‘Hot-smoked salmon,’ muses Penny Holmes. ‘Welsh lamb and Jersey Royals. A classic crumble. The French love a crumble.’ Holmes, wife of Sir John Holmes, former British ambassador to Portugal and France, is conjuring a menu for the perfect diplomatic lunch. ‘It must be three courses, unfussy but delicious, and it must take no longer than an hour and a quarter.’ Ministers, foreign secretaries and chancellors are busy men and women. But if there were time (and appetite) for cheese? ‘A Stilton,’ says Holmes. ‘From Neal’s Yard. Or a Kirkham’s Lancashire. A Stinking Bishop. A Montgomery Cheddar. A Gorwydd Caerphilly.’ And a trade deal signed over coffee. Soft power — with concrete results.
When we think of diplomatic dinners we imagine the ambassador’s party of Ferrero Rocher fame. ‘Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, you are reeely spoileeng urz…’ Ball gowns. Big hair. Lips biting into hazelnut and chocolate. But a tête-à-tête over tête de veau is the more likely reality.
‘The grand occasion,’ says Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, ‘has its uses. A lot of people in Washington would get very excited and fight for invitations. But it is an unwieldy weapon. The intimate lunch where indiscretions can be muttered across the table is of far more use.’
Meyer took a different approach to Holmes’s Best of British. ‘I liked to live off the land,’ he says. ‘Then you can say to the senator from the midwest: “This Omaha beef is absolutely delicious.” ’ The British embassy, he adds, was often the only place in Washington where Democrats and Republicans could meet and talk on ‘neutral ground’. His fail-safe formula was: ‘A really good Bordeaux, a really good steak, and a light pudding.’ American wine was expensive and Meyer’s staff used to ‘nip down to the French embassy and get it half-price’.
The ‘light’ pudding is a recurring theme in my conservations with former and present diplomats. ‘You do have to watch your diet,’ says Meyer. ‘After six months in Washington my wife noticed a belly that wasn’t there before. She bought me a pair of scales.’ He laughs when I say that my fiancé Andy is working at the British embassy in Paris, living off a lean diet of Reblochon and profiteroles. ‘France,’ says Meyer, ‘is notorious.’
Plaxy Arthur, wife of Sir Michael Arthur, former political counsellor to the British embassy in Paris and ambassador to India and Germany, puts it another way: ‘Paris is tip-top.’ Penny Holmes calls Paris ‘the mega-ship’. There, you really have to impress. ‘The French have low expectations of British food so you need to prove them wrong,’ she says. ‘The role of food in diplomacy is a more important factor in France than almost anywhere else. They’re so pleased with themselves about their food.’ Holmes always served British cheeses but rarely British chocolates. The embassy’s chef made his own (exquisite) truffles. ‘Sometimes English white wines were served but always with an excellent French red to follow. You have to be realistic — there’s no point in pushing British for the sake of it.’
An embassy’s butler has as much diplomatic influence as the chef. ‘You’re not trying to get people drunk,’ says Holmes. ‘But you do want them to feel at ease.’ Plaxy Arthur agrees: ‘These things matter. People are warmed up by conviviality.’
Holmes, who ran her own catering business in London, blithely told the Foreign Office that she wouldn’t need a cook when her husband was posted to India as economic and commercial counsellor. The reply was: ‘Wait till you get there…’ The entertaining was on a different scale to what she had known in Moscow, where in the 1970s she had rustled up dinners for ten from whatever she could buy with vouchers in the Beryozka supermarket. ‘If you’d gone in thinking you were going to get lamb chops, you’d be disappointed.’ Whatever the Beryozka had, you cooked.
The biggest event of the year is still the ‘QBP’ — the Queen’s birthday party held in embassy gardens around the world. (Mutinous mutterings in Paris this year when the fish and chips ran out.) I ask Plaxy Arthur what one would serve to 3,000 garden party guests in New Delhi? Cucumber sandwiches and sausage rolls? ‘No sausage rolls in India! Muslims don’t eat pork, Hindus don’t eat beef. And many Hindus are vegetarian on Tuesday.’
The smallest things matter. Penny Holmes was careful about salad leaves — ‘You don’t want bits of greenery stuck in your teeth just as you’re about to make a speech’ — and ‘the splash factor’. Soup was out. Also roast baby tomatoes: ‘They squirt.’
Tom Fletcher, former British ambassador to Lebanon and author of The Naked Diplomat: Understanding Power and Politics in the Digital Age, remembers Gordon Brown sharing stringy cheese fondue with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni and being given a nose–searing introduction to wasabi in Japan. As for rats, bats and sheep’s eyeballs, one must do one’s best for one’s country. In Kenya, Fletcher once asked for a cappuccino. After some panic and confusion, staff brought out a cup of tuna. ‘They were looking round the door anxiously. Of course I ate it!’ He was on safer ground driving out to the ‘middle of nowhere’ in a Land Rover and eating roast goat with local Kenyan MPs.
Fletcher says: ‘It’s not just the food, it’s the whole choreography of the occasion. In Lebanon one of the biggest problems was what used to be called “placement”. We’d have guests whose husbands had been murdered by other people there. You didn’t want them sitting next to each other.’ The Chinese, meanwhile, would bring course after course if they wanted to stop discussion getting on to serious matters like human rights. Fletcher argues for strong flavours and unfiddly foods. ‘If you’re serving weak tea and insipid cucumber sandwiches, you’re going to look weak and insipid.’
Christopher Meyer, while ambassador to Germany, ‘developed a fantastically strong liking for blood sausage and apple sauce with mashed potato and a very large glass of wheat beer’. He adds a little mournfully: ‘But we never served it.’ Same for meatloaf in Washington: these were night-off foods only. ‘Twenty-one grand dinners in a row would be utterly intolerable,’ says Meyer. In Washington, on a night when there wasn’t an event, ‘we’d sneak out and go to a hamburger joint’. The ‘we’ is Meyer and his wife Catherine. ‘We really did do it as a partnership: from politics to food. In a place like Washington where they alternate man/woman at dinner, my wife was always sitting next to the vice-president or a senior member of Congress. As they talked, she’d be panhandling for gold-dust.’
Selling off embassies, serving cheap plonk and Cadbury’s chocolate are false economies. ‘The fact of a magnificent residence was of inestimable benefit,’ says Meyer. ‘So was the fact that we had an excellent chef.’
Penny Holmes talks of the beauty of a British residence such as Paris and, formerly, Lisbon. ‘The people you need to talk to won’t turn an invitation down. It’s a privilege to be entertained inside those houses.’ Plaxy Arthur admits that while she loved the role, the gastronomic pressures could be heavy. In New Delhi, she and Michael often went to several evening receptions followed by two back-to-back dinners: ‘You really do eat — and you drink — for your country.’ I feel a pang for our diabetic Prime Minister sitting through croquem-bouche banquets in Brussels.
While in Paris, Holmes wrote a book of healthy sandwich recipes. It was a surprise hit. The French bake wonderful bread, but make rotten sandwiches. Holmes’s favourite was the rosbif (bien sûr!), rocket and horseradish. But it was the recipe for perfect cucumber sandwiches that was seized on. Salt the cucumber, butter best white bread, and most important: ‘Coupez la croûte.’
Holmes, Arthur, Meyer and Fletcher all said that at no overseas embassy had they ever served, or been served, a gowlden pyramid of Ferrero Rocher.