Blow out! History's 10 greatest banquets
Tonight in Bangkok, the world's most fervent foodies will pay £15,000 each for what they hope will be the ultimate dining experience. But will it rival the past's most fabulous feasts? By Ed Caesar
Saturday 10 February 2007
NERO'S ULTIMATE ORGY Rome, AD64
The Romans were fond of a slap-up dinner, preferably one that involved gluttonous excess and lashings of promiscuity. But, according to the historian Tacitus, one banquet - organised by Tigellinus for his deviant emperor, Nero, AD64 - stands out as the most "prodigal and notorious" of the lot.
In Book V of The Annals, Tacitus writes that "the entertainment took place on a raft constructed on Marcus Agrippa's lake. It was towed by other vessels, with gold and ivory fittings. Their rowers were degenerates, assorted according to age and vice."
Although Tacitus' recollection of the event does not extend to a menu card (there, are, however, details of eye-watering sexual feats), we may assume the feast ran along the lines of the one mapped out by Petronius in his Satyricon. At that banquet guests were treated to dormice sprinkled with poppyseed; sow's udders; a hare with wings attached, to represent Pegasus; a calf boiled whole and wearing a helmet; and more than 50 other Roman delicacies.
THE MEDICI WEDDING Florence, 1600
In 1600, a great dynastic wedding took place in Florence when Marie de Medici married Henry IV, the King of France. The ceremony in the cathedral was an impressive feat of theatre but had nothing on a party for 300 guests, held at the Palazzo Vecchio's Salone dei Cinquecento. The festivities were designed by the Florentine sculptor and architect Bernardo Buontalenti, who, it seems, had a limitless budget. Historical reports say there were more than 50 courses at the banquet. The first surprise, though, came shortly before the starter - when the guests sat down, unfolded their napkins and saw songbirds fly out. The highlight of the meal was sherbets of milk and honey, which were created by Buontalenti and inspired by Marie, who had brought the recipe for sherbet from France.
THE FIELD OF THE CLOTH OF GOLD Balinghem, 1520
In the early 16th century, Europe, a continent divided between the great powers - most notably the French and the Habsburg empires - was threatened from the East. And, in 1518, the major powers had signed the Treaty of London, a non-aggression pact to ensure they repelled the march of the Ottoman Empire.
In the spirit of this new-found bonhomie, Henry VIII of England and François I of France agreed to hold a carnival, over three weeks in June, which would become known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold. The party, which took place between Guines and Ardres, near Calais, was one of the most lavish diplomatic splurges ever recorded. There was jousting, music, huge tents (Henry had a 12,000 sq ft temporary palace built), and a disgusting amount of food. The festival turned sour for Henry when, in its last week, he lost a wrestling match to François.
NICOLAS FOUQUET'S FÊTE WORSE THAN DEATH Vaux-le-Vicomte, 17 August 1661
Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV, had not only enjoyed a stellar career at the court of the capricious French king, but also bought himself a glorious estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte. There, he developed the greatest chateau in France. So sumptious were the grounds, and so generous was its host, the castle became a centre for society dandies and great artists. But the fun had to stop eventually. On 17 August 1661, Fouquet threw such a lavish banquet that he was arrested. To celebrate the inauguration of the chateau, a play by Molière called Les Fâcheux (The Bores) was performed before thousands of guests who were determined to be anything but the title of the drama. Then Vatel, the highly strung chef who created Chantilly cream and killed himself when he was unable to provide fresh fish for the king's dinner, made a sumptuous, dairy-heavy feast. Fireworks marked the end of the meal, but there were more to come: Fouquet's party had been deemed too ostentatious by the king, who inferred a misappropriation of the Crown's money. Fouquet was arrested and later imprisoned for life. His wife was then exiled, and his beloved chateau was taken away from him. All this for holding the greatest shindig of the 17th century.
THE REGENT'S BANQUET Brighton, 18 January 1817
The Prince Regent - later George IV of England - was such a glutton that it was said his uncorseted belly hung between his knees. No doubt he had a special place in his cholesterol-saturated heart for the greatest knees-up of his Regency: the "Regent's Banquet" at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.
On 18 January 1817, George invited the greatest (and most expensive) chef in the world, Marie-Antoine Carême, to prepare a unique and extravagant dinner in honour of the visiting Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. Carême had previously cooked for Napoleon, the Rothschilds and the Tsar. But on that cold night in 1817, Carême outdid all his previous achievements - creating 127 dishes. The evening's pièce de résistance was a 4ft-high Turkish mosque constructed entirely out of marzipan, although there were pigeon pies, saddles of lamb and a hundred other delicacies. So pleasurable was the feast that the Prince Regent exclaimed: "It is wonderful to be back in Brighton where I am truly loved."
THE FEAST OF BEASTS Paris, 31 December 1870
On New Year's Eve 1870, at Noel Peter's restaurant in Paris, Monsieur Bonvalet, the mayor of the third arrondissement, arranged the ultimate carnivore's party for 20 of his friends. It was, you might have thought, an odd time to throw a celebratory dinner - Paris had been under siege from the Germans for months and food was scarce in the capital.
Nevertheless, Bonvalet, using his connections at the local zoo, designed an innovative menu. Guests were treated to such unusual fare as escalope d'elephant with a shallot sauce and roast bear à la sauce Toussenel. It was, according to reports, a roaring success - proof, for Bonvalet at least, that if the siege of Paris continued much longer, the poor could be fed using animals from the zoo. There are no reports, though, to suggest that Bonvalet's bold solution to Paris's food shortage was ever put to the test. The city fell to the advancing Germans on 28 January. One can only assume that Bonvalet and his friends were eating elephant casserole all January.
ST PATRICK'S DAY FOR THE PRESIDENTS Washington, 17 March 1959
On Saint Patrick's Day in the US, everyone is Irish. So when on St Patrick's Day in 1959, Ireland's President O'Kelly visited President Eisenhower at the White House, the scene was set for an almighty diplomatic splurge. "Ike" had always loved his food and was famed for cooking barbeques on the roof of the West Wing, while President O'Kelly was a noted talker. Together, they had a ball, in every sense.
The menu for the state dinner on 17 March 1959, was prodigious. According to John Lane, whose book Taste of the Past chronicled the event, the party started with prosciutto ham and melon, before moving on to cream of watercress soup with melba toast, celery hearts and olives. Guests then tucked into lobster newbergs - made from lobster, butter, cream, cognac, sherry, eggs and cayenne pepper - before a round of vol-au-vents, preceded by cucumber sandwiches.
The main course was a roast, stuffed Long Island duckling with apple sauce, a casserole of aubergine, French string beans almandine and a green salad with anchovy and cheese crusts, after which came a huge frosted mint delight - essentially an ice cream sundae - and nuts and bonbons for anyone still peckish. It was washed down with copious amounts of Pol Roger 1952.
THE CRITIC'S REVENGE Paris, 10 November 1975
It's not often the Pontiff takes time out of his busy schedule to chastise a restaurant critic. But, in 1975, Pope Paul VI did just that, after the New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne pulled off one of the greatest individual feats of gluttony ever witnessed.
Claiborne had bid $300 (£175) at a television charity auction and won a meal for two, anywhere in the world - paid for by American Express. Somewhat surprised that a relatively low sum had won such a luxurious prize, he and his friend Pierre Franey chose the Parisian restaurant Chez Denis, where they asked the chef, Claude Mornay, to prepare a special menu for them.
Mornay produced a five-hour, 31-course dinner including caviar, foie gras, ortolans, truffles, sweetbreads, woodcock and - a culinary extravagance - a dish made of hundreds of chicken "oysters". The wine list was equally impressive. Among the highlights were a 1918 Chateau Latour, a 1928 Mouton Rothschild and d'Yquem and a 1961 Petrus. Despite the considerable expense to American Express - the meal cost $4,000 - Claiborne gave the restaurant a mixed review in his ensuing front-page story for The New York Times.
Claiborne said his lobster was "chewinggommeux" and that his chicken oysters reached the table cold.
The restaurant wasn't the only one offended by Claiborne. The newspaper received thousands of angry letters, with many condemning their critic's stunt as being obscene in a hungry world, while the Vatican issued its famous rebuke - calling the meal "scandalous".
FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND'S LAST MEAL Latche, 31 December 1995
When François Mitterrand - a man who had, in his 14 years as President of the French Republic, garnered something of a reputation as a gourmand - discovered he did not have long to live, he planned a meal. And not just any old meal.
On New Year's Eve 1995, Mitterrand invited 30 friends to Landes, in the south-west, to share a dinner of oysters, foie gras, capons and the endangered ortolan bunting bird.
The ortolan, which is about the size of a man's thumb, is said to embody the soul of France, but is illegal to eat. Mitterrand's party consumed their ortolan in the traditional way. After being drowned in Armagnac, the ortolan was roasted, then eaten entire - bones and all. It is customary for diners to wear a napkin over their heads, to hide the sinful act of eating the tiny bird from God. Mitterrand was bashful enough to wear his napkin, but brazen enough to eat two birds - a sin he could explain to his maker eight days later, when he died from prostate cancer.
THE EPICUREAN MASTERS OF THE WORLD Bangkok, 10 February 2007
If you advertise a banquet as "The Epicurean Masters of the World", you'd better make it good. So let's hope for the sake of the 15 gourmets who have paid £15,000 each (tax and service not included) for a seat at the Dome Restaurant in Bangkok's State Tower, this evening lives up to their - and their 25 invited guests' - expectations.
Tonight's menu, which will be prepared by six three-star Michelin chefs (including Alain Soliveres of the Taillevent in Paris and Antoine Westermann of the Buerehiesel in Strasbourg) certainly looks impressive. Highlights of the 10-course meal include a "crème brûlée of foie gras with Tonga beans", which will be served with a 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal; "a tartare of Kobe beef with Imperial Beluga caviar and Belons oyster", served with a 1995 Krug; and "Veal cheeks with Perigord truffles", served with a 1955 Château Latour.
The chefs have flown in ingredients from 35 different countries for the 1 million-baht blow-out, but there are, notably, no Thai dishes on the menu. One of the chefs, Heinz Winkler (of the Residenz Heinz Winkler in Aschau, Germany), is unrepentant. "What we want to do is to improve the standard and inspire Thai chefs to raise their level of inspiration," he explained.
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