FOOD & DRINK: Elbows on the table OK

It's fine to pass on the pudding, but don't forget to pass the port Michael Bateman takes advice from an expert on etiquette

THE ETIQUETTE of Christmas dinner is the mother-of-all-minefields of manners. So the onset of Christmas seems a suitable occasion to examine the issues. And timely, too, since a new and updated edition of Modern Manners is published on Friday, written by Britain's arbiter of etiquette, Drusilla Beyfus (Mandarin, £6.99).

Could we persuade her, perhaps, to play host in our Sunday Lunch series? At once decorum was called into question. How do you persuade the Queen of Etiquette to expose herself to what can only be a no-win situation? And not only for the host. For the guests, too.

Indeed, the whole experience could be harrowing for everyone concerned, even if they had first boned up on their table manners by consulting her little book, Parties, The Done Thing (Ebury Press, £3.99). "Standards have deteriorated in the wake of grazing and snatching bites of this and that in public," she observes. "Nevertheless, an awareness of the importance of minding your Ps and Qs at table remains a litmus test of savoir-faire, and to be felt particularly by the uninitiated." What are we talking about here, eating peas off a knife?

"Hard lines of correctitude have long since bitten the dust," she continues. "The truth is that some forms of the established code can be infringed with impunity."

So we're not going to ask her to host a lunch. But Drusilla Beyfus is only too delighted to talk about Christmas, which she has enthusiastically observed at home every year since she married. She lives in a flat in the heart of London's Belgravia, with her husband, Milton Shulman, the Evening Standard columnist. Although her children left home long ago (Alexandra Shulman is editor of Vogue) Christ-mas will be celebrated this year just as it was when they were tiny. "It's faintly ludicrous, I know," she says. "But every year we still argue about filling their stockings. And they fill stockings for us."

We are talking in her sitting room (morning room, lounge, living room?), drinking coffee served by her Portuguese housekeeper, Gina. At once a tricky point of etiquette arises. Ms Beyfus has accidentally slopped some of the coffee into my saucer when pouring it. In spite of my trying to drink it with care, a drop spills on to the carpet. What should the guest do? Offer to have the carpet cleaned? It is an extremely large carpet. Besides, it is coffee-coloured. Say nothing and hope that the spillage hasn't been noticed? Difficult.

"More coffee?" she asks. "Er, no thanks. I think some has, er, spilt."

"That's all right." (It would have been Bad Manners if she'd said: "Then you'd better get down on the floor and wipe it off!")

The etiquette of Christmas, then. At no time of the year are good manners more helpful, she considers. "Research has shown that along with divorce and moving house, Christmas is the time of greatest stress which induces the most suicides, or nervous breakdowns," she says. "Probably both."

It's a time of emotion and high anxiety. "If family rows are allowed to boil over you'll end up with Passchendaele and bodies all over the place. You have mixed generations and sexes, people with their different problems of love, money, perhaps wondering what the future holds. I don't think there's any family that runs completely smoothly - you have sibling rivalries, discontents between parents. It's just a question of how far you allow yourself to be beaten. A sense of structure suits this particular family; it has survived."

For many people Christmas is an ordeal to be endured, she says, but it should also be fun. "I wouldn't like a low-key Christmas. It wouldn't be Christmas without the crises."

The secret, she believes, is to contain the festival. "I'm in favour of brevity. Consider it as a ritual of eating, drinking and feasting to be contained within 24 hours. If it was spread over any longer I'm sure that relationships would start to fray at the edges."

But essentially, she says, Christmas is an event which provides stability within the family. "If the pattern is disrupted you feel it acutely. It's worst when people you love are not there. I know this sounds schmaltzy, but even the absence of a pet leaves a hole inthe heart."

THE BEYFUS RULES FOR CHRISTMAS

FOOD: "Don't spend a lot of time cooking. There is a strong case for two courses only. If you've got a damn good bird and a delicious pudding then to hell with the nuts. We have a very good stuffing (minced veal, pork and chestnuts in the crop of the bird) and a sauce made from the giblets. We crack straight into the main dish, then Christmas pudding with brandy butter. My daughter Alexandra makes a very good pudding. The chestnuts have to be the real thing, not bought pre-prepared."

DRINK: "We have lots of drink, but luckily we're not prey to the occupational hazard of Christmas, that cocktail of high emotional tension mixed with an excess of tipple. It usually leads to some unwanted home truths. I'm in favour of a bit of hypocrisy if it's for the benefit of the whole gathering."

PUNCTUALITY: "You have to be a headmistress and instil a sense of punctuality in your family and guests. It's not all right for people to go off to the pub and come back late. There is a point at which turkey is perfect, and after that it gets dry. And the good nature of the poor cook dries up too."

DELEGATING: "Everyone should participate - separatism is divisive - even if this means some incompetent people involved in preparations and you end up with a crisis. I remember a son asking his mother why everything was done but the potatoes were still raw. `You can't expect me to think of everything,' she said."

ORGANISATION: Of all the lessons Drusilla Beyfus has learnt, she says, the most important is to contain the main burden of the hospitality within a 24-hour period. So here, for those who would like to share her thinking, is the Beyfus Christmas Countdown.

THE BEYFUS CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN

SATURDAY 10 December (ie yesterday). Ordered turkey, to be reserved with crop intact for stuffing.

THIS WEEK. Order tree, Norway Spruce (no other variety has the correct pine smell). Send Christmas cards, buy presents. Make lists.

SATURDAY 24 December (Christmas Eve). Up early. Into greengrocer by 7.45am. A full day's shopping, collecting turkey, home by 5pm.

6pm. First of family and friends arrive. Deal with carol singers If they sing badly, I'm getting nasty, I don't give them anything.

8pm. Christmas Eve supper. Something easy. Entrecte steak. Baked potatoes. A huge and really great salad. A bottle of good Burgundy.

10pm. The 12-14lb turkey goes into a container of water acidulated with six to eight quartered lemons. Make brandy butter; first but by no means last argument of the holiday as family disagree about its texture and colour and taste.

11pm. Sneak into rooms to wrap presents, fill stockings. There's a lot of creeping around.

12 midnight. Some of the young people go off to midnight mass.

SUNDAY 25 December (Christmas Day). Get up at 7am. Open stockings.

9am. Sister and family, and Alexandra arrive.

10am approx. Turkey into preheated oven. Pudding on.

12-1pm. Guests arrive, making up to 10 or so. Champagne for those who want it.

1pm. Sit down to the turkey with stuffing, giblet sauce, roast and new potatoes, roast parsnips, sprouts, bread sauce, cranberry sauce.

3pm. Queen's speech.

3.30pm. Pudding and brandy butter. Pull crackers.

4pm. Very good coffee - which is something we take extremely seriously. People arrive for tea. No Christmas cake, but mince pies.

5pm. Some people go for a walk. The elders snooze. I go for a walk on my own in the park. I prefer it, feeling very spiritual.

6pm. That's it. People go their own way. The children go off to see friends. If anyone wants anything I tell them to go and get it themselves.

8pm. TV and cold turkey. Mince pies served with cream.

Final thought for Christmas: "Good manners are sometimes said to be only skin deep. Without agreeing with this assumption I do consider that the complexion looks well on most." - Drusilla Beyfus 8

DRUSILLA'S DOS AND DON'TS OF THE DINNER TABLE

IMPERMISSIBLE LAPSES

l Cutting up meat into a dog's dinner.

l Drinking out of the bottle.

l Trading places.

l Forgetting to pass the port.

l Throwing bread rolls.

l Filching the last cream bun without offering

it first.

l Leaning back on fragile chairs.

l Filling your own glass without attending to a

neighbour's.

l Producing a mobile telephone.

l Dirty hands.

l Yawning, belching, noisy nose-blowing and

zizzing off.

l Not complimenting the cook.

l Holding the handle of a knife like a pencil.

l Bringing your own diet rations (without previous consultation with the hostess).

PERMISSIBLE LAPSES

l Tucking in before the hostess gives the word.

l Putting elbows on the table.

l Asking for a taster from your neighbour's plate.

l Helping yourself and other guests to the wine

on the table, uninvited.

l Lifting green salad on to the main course plate

and ignoring the purpose-laid one.

l Sprinkling the salt and pepper over your food.

l Stretching for the butter dish or the sauce boat.

l Passing on the pudding course.

l Eating fresh fruit with the fingers.

l Remarking on the food.

l Producing your own sweetener for coffee or tea.

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