, Ms Marmite Lover, otherwise known as Kerstin Rodgers, leads her guests up the wooden staircase of Blacks members club in Soho, and into its power blue dining room.
My first encounter with Ms Marmite had been in the same room three months prior, when Tom Parker Bowles had whipped up Tequila-fueled Mexican feast with a little help from chef Alberto Figueroa. After the lunch, while a few guests remained drinking the dregs of their wine and eking out the afternoon, Ms Marmite had educated my friends and I about the joys of “figging”. We listened incredulous. Historical examples of horses were given, along with a suggestion that red chili works just as well as root ginger in achieving the desired affect.
I digress. With Ms Marmite Lover pulling the apron strings, I was curious as to what I’d be served – would ginger make it onto the menu? Opting to take the 18th century as a theme in homage to the Georgian townhouse playing host to our reveries, Rodgers explains that in the 18th century, pineapples were the height of luxury. Much like a Louis Vuitton handbag today, the tropical fruits, grown in hot houses in Bermondsey, were excruciatingly expensive, and thus seen as the epitome of chic. Ladies could even pay to hire a pineapple for a few hours to serve as a centerpiece on their dinner tables in order to uphold the appearance of a luxury lifestyle, returning them after the meal.
Our feast begins in a sober fashion with unctuous lemon barley water. Thick with sugar, it tastes like lemon curd. Huge platters filled with fiery orange fritters then emerge, and are quickly devoured by the hungry crowd. “Gentlemen used to cook these on their bedroom fireplaces,” says Rodgers. “A dangerous pursuit,” I venture. The fritters are magnificently moreish – the batter light and crispy, the centre soft and gooey, and filled with those faithful bedfellows: pea and mint. Accompanying the fritters is celery soup with truffle oil, which, according to Rodgers, served as 18th century Viagra. Slightly too cold, it’s refreshing and redeemed by the richness of the truffle oil.
Mid-feast, Rodgers explains that while seasonality is trendy today, in the 18th century it was the poor who ate seasonally because they couldn’t afford to eat any other way. The lunch continues with an 18th century classic that has Blumenthal written all over it: Stargazy Pie, served with garden peas and vermicelli. The pie is a visual spectacle, recalling the theatre of 18th century cooking. While there aren’t four and twenty blackbirds backed in it, I count no less than five fish heads peeping out of the pastry.
I fail to notice them at first, and get quite a fright when I scoop a head onto my plate. Being so visually close to what you’re eating is an odd experience. As diners, we like to distance ourselves from the animals our food comes from. The Stargazy Pie brings you face-to-face with your plate mate and its unfortunate fate. Eating the rustic concoction was like going back in time to an era I’m not sure I’d want to live in.
Luckily, many a sweet treat was to follow, beginning with black pepper strawberries and a sugar mountain piece montée of profiteroles stuffed with orange flower water and drizzled, Jackson Pollock style, with toffee. Notching our sugar intake up to dangerous levels, we’re then offered tuck shop style salted caramels and sugar-coated candied orange peel. Both look and taste of childhood.
Rounding the lunch off with a fiery Bloody Mary, I step out into the summer sunshine and pontificate about the pineapples. Which foods today are considered the height of luxury – Lobster? Caviar? Foie Gras? Truffles? And more interestingly, what will the luxury foods of tomorrow be? In colonial times, lobster was considered poverty food in America, and was often fed to prisoners and servants. The law even limited the number of days lobster could be fed to prisoners before it became abuse. Today ordering lobster off a menu is the ultimate display of decadence. The beauty of food is its cyclical nature – you can never predict what’s around the next culinary corner.