Upper crusts


It's dangerous to judge an institution by its food. It can be quite disconcerting. Measured by the quality of slops doled out to inmates, for example, many high-security prisons would seem less punitive institutions than the average British public school. Hospitals (custard and gravy on subdivided trays) would appear less interested in your health than busy London department stores (salads and sushi on clean white plates). Yet some institutions are as aptly summed up by their kitchens as a dog-owner is by his pet. And, following a recent experience in Westminster, I would venture that the House of Lords is one of them.

The occasion of my visit to the upper chamber was lunch with a hereditary peer, who was entertaining four guests in the Barry Room. We were seated at a corner table which afforded a fine view of mottled faces and royal-blue padded shoulders. A discreet aroma of boiled cabbage and Imperial Leather wafted around. Over some very drinkable House (of Lords) champagne, we studied the menu, an impeccably consistent document, which rarely strayed into dishes unsuitable for the weak of tooth or frail of constitution.

The cuisine was stubbornly limited. Most items consisted of either salmon or steak. You could start with salmon, salmon gravadlax, smoked salmon, salmon roulade or variations thereof and go on to eat grilled salmon or poached salmon or fish cakes. And there were beefsteaks to suit every category of lord, from the most proletarian life peer to the poshest viscount or earl.

But what was really striking was the pricing system. In contrast to the usual narrow range of restaurant prices, dictated by canny accountants, here each item was priced on its real cost to the kitchen. Such a gentlemanly attitude to money is startling in this glossy Conran era. Were allowances being made for the varying fortunes of the clientele? Hearty pies piped with duchesse potatoes cost only about £5, suitable for shabby genteels who haven't lost their lordly appetites. But in case high-rollers such as Lord Archer or Lord Sainsbury turned up, there was also Dover Sole or Aberdeen Angus beef, at £20 a throw. No market disciplines at work here. No wonder Tony Blair has had enough of the place.

As for our lunch, much of it also seemed to belong to another age. There was a glorious venison terrine, as rich and fruity as Lord Jenkins' vowels. A well-boiled leek and potato soup sat murkily in small insignia'd bowls, the portions tactfully appropriate for shrunken stomachs. Melon was perfectly ripe and draped in Parma ham with as much deference as if the ham were ermine.

This was all served with consummate slowness, with the tacit understanding that customers were in no hurry to go anywhere. When one of our party, a young career woman, had to rush off after her starter, this caused shock waves to reverberate among the waiting staff. Such busyness seemed unheard of in the Barry Room.

After our main courses (a rather gummy fish pie and rugged liver and bacon), the sweet trolley was rolled out. The sweet trolley! It was as though granita had never reached these shores. We chose a creme brulee, which came pure and simple in its little dish. A burnt caramel crust splintered into unctuous vanilla cream. It was delicious. Mellow. Untainted by fashion or fad. If Baroness Jay tried to meddle and modernise it - with lemon grass, perhaps, or strident fruit puree - she would succeed in ruining it. Even in its twilight years, the Lords can still produce a world-class pudding.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think