Dinner rites that take the cake

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THE DETAILS of the ritual accompanying a livery dinner vary from company to company, but the main features are common to nearly all of them, writes Richard Thomson.

The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, through a quirk of history, does not appear on the official list, but is a livery company in all but name. It gained its charter in the 14th century and has all the characteristics of a livery company. A typical dinner, held every two months and costing about pounds 50 per head, goes like this.

A hundred or so members (few of whom have any ecclesiastical connections) meet in a City church for a brief service before processing to a nearby livery hall (the Parish Clerks do not have one of their own). They are led by the Master, Upper Warden and Under Warden, bearing the company banner, nosegays and a medieval mace. The Master is dressed in traditional regalia, including a purple pill-box cap of medieval design, a red robe trimmed with fur, and his chains of office. 'It all looks rather daft,' says one member.

Pre-prandial drinks are taken in the parlour. Then members find their places in the hall, and as the Master and his guests enter they give the slow hand-clap typical of many traditional City gatherings. After grace, the Master reads out a long list of the company's many benefactors, starting with Henry III, who granted the first charter. Then dinner begins.

A recent menu starts with watercress and almond soup, and scallops of bacon and water chestnut followed by roast poussin with raspberries, accompanied by almond croquettes, broccoli, petits pois and mangetout. Dessert is pear poached in burgundy with vanilla-pod ice cream, then coffee with chocolate truffles. The wine begins with champagne, moves on to Macon Prisse with the soup and Chateau Frousac later. 'Not the best, but we're not the richest company,' says a guest.

Throughout, an orchestra plays everything from Schubert to Scott Joplin, 'which makes conversation almost impossible'.

During the meal, the toasting starts. Members toast each other by standing up and shouting out the name of a colleague and his adopted parish. Bizarrely, several members can propose toasts simultaneously - a habit peculiar to the Clerks - resulting in an appalling din that lasts for about 10 minutes. Then the Master toasts the principal guest, who gives a speech which, preferably, says nothing controversial or taxing.

If it is Ascension Day they each collect their 'Clerk's Wages' on the way out of the hall. This consists of a cake, which varies considerably in quality depending on the generosity of the Master for that year, who has to pay for it.

By 10.30pm, dinner is over so that members can catch the last train home.