Adam Lee-Potter on the pitfalls of the posh dinner party
PUBLISHED: 11:23 12 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:23 12 November 2014
Even in this age of eating supper from a takeaway box in front of the TV, the posh dinner party is far from dead. But while they are fun, beware the many pitfalls
If etiquette is a foreign country, dinner parties are a minefield: all those knives, all those forks. My grandfather once told me that a gentleman should – after pudding - peel the peach of the lady seated to his right. I had always secretly hoped this was a euphemism.
But no. I am told – on royal authority no less – that peach-peeling is de rigueur in the best circles. I recently interviewed Grant Harrold, Prince Charles’ former under butler, who gave me a crash course.
“It would be utterly proper,” he told me. “At dinner, a gentleman must cater to a lady’s whim. If she wants her peach peeled during the fruit course, he should, of course, peel it.”
Thankfully, my latest dinner party – at Shaftesbury’s exquisite Grosvenor Arms - was peach-free, so I wasn’t put to the test. But it was unnervingly starry: Andrea Cooke, the chatelaine of Athelhampton, to my right, Susanna and Adam Laurie, who own the breathtakingly grand Seaborough Court, to my left.
Aristocratic types always get me in such a muddle: I am never quite sure what to call them. And my family does have rather a chequered past when it comes to dinner parties. My mother never wholly excised the shame of once serving up poached avocado – thinking it was a pear – with custard.
I have, myself, only just recovered from the humiliation I felt upon meeting the quintessentially correct Julian Fellowes. In passing, I mentioned his fine mantelpiece, a suitably imposing affair for a man who has not just one but two rivers running through his Dorset estate.
“Mantelpiece?” he barked, à la Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. “Do you mean mantelshelf?”
Grant only confused me further when he tried to offer tips on polite conversation.
“Gentlemen never talk about money, religion or politics,” he advised sternly.
But that only leaves sex, sport and travel. And that can’t be right either.
So, this time out, I hid behind that age-old journalist’s trick - asking questions. And the Shaftesbury dinner went off without a hitch. Well, it did until I trod on the train of Andrea’s 1930s frock – a family heirloom – and left a size 10 hoof-print on the hem. I was ever a klutz. Or, as a sweetly forgiving Andrea put it: “That’s journalists for you, prepared to tear the clothes off your back.”
This month marks the launch of The Great Wessex Dinner, a battery of simultaneous, impossibly posh soirees thrown to raise £200,000 for children’s hospices in Dorset and Hampshire. And, as Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace might say, causes don’t get buffer than that.
I have yet to receive my dinner party invite – not that I’m hinting at all, Andrea.
But, buoyed by Grant’s expert instruction, I’m keeping my hand in, just in case, by dining out regularly: it’s jolly good practice and a marriage-saver to boot.
My wife and I take time to go to a restaurant twice a week: a little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing.
She goes Tuesdays. I go Fridays.