Decades ago, my diplomat husband was posted to Delhi and I was invited to a ladies’ lunch. Bowls of consommé were served, and to everyone’s surprise it had fresh cherries bobbing about in it. Those of us who were British or had lived in the UK knew immediately what had happened — our hostess had instructed her Indian cook to add sherry. Sherry? Cherries? What’s the difference if you haven’t a clue what consommé is in the first place?
For me, this sums up diplomatic entertaining: we poor trailing spouses (as we are known) are expected to recreate England (or in my case Europe) in corners of foreign fields where the only veg are cabbages and potatoes and the easiest meat to buy is horse. Out of seven postings, only one had a cook in place. She spoke no English so we communicated with drawings and noises. ‘Moo’ meant beef; ‘cluck-cluck’, chicken; ‘cluck-cluck’ while holding your bosom meant chicken breast.
Some of the problems were my fault: I could never think of anything normal to serve. My mind would go blank and I could only imagine things like breast of scarlet ibis in a sauce of cloudberries (yes, I am making this up but that’s the kind of dementia that set in). Then again, when I served a simple cold cucumber soup, one woman guest called out loudly: ‘Is this supposed to be hot?’
Once in India, Hari, a man I had trained to cook, sent me a note at the start of the meal: ‘Madam come in kichin quick.’ I dashed in, imagining he had severed an artery and was dying on the floor. Instead, he asked calmly: ‘Madame should I serve toast with the paté?’
My worst experience was in Syria. We had planned a hotel buffet for 50, but the president’s son was killed in a car crash and all public entertaining was forbidden. So we hosted it at home. I was training a young Filipina called Marcelle and I’d opted for some new and elaborate Thai recipes. There was a power cut, hardly any light in the basement kitchen and the blender didn’t work. One recipe involved lemongrass, which I’d never used before. I just chopped it up and threw it in, not realising it would be like eating thistles. We had to sieve the sauce and wash the chicken once we realised.
We sweated for hours, then suddenly a big grey rat appeared. I screamed and went to fetch the gardener but Marcelle grabbed a broom and beat it to death there and then among all the food. Somehow the party was a success. No one knew about the rat blood over everything, but I don’t think I have ever been quite the same since.