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CHURCHILL THE BON VIVEUR
Throughout his ninety years Sir Winston Churchill was never a man to don the hair shirt. A comfortable upbringing in the days when elaborate multiple courses were the done thing imbued in him from an early age a taste for the good things in life, and a bon viveur he remained until the very end. Food was for enjoying, throughout his life he loved it, and until near the last days of his life his appetite and digestion remained excellent. Many men in their advancing years might have cut back a little, but Sir Winston was not one of them.
Cita Steltzer has made extensive use of archive and printed sources to regale us with a wonderfully entertaining, good-humoured, even mouth-watering account of his tastes. As historian Andrew Roberts relates in his introduction to this volume, now we have had biographies of the man's grandmother, bodyguard, and even his obscure constituency chairman, is there any reason why should we not have one of his stomach as well?
In Churchill's time, the social etiquette of dinner parties also provided an opportunity to discuss matters of state with the world's decision makers - with the food and drink playing a major part. Everything had to stop occasionally for what he called 'tummy time'.
Even during the most difficult days of the Second World War, the best things in life could always be made available for those at the top. On Churchill's visit to Stalin at Moscow in 1942, the menu at their official banquet, at which hors d'oeuvres were followed by a main course including sturgeon in champagne, turkey chicken partridge and suckling lamb with potatoes, with coffee liqueurs and fruit petit fours roast almonds at the end, does not reflect or suggest any food shortages in the hard-pressed Soviet Union. There was clearly no suggestion of leading by example - although the Prime Minister did have to put up with sitting through 25 interminable toasts, and afterwards told his doctor that the food was filthy and poorly prepared. He had not needed to make any such complaints after a Christmas dinner the previous December with President Roosevelt at the White House, which took place within less than a month of America entering the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor. This included roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, deerfoot sausage and oysters on the half shell, with grapefruit salad and cheese crescents, plum pudding and hard sauce, and ice-cream cake to finish.
If you were eating with Churchill, you could not only count on a mouth-watering meal and fascinating conversation, but occasionally a one-man show of after-dinner entertainment as well. At Chartwell one evening in 1928, a diarist of the day recorded how guests remained at the table until after midnight, when the tablecloth had long since been removed, and the host spent two hours demonstrating with decanters and wine glasses how the battle of Jutland was fought. He even made barking noises to imitate gunfire, and blew cigar smoke across the battle scene to simulate the real thing. Of course, smoking in the house, let alone in the same room as food, would hardly fit Health and Safety regulations in this day and age. Just as well it was over eighty years ago.
His love of animals occasionally allowed a little sentiment to rear its head. Although he was never a vegetarian, he refused to eat suckling pig as he had raised pigs at his home at Chartwell, and claimed that he knew them. When food was very short during the First World War, he asked his wife if she would carve a goose reared on his farm, on the grounds that he could not possibly do so himself as it had been his friend.
Certain standards had to be maintained, however. Ham sandwiches on the aeroplane were fine, as was Virginia ham on his tour of America in 1929. But mustard always had to be provided as well, as 'no gentleman eats ham [or ham sandwiches] without mustard.' And any cook who was careless enough to provide tasteless soup for the guests could expect a visit to the kitchens where he or she would be harangued for dereliction of duty.
After the main course he loved cheese, although he appears to have rarely eaten fruits, puddings or sweets. But he had a passion for cream, would usually empty the jug himself, and only then when it was too late would he look round the table to ask rather pugnaciously if anyone else wanted some. Cheeky devil.
Much has been made - usually by rivals or enemies - of his prodigious if not excessive intake of alcohol, and he probably did not help his reputation by making gentle jokes at his own expense about his love of drink. Yet although he enjoyed fine wines, champagne and spirits, he was not the old soak of legend. He could hold his liquor perfectly well, and took his whisky so weak that some observers described it as 'mouthwash'. (And we hardly need to remind ourselves that Hitler was teetotal, unless that's a myth anybody is prepared to explode in the comments box below. Who was the better man?) He loved his cigars and smoked heavily from his early twenties, yet it seems to have done his lungs remarkably little harm.
Reading this book is probably almost the next best thing to being at the table with Churchill, though it might make you hungry. The menus, anecdotes and personal touches all combine to bring its subject and his personality, not to mention his gourmet tastes, very much to life. Dinner with him would have been an experience not to be forgotten.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other review sites]