Tuesday, 11 March 2014

BBC Magazine article: "Which should come first - cheese or pudding?"... a considered response...!

Every so often, the Beeb tends to publish somewhat thought-provoking and even contentious articles, designed to incite debate. At least, that's their stated intent. This time however, I'm not at all sure if their tongues were either well inside their cheeks, or intent on setting others tongues (mostly those belonging to members of the middle and upper class) wagging vociferously.

In a formal and traditional middle and upper class setting, when someone says that something is Just Not Done, attention should be immediately be paid in full to what it is that they're talking about. Now, someone saying that something "Just isn't Cricket, Old Boy", is saying that something isn't fair, or has been deliberately improperly performed - not adhering to the rules of the game, so to speak.

But "Not Done"? Wow. This is the sort of comment that results in cups of tea being spilled. They see transgressions of established tradition as being the cornerstone of the Fall Of Empire, or some similar level of horror. You get the idea: Indignation unbounded by reason.

And in this case, it's all about the format of the formal dinner setting...

Here's the thing. It seems that a certain food writer, who appears on the face of things to be something of a progressive in these things, and who appeared on a BBC 2 programme last night, has said something so shocking, so subversive, that society as a whole could be set on the verge, nay the cusp, of complete and utter social disarray...

So, what was the comment that set right-minded civilisation on the edge of annihilation?

That the dessert course should be the last course in a formal dinner, not the cheese course.

"I'm sorry. She said WHAT?!"

For those who have never even heard of the formal dinner format, here's a couple of points to note. Formal gatherings of people of note - normally royalty, politicians, high society, and similar - have evolved over the centuries, and came to the peak of their development in the Victorian Era. They've pretty-much stayed in the same general format ever since; this format is known the world over, and despite regional variations, is fairly similar wherever you go, these days.

A formal dinner was the pinnacle of this high social one-upmanship "my brass thing's better than your brass thing" system, and while the reasons for the meals may have gone from childish faux Public School-like shoe-size mentality bragging, to more mature themes, the events themselves are no less special.

These days, a formal dinner is a structured meal, normally held to honour a distinguished guest, or to celebrate a special event, or what have you, where all the participants are on their best behaviour, and dressed to the nines in high formal wear.

So, if you've seen any period dramas on the television, such as "Upstairs Downstairs", or "Downton Abbey", or watched high society documentaries and such like, they've featured in those a fair bit, so you should have a fair idea of the format involved.

I've been to a few, mostly when I was a Territorial Army soldier, which were either the Company Annual Camp Dinner (not too formal, but where smart wear, such as a decent suit, is required), or the Regimental Christmas Dinner, where the appropriate formal uniform was generally required (somewhat appropriately, it's called "Mess Dress").

I've also been to a couple of civilian formal dinners over the years, most recently my Company's Annual Awards Dinner (where I rather proudly received my 10-years long service award. Good God. I've been on the buses for TEN YEARS?! Wow. Ahem. Moving back on topic again, now...).

The - ahem - HESH-tab-eh-lished format...

So, what goes into a formal dinner? Well, it depends on the length of the meal, or in how many courses - parts - the meal is to be served. The average number is five, but your meals may vary upon the event and the organiser(s) involved.

Here's a fairly typical five course format in the civilian mode, Regimental ones being ever-so-slightly more involved and formal (understatement) occasions...

  • Starter
    A small dish, to get the appetite moving. Normally a consommé (a clear, light soup), or maybe a pâté of some type on some form of crisp bread or toast.
  • Fish
    As it says: This is a small serving of fish, normally with a few appropriate vegetables.
  • Main
    This is (pun intended) the meat of the meal. Red or White meat, with the appropriate vegetables and sauces, if required.
  • Pudding
    The sweet, or dessert, course.
  • Cheese
    A selection of cheeses, served with water or dry biscuits. Coffee will normally be served at the same time, as well.
There are also conventions - accepted rules - on what kinds of wines to serve with certain courses - fowl and fish, for example, are almost always accompanied by white wine, with beef, gammon, and other red meats being accompanied by red wines.

Port, a fortified wine, is normally served after the cheese course in more formal dinner settings (there are clear, if slightly strange, traditional rules regarding how it is handled once at the table, the origins for these rules having being lost in the mists of time).

The rocking of the boat...

So when Mrs. Berry made her comment, traditionalists were aghast. The monocles of many of those dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists probably rocketed almost explosively out of their sockets at the speed of sound. Cups of tea were certainly spilled in utter shock and horror!

They think the idea of serving the cheese before the dessert - or "Pudding" - course, is akin to passing the Port to the right at a Regimental Dinner - One just Does Not Rock The Boat of tradition in that manner, in those social circles - it's Just Not Done (spot the capitals and italicisation there).

On a more practical note...

There's also, I suspect, a more reasoned cause for the dropped optical aids at work here. In traditional formal dinners, the cheese course is accompanied, as mentioned above, by the Port. It is at this time that various brief speeches and toasts are given to the assembled high muck-a-mucks. It is far easier - and eminently more practical - to pause chomping in a cheese course, than it is in a pudding course. Cheese is already cold - certain desserts - puddings - are not. All things considered, probably the last thing you want is for a properly cooked and delivered dessert to be ruined half-way-through devouring it, because you had to stand during, for example, the Loyal Toast. Cheeses are much more forgiving, in those circumstances, after all.

So, for my money, Pudding Before Cheese. Always.

And to hell with the Progressives!


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