Covent Garden, 18th January 1804
“WHERE IN JENKINS’ NAME IS MY GRAVY?… ” I holler at the waiter, evidently newly prenticed and a waif of a boy, whose smart attire barely disguises a demeanor resembling that of my poor cousin Henry just before he died of the pox.
What dark times are these when a gentleman ventures into his preferred eating establishment and has to wait for his gravy! So enraged am I, that I find myself resorting to some choice utterances – namely involving that damn fiend Napolean and a frisky French poodle – before slamming my silver tankard down so briskly on the mahogany table that my ale splashes over my well-tended beard. Curses and curse again!
Does he not realise that I am London’s foremost restaurant critic? Admittedly, we are but few in number, namely my good self and that blasted rapscallion upstart Charles Pendergast. Yet, it would appear this wretched boy dares test my ability to destroy reputations with nothing more than my quill and a pot of ink!
Endeavouring to soothe myself with the fondest recollections of my childhood nanny – a method of distraction that I find unerringly becalming – my composure is mercifully regained before too long. I draw my kerchief and dab my brow, duly eliminating any evidence of fluster or agitation, whilst restoring the gentlemanly composure so essential to the intricacies of my explorations here.
I then pause to remind myself that Rules has indeed become like a home to me ever since it opened its fine doors but six Christmases ago – indeed, their waiting staff are otherwise so genial that I truly regard them as extensions to my very own family.
(Of course every family has their so-called black sheep – in mine, it is my sister Phillipa who ran off to Cornwall with a fraudulent dental surgeon – and I daresay this young wastrel of a waiter also falls under that very epithet.)
And lo, that snivelling wretch of a boy returns! He grovels an apology, no doubt having duly recalled the considerable esteem that my position demands.
I snatch the gravy and cuff the boy about his ear as a lesson for such insolence. I pray this unseemly transgression never to be repeated, lest it taints my impeccable regard for this place. Then, deciding that further discipline is wholly justified in this situation, I boff again him on the nose, which I dare say may well have broken it.
Covent Garden, 20th January 1804
Ahh, Maiden Lane! – what a glorious passage to saunter along when the chill frosts of winter crunch underfoot and a hint of yuletide still lingers in the air. And unbeknownst to me – purely by happenstance you understand – I somehow find myself outside Rules, just at the very moment when luncheon beckons and one is in need of some nourishment.
A customary queue winds its way far beyond the glorious glass frontage, a veritable token of the popularity of the place. I confess this circumstance may largely be down to my good self – after all, it was my review that had enticed all of good society to enter its comely surroundings, having lavished upon it words of the most unstinting benefaction.
Indeed, these days only the employment of a formidable-looking doorman – a notorious bare-knuckled pugilist, no less – ensures any semblance of decorum whatsoever. Fortunately I do not have to concern myself with such inconveniences as queues, and so with a discrete nod to ‘Knuckles’, I am swiftly ushered into the restaurant’s sumptuous interiors.
Inside, gold and crimson carpets replete with motifs of leaf and foliage line the floors, whilst on the ochre-coloured walls, evocative gilt-framed oil paintings of Thames clippers vie with a collection of stag-heads even more prolific than St Nicholas’s own herd. Meanwhile, gracing the staircase hangs a riotous gallery of contemporary caricature portraits, including a most splendid one of my own good self astride a rather excitable goose.
Hopkins, the exceptional maître d’, accompanies me to my usual table beside the fireplace; the flames soon melt the frost away from my aching bones. Mercifully, that wretched boy is nowhere to be seen, presumably dispatched back to his wet nurse – although for such a misdemeanour, I would have assumed a spell in one of Newgate’s dank cells at Her Majesty’s pleasure would have been more apt.
In contrast, and with the utmost grace and cordiality, Hopkins takes my order – steak n’ kidney pudding no less, renown across town as the most perfect juxtaposition of suet and meat to be had on a plate. I barely have time to unfold my napkin when a gravy boat appears on the table. Now that is service for you, I tell you!
Before too long, the pudding is presented for inspection, a glorious dome whose magnificence I daresay matches that of even St Paul’s itself. I stab my knife into the casing of flaky suet, and a satisfying pillow of steam escapes up towards the chandelier above.
I polish it off promptly, a hearty dish that befits the winter. Indeed the day is so bracing that it demands nothing less than a supplementary pudding of steamed syrup sponge – a truly innovative dish unique to this place – and so I beckon Hopkins over to make my intentions known.
Now if ever there is a finer pudding in the country, I defy you to tell me of it! Vertiginously rising above the plate rears a golden isle of sponge, its slopes tumbling down into a sea of velveteen custard. Rivulets of gloriously gaudy orange syrup cascade over its ledges and crevasses, merging into the silken sea in sweet tiny estuaries.
In the sponge lies sufficient heft to comfort one in winter, yet it melts in my mouth with an astonishing fragility – an alchemy of such wonder that leaves me truly flabbergasted. Verily this is one island whose shores I’d only be too glad to find myself shipwrecked upon!
I finish this fine repast with a most agreeable glass of Madeira, and admire the other patrons: the stately room being, as usual, packed to the hilt with its assortment of the great and the good.
Loud whisperings emerge from a nook in which are ensconced a conspiratorial gathering of politicians, no doubt scheming over the latest developments in Europe. Across from them, a table of financiers in jovial mood, periodically breaking out in guffaws as they congratulate themselves over the completion of some profitable deal. In the corner sit a smart elderly couple who quietly discuss the origins of the French revolution.
Meanwhile, on each and every quarter hour, a carriage clock chimes atop a mantelpiece, like a leisurely metronome keeping gentle rhythm to the constant thrum and conviviality that pervade this place.
Suddenly, in the reflection of a grand brass-framed mirror, I spot none other than that ghastly scoundrel Charles Pendergast. The nerve of the man, attending himself to my beloved establishment – and in my very presence at that!
I duly march over to his table, considerable indignation aroused in my belly. He fails to notice my approach, his view barred by that ridiculous wig of his, its canopy so voluptuous that I daresay four and twenty blackbirds could readily nest in its pillowy fabric and still remain hidden from public gaze.
“Good afternoon, Charles,” I offer in greeting through lips more pursed than a ferret’s rear-end. “A pleasure it is to see you here. But surely it is rather late in the day for reviewing this establishment, fine as it is..”
“So delightful it is to see you too,” he replies as he rises up and smiles, before bowing flamboyantly in faux-mockery. “I trust you are keeping well, especially after that regrettable consternation you caused amongst our dear Huguenot friends.”
“If you are referring to that review I wrote of the French eatery in Spitalfields, I fail to see how anyone could suggest I was being insensitive and offensive. Just because I had mimicked the utterances of a foreign waiter in an unflattering manner..”
“Yes, but it was rather undignified, was it not?” interrupts Charles. “Most unseemly. And I gather a good number of Huguenots, and many of our contemporaries, were understandably incensed by it.”
“What columnist doesn’t court a little controversy at times? In fact, the more people wetting their bedding in public the better – it certainly does no harm to my fame, nor my well-earned fortune, for that matter! Besides, I’d be damned if this whole ruckus were not in fact whipped up by my adversaries, indulging in their own sense of righteousness!”
“As you keep endlessly harping on about in your column,” notes Charles. “Indeed, your predilection for controversy is getting rather tiresome, you know..”
Damn that Charles with his modern liberal ways! I endeavour to swiftly move the discussion on. “Enough of this talk! What brings you to Rules anyway? Perhaps you intend to write a review? – well you are about six years past its opening, hardly breaking news!” I smirk, reasserting myself over this callow young buck whose confidence wildly exceeds his true qualities.
(Indeed, I find him and his generation unquestionably uncouth at times, making such hullabaloo over the latest fashions. Take their veneration of that grossly-overrated patisserie, the Chelsea Bun, for instance. It’s not enough that they eat the stuff, but they make such point of drawing said confection, and circulating their sketches all over town. Shamelessly vulgar, if you ask me!)
“It is true this be my first visitation to Rules,” Charles admits. “And I cannot deny its grandeur and extravagance. But my preference these days leans towards more modern establishments, the latest coffeehouses and the like. Indeed, only the other day, whilst enjoying a stroll along the broad lanes of Green Park, I happened upon a new venue that stirred within me such exhilaration. I suppose one has yet to hear of The Game Bird?”
“The Game Bird?” I scoff. “Sounds like a place for some of your twilight misadventures, Charles – of which, I may say, you are decidedly well known for!”
“Jest all you like,” replies Charles. “But I think one cannot find a steak n’ kidney pudding as delectable as the one served there. In fact, my review of said pudding, published only yesterday, is already the talk of the town.”
I eye this odious creature with unerring suspicion. “A pudding that’s superior, you say? Even better than here at Rules? What malicious lies, Charles! I demand you leave this place at once, you rogue!”
“Do not offer such idle threats, you goutish fiend! Besides, if you really wish to challenge me..” Charles suddenly pauses, a glint now in his eye. “Why not we make a duel of it? Perhaps on the morrow, at midday by Pickering Place?”
“Yes, a duel would be most fitting. At least that be one thing we can agree upon! ‘Til tomorrow then..”
Mayfair, 20th January 1804
Goutish? Did that perfidious rake truly call me goutish! And that is from a man whose nose is so beveined and rubious that it could reliably navigate ships down the Thames at night!
I find myself in yet another fluster, and only a conjuring of nanny garbed in the most sternest of attire seems to assuage my nerves. My mind then casts to the duel scheduled for the morrow. How dare he challenge the authority of a Rules’ pudding? Preposterous, I say!
And yet. And yet.. A nagging doubt tugs away somewhere deep inside, its content as nebulous as the mist that swirls around the streets of Westminster on a dark winter’s night.
Could there be a steak n’ kidney pudding that bests that of my beloved Rules? And what if I should die tomorrow defending its honour, when it might possibly transpire that such a specimen exists, one whose delights I had yet to partake in?
There is but one thing for it: I must seek out this Game Bird, and with haste at that, for I need knowledge of this pudding!
My hackney draws up to The Stafford, the hostelry within which The Game Bird resides, its doors barely visible through the foggy night. I promptly pay the driver and soon find myself gazing agog at the restaurant’s modern furnishings – a riot of turquoise and scarlet dazzles my eyes, from its carpets to the decadent decor: flowers from the Tropics burst forth from gargantuan vases.
Whilst Rules is all a bustle with gentlemanly chatter and a rattling of cutlery and plates, The Game Bird is noticeably serene, a haven of tranquility. The service is likewise amiable, and I am warmly ushered to a table by the maître d’.
A menu is handed to me, and I peruse its contents with due curiosity and interest. Indeed, much of it seems like the usual fayre – oysters, grilled meats, game, pies and puddings – until I notice a dish entitled ‘steak à la tartare’. That sounds suspiciously foreign to me, and damned French at that!
This place may suppose itself as modern, but some things are frankly beyond the pale, and putting such a dish so brazenly unpatriotic on the menu amounts to nothing less than a treasonous waving of a Tricolore and a crowing of “long live Napoleon!” from the very gates of Buckingham Palace.
I duly fight against the outrage ascending inside me, lest I get distracted from my true mission, and promptly order the pudding that has been so arrogantly boasted about.
It comes soon enough, and I meticulously inspect the dome’s entire circumference, eyeing up for any imperfections in its form or structure, gently palpating its sides with the back of my fork.
The architecture is undeniably precise and impressive; the casing darker than that of Rules’, hinting at something altogether more curious and brooding; and in its sides lie a certain tension, as if the pastry is straining at the seams to contain the pressure of whatever mysteries lie inside, a battle so finely poised that one expects with the passage of time that the casing to eventually succumb and release its enigmatic contents to the waiting world outside.
Indeed, it only takes the deftest of touches with a knife to disrupt the entire mechanics of the structure. Through the newly-created cleft oozes a gushing of gravy that flows with such abandon that before too long an enticing pool surrounds the pudding, its surface glistening and shimmering in the gaslight, its depths dark and alluring, a liquid repository for all sorts of covert secrets and promises.
And the flavour, the flavour.. beefiness that is squared and squared again, rising exponentially inside my mouth, until the very essence of beef is distilled onto my tongue, creating a whole new archetype of beef flavour forever to be carried around in my consciousness and whatever lies beneath.
And yet there’s even more to this dish, for the savoury flavours are further complemented by an orchestra of other embellishments – a delectable sweetness from slowly-browned onions, a sulphurous tang of astringent mustard, and I daresay a dash of that mysterious new fiery sauce from Worcestershire.
Every bite, every swallow, causes me to experience an ecstasy so profound, and yet so conflicting, that I find myself in utter perplexity. It is as if everything I have ever known has been a deception; the world has truly been turned upside down.
The room seems to swelter with heat around me, turquoise and scarlet now swirl before my eyes, beads of sweat drip from my brow, my collar cramps tightly around my neck.. and without warning everything is spinning, round and round, before the floor accelerates towards me and smothers me into a black void..
St. James’, 21st January 1804
The sun hangs low over Pickering Place, dazzling my eyes, but the air remains decidedly chill. A motley rabble of onlookers ready themselves around the confines of the courtyard’s periphery – troublemakers no doubt, or speculators having a day off from the bear-pits, and I daresay an opportune bodysnatcher or two, waiting like vultures for death to bring them reward.
Some spectators are busying themselves making sketches of the scene on reams of paper, something that will no doubt spread across town like some sort of evil contagion. Such vacuous socialites, I wager!
“Yes, quite the crowd, eh?” greets Charles from the centre of the courtyard. “Perhaps news has got out of your little episode last night? In fact, I gather you so enjoyed The Game Bird that you were practically falling over yourself! I wager the last time you were that unexpectedly horizontal was back in your Bullingdon days, eh?..”
“I admit I visited that place,” I reply sternly, trying to ignore his provocations. “It would have been remiss of me not to. But I still stand by Rules, you rogue. And I will defend it to the end!”
“Your end it shall be then!” declares Charles. “Unsheathe your sword!”
And without further ado, the duel begins.
For the first minute or so, we find ourselves cautiously squaring up to each other, tentatively making a thrust here or cut there, but generally keeping some distance. But soon enough Charles dares make a flurry of attacks, which I do my utmost to evade or parry. I feel my heart throbbing disconcertingly in my ears and my chest grips my lungs ever tighter.
Round and round we spar. Gradually however my spirits ebb away as Charles begins to assert the upper-hand. Soon enough, he threatens a few feints, followed by a sweeping manoeuvre that almost disarms me before lunging his hangar towards my throat.
Just as I expect metal to rip into my flesh, his arm abruptly comes to a halt, with the blade held tense against my skin. I feel a small bead of blood start to run down my neck. Charles eyes me coolly, with a look of someone who knows victory is all but won.
“So, do you still hold allegiance to your precious pudding at Rules,” snears Charles. “Or do you admit your error and pay homage to the pudding that can truly claim to be the city’s finest, that of The Game Bird?”
“Never!” I cry, whilst attempting a riposte with my sword. But Charles is well prepared for this last desperate lunge, and deftly dodges my blow whilst still maintaining his own blade against my skin.
“You are, if anything, a stubborn old codger.” said Charles. “I give you that!”
“Please, Charles. Please, I beg..”
“That I spare you?”
“Yes! At least until I am fetched some pudding from Rules, right here and now. A last meal as it were. One last taste of that golden sponge and silken custard..”
“Hah, even now you hark back to that pudd..” Charles stops abruptly, and looks at me with a quizzical frown. “Sponge? Custard? What things do you speak of?..”
“Steamed syrup pudding, of course,” I reply.
“Syrup? What is this thing?”
“It is sweet, like honey, but richer, more luxuriant. And it trickles down the sponge into a sea of the most silken custard..”
Charles stares at me, himself now seemingly racked with doubt. “Do you fool with me? Is this some ruse, an employment of a cunning ploy to evade your inevitable fate?”
“No, I do not lie. It is the truth I swear.”
Charles stares around him, the crowd fervently urging him to finish off the job. But I see his eyes dart back and forth, betraying a mind locked in deep quandary and hesitation.
Finally he turns his gaze towards me. “Very well, I will return to Rules forthwith, and sample this steamed syrup pudding of yours. If indeed it is as you say, then we may consider this duel void, and our argument forgotten.
“But,” Charles continues. “If I find you lie, then with honour you will agree to cease from your writings altogether and leave London immediately, forever condemning yourself to a life in Norfolk.”
“Such a grave threat, I admit. But I am hardly in a position to make argument with you. I agree to your proposition!”
Without further ado, Charles retracts his blade from my neck, sheathes it and spins away, pushing through the crowd who are left muttering to themselves in angry disapproval.
Kentish Town, 23rd January 1804
I sit at my writing desk, candlelight illuminating various manuscripts and an empty scroll lies waiting to be filled with ink. My mind casts to The Game Bird, and how to make a review that can capture the magnificence of that steak n’ kidney pudding.
Suddenly there is a sharp rat-tat-tat-tat at the door, and a boy promptly presents me with an envelope. From the bureau I draw out a paper knife, a move which sees the boy scuttling off with undue haste, whilst I proceed to cut through the wax seal.
I carefully open out the letter. The writing is overly fussy and elaborate: loops and whorls pirouette across the page as they dance in the flickering candlelight. I read on.
“To My Esteemed Colleague,
Some episodes occur in life, where one’s foundations are shaken to the core. As much as I detest conceding any sort of victory to you, I admit that this steamed syrup sponge of Rules’ is indeed a veritable thing of beauty, a truly outstanding pudding, and one which I look forward to partaking in in many visits to come.
You are thus spared any undignified sojourn to Norfolk, and instead I look forward to our continuing sparring, albeit across the pages of our respective newspapers.
But I leave with you with this. Perhaps once your writings were toasted as some of the finest in London, for their drollery and repartee. But, in the manner of those bleary-eyed ones so addicted to the pleasures of the poppy, who find themselves ever more consumed within the bowels of the opium dens, you too are trapped into indulging in ever more controversy in order to satisfy your copious appetite for attention and fame. However, such measures no longer mask the fact that your column has in truth become dull and staid.
We live in modern times, my friend. You berate me as some sort of challenger, but it will not be long before we are joined by a plethora of other critics of restaurants, such is the proliferation of periodicals these days. Indeed, it would not surprise me should any old riff-raff start tp write their own pamphlets and distribute them around town of their own accord.
And unlike your good self, they will go about their business ‘incognito’ – for how can one reliably appraise a restaurant when one’s face is so flagrantly plastered against one’s column by the newspaper cartoonists, such that one’s features are recognisable all over town.
Establishments verily shower you with the most impeccable hospitality and curate your experience with guile and care. Every moment you experience in those places, every bite you take, is but artifice and illusion.
(And before you say it, at least I have my wig, which allows me to go about my business with the utmost discretion.)
So, my friend, enjoy your pedestal whilst you can, because soon enough it will become stained, worn and rusted, and eventually forgotten altogether.
Charles Pendergast, Esquire”
I read this obnoxious missive once again, before casting one corner over the lit candle. I stare intently as the flames lick. The paper resists for a short while, but eventually the flames march inexorably across page, devouring it up like an enraged beast, smoke billowing out of its nostrils. I watch in triumph as those damned words are finally reduced to nothing but a pile of ash, before I go and make myself a cup of tea.
Any resemblance to actual people, alive or dead, is entirely coincidental (-ish, well there is the odd reference to issues of a more contemporary nature – after all, incidents of violence, harassment, racism and misogyny are still sadly very much with us.)
Although Rules opened its doors in 1798, making it the oldest restaurant in London, I have used a fair slice of artistic license elsewhere – Worcestershire sauce wasn’t produced until 1837, golden syrup in 1885, and The Game Bird itself only opened in 2017, albeit the building does hark back to the 17th Century.
Meanwhile, if you enjoyed this period satire, feel free to fast-forward 300 years or so into the future with another piece of food-related creative writing on the blog – a slice of dystopian fiction starring a kick-ass clone trying to save the world..
The Game Bird