It’s only an hour and a bit from London, past nonchalant cows and a few forlorn sheep.
It’s the final Sunday of Michaelmas Term when we arrive. This is another world. A place of C.S Lewis and TS Eliot. Of pendulous robes, blonde stone and sparkling minds.
And we’re about to discover that like another world, the high tables of Oxford cradle their own customs, vocabulary and charms. Thankfully we have a sound guide.
We’ve lucked onto the invitation from a brilliant old friend. We met when we were gangling teenagers, harbouring orthodontics and grand dreams for what we’d become. His are well on the way to coming true.
Merton College is his current home. It vies for the claim of the oldest college in Oxford with Balliol and University. It was founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton, Lord Chancellor and Bishop of Rochester. Dinner is in the hall; the oldest surviving college building. It’s black tie. Coupled with the visual spectacle of men in dinner jackets, members of the college don academic robes.
High table neatly demonstrates the hierarchy of the dining hall. Literally; it’s a table that’s raised at the front of the room. In status it’s reserved for the fellows, their guests and the warden. Dining together helps the fellows to foster an academic community (and it also encourages them to break free from the shackles of their studies).
At its essence, high table dinner is a combination of ritual, theatre and consumption that helps colleges keep their traditions alive.
To say we’re intimidated is an understatement.
Before we came we were asked to send in a small biography so the warden knows who is joining the table. I scrub together some achievements for me and The Hungry One in an email. His list seems much shinier than mine.
‘You’ll be fine’. This is what I’m told on the night by our PhD-to-be host on our way back from Evensong carols at Balliol chapel.
But of course. There’s just a minor chance I’ll soon be making small talk with the man who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. I should be combing my brain for natty anecdotes. Yet the frivolous part of me is fretting whether navy silk knee length dress, tights and heels constitutes the ‘female equivalent to black tie’
The meal is a journey. It starts in one room; ancient with a smell of well thumbed books and wood polish. There are aperitifs and chatter. There are elegantly small glasses of sherry, wine- and somewhat controversially, gin and tonics (the inclusion of gin and tonics was one of the first reforms care of the newest warden of the college).
It’s here that we get the first opportunity to spy the seating chart. It’s a busy night at the end of term so we’ve been allocated spots down on the floor of the dining hall. A little less pressure (and also a greater chance to surreptitiously take photos).
A pattern for the evening commences; drink, chat, wait for an instruction- often in Latin- and then move to another room. More instructions- often in Latin- stand, sit, drink, chat, eat. Another instruction in Latin. Move to another room. Eat, drink, chat and so on.
The only sticky thing is remembering to take your napkin with you.
The opening grace at Merton echoes around the dining room;
- Oculi omnium in te respiciunt, Domine. Tu das escam illis tempore opportuno.
- Aperis manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione tua.
- Benedicas nobis, Deus, omnibus donis quae de tua beneficentia accepturi simus.
- Per Iesum Christum dominum nostrum, Amen.
We sit. Plates are marked with the college seal. Cutlery carries history with it. My fork is inscribed with ‘1861’ in cursive.
Dinner commences with fish soup- a ballast of cream and fish stock, deckled with shellfish and parsley.
There are generous pours of a Nebbiolo Tretham Estate 2008. Over main courses of a robust chicken and leek pudding I learn that of my fellow diners is an Egyptologist- the other is a theoretical physicist.
It’s difficult not to feel frivolous taking photos of your food in this sort of company. Which explains why my focus on the pudding is so feeble.
There are skills I wish I’d perfected before we came. How to serve yourself mash potato with silver spoons from platters balanced in the hands of stewards is one.
This is rib sticking food, perfect for steeling yourself against the cold winds that whip around Oxford’s cloistered streets. There aren’t many places, bar my late grandmother’s kitchen where suet pastry seemed at home. I’ll now chalk the great dining halls of Oxford as another.
Dessert is a raspberry syllabub trifle. Trifle conveys the layered construction; not the size of the portion. This syllabub- an English classic that dates to Tudor times- is less curdled cream and more of a cream cheese consistency. It’s sweetly rich and a few of us fail to find our way to the bottom (though The Hungry One lives up to his moniker).
And yet this is only the start. Next are the mysteries of ‘Second desserts’.
Another grace is said and we stand and move to another room, napkins in tow. There a long table is set with cheese plates, oat cakes, chocolate truffles, dried and fresh fruits.
At second desserts it’s custom to sit next to people you haven’t previously talked to. Set in front of you are three glasses; one for port, another for sauternes, the other for claret.
Rather than fill all three, it’s best to choose a path. You then top your glass and pass the bottles to your left. The bottles may make two or three turns around the table before the evening is done.
From polite conversation over second desserts we move upstairs past the T.S Elliot room for coffee, tea, and digestifs. It’s a whiskey for the boys and a Cointreau on ice for me. In my glass there’s sweetness and a gentle twang of citrus. It echoes a bittersweet feeling I’ve nursed most of the night. It comes from an awareness that while tonight we’ve been party to something precious, this is a world we’ll never belong to.
In life there are doors that open and there are doors that close. This is a door that shut for me a long time ago.
When the night draws to an end at 10.45 pm our hearts and stomachs are full knowing we’ve just tasted a part of history.
There are some invitations you don’t turn down.
There are some meals in your life you don’t forget.
This is going to be one of them.