Bee Wilson on what they eat at Downing Street

What's on the menu at Downing Street dinner parties

Margaret Thatcher is conservative about her food, as I've written here before. A passage in her latest book, Statecraft, confirms this trait. The Iron Lady recounts the horrors of being entertained at the table of Beijing's leading "tame capitalist", a certain Mr Rong, in 1991.

"We sat down at an enormous table which almost filled a smallish room, to be served with course upon course of what I was assured were delicacies from Mr Rong's home province, but which might have been selected for the torture of western guests. First there were huge boiled grey prawns. They were still in their shells, their big black eyes staring hopelessly through an oily sauce that gave off an unappetising odour. It became clear that the way to eat this dish was to chomp steadily through the prawn while allowing the macerated shell to extrude and then fall away from the side of the mouth. After the plates were cleared away, there appeared a vast tureen. It was entirely filled with something round and white. This turned out to be a huge ham, covered in thick white fat. Gobbets were broken off and served. And so the ordeal continued."

Perhaps this account was fair - perhaps Mr Rong's meal really was disgusting. But can't you imagine a description of the same food that could make it sound utterly seductive - succulent, rich ham and crunchy shell-on prawns, which you had to suck to get the goodness out of? Thatcher's main objection seems to be the texture, the upsetting feeling of the shell defiling her mouth, the fatty sensation of the ham. Yet it would be precisely this variety of textures that would have led her host to choose these dishes for a special-occasion meal. As the food writer Fuchsia Dunlop puts it: "One of the greatest obstacles to profound appreciation of Chinese food among Europeans is the very limited sense of texture involved in European gastronomy."

Had Mrs Thatcher ever invited Mr Rong back to Downing Street, he might well have found the textures of her food equally revolting.

When Thatcher had the Queen to dinner in 1985, to mark the 250th anniversary of Downing Street becoming the residence of prime ministers, the menu included "turbot, veal, croquette and mash potatoes, pineapple mousse". Looked at from the Chinese perspective of texture, this is a menu consisting almost entirely of beige and yellow pap. Yum, yum. Serving mashed potatoes as well as croquette potatoes - two variants on the same baby food - is especially alluring. And after the "ordeal" of gumming up your mouth with two kinds of blitzed mush, what could be nicer than to recreate the same spongy softness and gum-clinging properties in the dessert of pineapple mousse?

The Queen has dined five times at Downing Street since she became monarch, each time on rather uninspired offerings. All that is known about Churchill's dinner for the Queen in 1955 is that there was beef. Harold Wilson also served beef to the Queen in 1976, along with roast potatoes, ice cream, cheese and biscuits. The meal for Edward Heath's 80th birthday in 1996 got a bit fancier - asparagus in lemon butter sauce, salmon escalopes and raspberries and cream, with Krug 1982. But nothing like as fancy as Tony Blair's recent golden jubilee dinner for the Queen, which paraded cured duck breast with melon and Japanese pickled ginger, "roast" turbot with hollandaise, and golden raspberry cranachan (the Scottish pudding with cream and oatmeal). Then again, if you took away the novel starter, Blair's menu is really just turbot followed by yellow mush - the same as Margaret Thatcher's. Which, to make the obvious joke, is not inappropriate.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The people take to the streets again