I’m on a diet, so there’ll be no stuffing myself with turkey, Christmas pudding and brandy butter or lashings of ginger beer this festive season. Thankfully we’ll be on a beach, so the temptation won’t even be there, which is just as well because will power was never my strong point.
It’s one of the reasons why I don’t fancy a winter cruise. According to reports that filter back from various other family members who have tried it, most of the time is spent in one or other on-board restaurant. Apparently, we’re told, it’s quite possible to eat right around the clock.
‘Twas ever thus. In 1947, dinner in First Class aboard the Cunard White Star flagship RMS Queen Elizabeth went as follows: for starters, it was oysters on the half shell, followed by clear turtle soup, turbot for the fish course and timable of ham. Main course was roast sirloin of beef accompanied by braised onions, fresh broccoli, globe artichokes and hollandaise sauce. Potatoes were “boiled, roast snow and Parisienne”.
Pudding was a choice of Seville soufflé, charlotte russe or praline parfait, or one could stick with the ices: vanilla, Neapolitan or pistachio. And to finish: fresh fruit, coffee and “Scotch Woodcock”. How do I know? Simple, among my cache of printed ephemera, I have a copy of the menu.
A couple of printed menus sold last week were out of my reach, though. Henry Aldridge and Son, the Devizes auctioneers who lead the world as auctioneers of Titanic memorabilia, secured a bid of £64,000 for the rarer of the two, pictured above. It listed the 24 dishes including roast Surrey capon, fresh lobsters, “Hodge Podge”, roast beef and ox tongue, served at the first luncheon served in First Class on board Titanic on her maiden voyage out of Southampton on April 10, 1912.
Brothers Richard and Stanley May were travelling from Southampton to Cork for a fishing holiday and were aboard Titanic to cross the Irish Sea. They had the good fortune to leave the “unsinkable” ship at Queenstown and took the menu with them. It sold to a UK private collector.
The second, pictured above, was from a meal served at a luncheon held at the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast on May 31, 1911, to celebrate the liner’s maiden voyage. After a bidding battle, it sold for more than £36,000 to a UK private collector against a collector from Beijing.
The luncheon consisted of 12 lavish courses including eggs stuffed with foie gras and turtle soup. As a palate cleanser, a drink known as Ponche à la Romaine – Roman Punch – was served. This sourbet-like concoction was made with lemon juice, champagne, rum sugar, water and ice, and it later proved to be a sensation with First Class passengers.
Visit a restaurant these days and the menu is generally brought to you by a waiter and taken away again after you have ordered. In Victorian and Edwardian days, the menu remained on the table, held flag-like by some simple but usually ingenious device, so that it was always at hand.
Sometimes, the holders were nothing more than a plain metal disc with either a clip or a slot in to which the menu was pushed to hold it upright. But then there were posh restaurants where everything on diners’ tables followed a distinct design that echoed the style of the establishment and, of course, the prevailing fashion of the day.
Thus, a sober gentleman’s club, all leather armchairs and oak panelling, would chose matching menu holders, usually in silver with the mutest of decoration, possibly just the club crest and motto. Upmarket big city hotels and restaurants, on the other hand, would be sure to follow current fashion.
When Art Nouveau was all the rage, menu holders would be far less understated than previously. Expect to find flowing sensual examples, all flowers and femmes fleur with exotic tendrils and complex curves. The arrival of the Art Deco era put an end to all that and fashionable restaurants were obliged to adopt the geometric zigzags and odeonesque angles the fashion demanded.
Menu holders are found in a variety of materials including porcelain, ivory, glass and several different metals, notably hotel-quality electroplated base metal. The finest, though, were obviously made from silver and as you might imagine, master smiths allowed their imaginations free rein, as can be seen by the examples illustrated, all of which were assayed in Chester.
A simple glass or pot holder could be yours for a fiver, a good Deco example for £80-100 or more.If it’s a set of menu holders you’re after, then a country house contents sale could provide the answer. Preference was given to silver, silver gilt or good quality silver plate and the holders would have been produced in sets – usually cased – to match the table silver, or flatware, as it is more correctly called.
Chances are, such sets would have been handed down over several generations and often they are decorated with family mottoes and crests. These make a fascinating area of research for today’s inquisitive collectors who, with a good reference library book listing such things, can often trace the development of a family and to discover exactly which branch or member ordered the menu holders and when.
And don’t think, like I used to, that when not in use on the dining table, menu holders are good only for sitting in a collector’s cabinet and looking pretty. Let’s face it, who bothers with menus anyway at a dinner party anyway?. I was watching Bargain Hunt the other day when Tim Wonnacott came up with some great suggestions for alternative uses.
Why not use them to display favourite photographs, or birthday and Christmas cards. Talking of which, with the cost of postage these days, when friends or family come round for Christmas lunch, have their cards waiting for them at table, each held on show in its own menu holder. And if you were feeling really generous, the holder could double as a gift.
Don’t worry about me, though. I’ll be by the pool sipping a diet cola.