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sticky moments for the pudding club

THERE IS only one cardinal rule of dinner parties and that is Always Serve Pudding. I learnt this the hard way, back in the days when I was making my first essays in the genre. We had been to a rather grand affair: good food, fine wines, large house in swanky neighbourhood. We knew it was swanky because when we drove up it was dark - in London, where darkness never falls and a kebab shop is only ever 500 yards away! They had lawns, a pond, a house ringed with venerable oaks. Yup, this friend had certainly fallen on her feet.

She had also fallen pregnant by the time we returned the invitation, and had provided a long list of things she just couldn't tolerate. The list had grown considerably longer by the time she turned up on our doorstep with her paramour. From garlic to parsley to citrus fruits to avocados ... all I can remember her eating was the bread. She pushed her stroganoff thoughtfully around the plate as though we'd served up the Zambian national dish (fried flying ants). Alcohol was out, naturally, and her consort was on lite beer because he didn't want to prang the Jag on the long drive back from bandit country. Suddenly, while the rest of us were in mid-chomp, she gave a delicate yawn. Slipping off her shoes, she curled up on the sofa, wrinkling her little pink soles, and fell asleep.

Since we did not know the paramour terribly well, this proved a bit of a conversational damper. We persevered over the congealing stroganoff, trying to ignore the sussurating snores rising from the cushions. "Oh well," I joked, "there's someone who won't be want-ing dessert!" Why did I say that? We weren't planning on having any dessert! We had coffee, stickies, chocolates, we had plundered Europe for fine cheeses, but we had no dessert. Too late! The lashes quivered, the slumberer awoke and said: "Well I think I could just manage a bit of chocolate mousse or something ..."

So, Always Serve Pudding. Why, then, did we ignore the cardinal rule last weekend? And why did everything work so well? Having fixed on Game Pie from the Fine English Cookery Book (we wished to preserve national honour and impress our French guest, Thibault) we went off for what should be a defining moment in the life of any couple: buying game at Harrods. The woman in front of us asked how to cook the oven-ready mini-grouse at pounds 10 a go. On being told, she said vaguely: "I'll have four, then," with the air of someone getting in TV-dinners for dreary evenings. When our turn came, we were briskly told there was no rabbit, no hare, no pheasant ... With the purchase of four kidneys at the offal counter, game pie turned miraculously into steak and kidney, but we decided to retain the medieval spicing, piling in the cloves and redcurrant jelly until it resembled sweet-and-sour in a crust. Strangely, it worked. In honour of Thibault, who is from Alsace, we trapped a rampant Munster cheese and set off home to start cooking with only two hours to go. Unfortunately, the kitchen is in full view of the dining area, so what ensued when our guests arrived was something resembling a particularly demented Johnny and Fanny Craddock show. To distract attention, B began to play the spoons, something he always wants to do in posh restaurants and which I never permit. I related the saga of the faulty saucepan while B sizzled the vegetables. (Harrods had given us a new one, but the fact that the bottom had fallen out after only three years of use, and that we had kept the receipt, seemed to demonstrate to our guests a degree of anality hitherto only seen in Gilbert & George.) We didn't give anybody anything to eat before 9.30pm. Pissed and starving is no bad condition for a properly appreciative guest.

Thibault nearly fainted with gratitude when the Munster was unveiled, and coffee was served with Liquid Christmas Pudding: a stupendously luscious and aromatic Australian muscat. "Tastes just like all the good stuff of Christmas pudding without the cake crap that is in it!" enthused Thibault. What a great evening! Did we feed them enough, though? Now I come to think about it, Thibault did help himself to an apple for the journey home.