Don’t get me wrong… I love those long lazy festive meals shared with friends or family. I love the planning and the preparation, and even the slightly hazy clearing up afterwards. I like what my father used to call the “backwash” – the leftovers of cold roast potatoes, collapsing trifle, the sticky bits under the roast. I know that when I wake the following morning, hung over and stiff, it means a good time was had by all, and I am glad.
But sometimes it can be very agreeable to dine alone.
The famous story about Lucullus goes like this:
Lucullus was a Roman general of fabled hospitality and with gourmet sensibilities. If anybody ever ate dormice, or had relays of runners bring oysters from Colchester to Rome, it was Lucullus. This man set a table to frighten the gods.
Anyway, one evening he had invited no guests, there were no supernumeraries at dinner, Lucullus was dining alone. And so his servants set the table with the second best silver and served simple dishes.
“Why?” asked Lucullus
“Because tonight, Master, you dine alone”
“Tonight” roared the general “Lucullus dines with Lucullus”.
And so, on many an occasion, I have set the table with good linen and with Georgian glass, and pale porcelain – for one person.
The other day I was in a market town nearby, and had planned a swift strike on the library and then a retreat to a homely sandwich. Then I changed my mind. The day was fair, it was approaching the hour of lunch, and I found a pleasant place to eat. I looked around and said I would be back in the length of time it took to put another parking ticket in my car. They asked me if I would mind eating upstairs as downstairs was all booked. I said not at all.
I returned in twenty minutes and was escorted to my table with grace. The upstairs dining area was airy and lit by windows in the roof. On the table was a small round piece of dark grey slate and on the slate was a pat of butter – at room temperature. I realised how much I hate, but have grown to tolerate, butter straight from the fridge, which ruins any decent bread you try to spread it on. So they knew I was coming!
The bread was home-made and delicious. The wine was chilled and perfect. The menu was thoughtful and good value. The waiter was French and charming. We talked about butter and rhubarb and mostly he left me alone. I read my book – MFK Fisher’s “Last House” was in my basket – I enjoyed my fish and my rhubarb tart. I felt relaxed and peaceful and at my ease, in my own time.
It was like meditation, with calories.