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Sunday, 12 February 2012


Remains of the oldest known banquet were found in a cave in Israel in 2010. The feast dating back to around 10,000 BC, included 71 tortoises roasted in their shells. Archaeologists believe they were eaten during the funeral of an elderly woman of status.

Food and drink had a special importance for the ancient Greeks. Hospitality was a much valued virtue, when the head of the house was entertaining, female slaves ground the corn and prepared the food. The host then cooked the meal sometimes with the help of friends. Any visiting stranger was seated in the best place and it was customary to offer him, before the meal, a bath or foot wash.

Ancient Greek men liked to attend banquets called symposia, a continuation of dinner in which cheeses, fresh and dried fruit, salted cakes and yoghurt in honey were served.

The Greeks believed that mealtime offered an opportunity to nourish the spirit as well as the body. They reclined on couches while eating with poetry, lyre playing and dancing in the background.

After defeating Pompey and his sons Julius Caesar was awarded a ten-year dictatorship. To celebrate his victory over his rival, Caesar gave a banquet at which 150,000 guests were seated at 22,000 tables. It lasted for two days.

The Egyptian Queen. Cleopatra, once gave a lavish banquet for Mark Antony at Alexandra. The Roman expressed his surprise at the outlay involved. Cleopatra, to impress him further, took a pearl eardrop and dissolved it in vinegar to prove she could consume a fortune in a single meal.

Before eating at a Roman aristocrat’s banquet, the guests changed their clothes putting on a woollen tunic provided for this purpose. The dishes were presented first to the master of the house, accompanied by music and a servant executing a dance step. Meanwhile the guests, both men and women, ate reclining.

Roman banquets were livened up by performances by acrobats, dancers, flute players and theatrical performances. Knives and spoons were only occasionally used, most people ate with their fingers despite the prevalence of sticky sauces.

Banquets for the Roman gentry could be bloody affairs. A cook who dished up under-done meat would be stripped and beaten.

Wealthy Roman aristocrats used ice mixed with seaweed to keep fresh fish (they transported ice from the mountains near Rome) along with salt. They then staged lavish banquets where as many as a hundred types of fish could be served.

When a Roman aristocrat had eaten his fill at a banquet, he would get a slave to dangle a feather down his throat so that he could be sick and make room for more food.

Belching at the table was a sign of politeness at Roman banquets.

In 115 BC, the Roman senate tried to ban the eating of dormice, oysters and imported birds at banquets — in an attempt to curb the excessive lifestyles of the upper classes.

In his golden palace Nero possessed a spectacular dining room in which there was a revolving ceiling which turns day and night, in time with the sky. He had pipes installed under banquet plates to allow his guests to be spitzed with rose scent between courses.

In medieval Japan, it was considered a major social faux pas to eat the food served at banquets, Instead, the diner was expected to just look and appreciate its beauty before cramming as much as you could into their sleeves or pockets to eat later.

After returning to Venice with his father and uncle after 25 years of adventures in China, Marco Polo’s relatives have failed to recognise the strangely clad, ragged folk in their tartar crimson satin robes, who told wild tales about numerous jewels and treasures. So the Polos invited them to a banquet. They entered dressed in their satin robes, before discarding them for damask then for velvet. Finally they slit open their garments and out fell precious Chinese stones, which they presented to their guests.

During the Hundred Years War, Edward the Black Prince was relaxing with his lords when the captured John the Good, the French king, was brought in. He politely invited the French regal prisoner into his tent where they discussed the current state of the battle at Poitiers over a few vessels of wine. Edward then entertained John and some of his leading men at a banquet, the Prince personally served his royal foe at his table, before the French king was sent off to London.

Anne Boleyn had a rather off-putting habit, first observed during her coronation banquet, of vomiting during meals. So one of her ladies in waiting had to hold up a sheet to shield her from other diners at appropriate moments.

The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe died in 1601, several days after his bladder burst during a banquet. It has been said that to leave the banquet before it concluded, would be "the height" of bad manners, and so he remained until his bladder exploded.

At a state banquet hosted by Charles 1st of England, his French chef, Gerald Tirsain, has developed a delicious new variation of flavoured snow. Milk, cream and eggs had been added to make it much creamier and sweeter than any other iced dessert The guests were delighted, as was Charles who summoned the cook, and had him promise to keep the recipe for his frozen cream secret. The King wanted the delicacy only at the Royal Table and offered him £500 a year to keep it that way.

It wasn’t until the 1670s that the fork began to achieve general popularity as an eating implement. Before then at European banquets hands were still being used to serve much of the food, even though the servants were only using their fingertips.

Peter the Great the Emperor of all Russia, ate simple food and had lousy table manners, regularly trampling across the banquet table, treading on dishes and cutlery with his unwashed feet. However he laid on lavish banquets, modelled on the splendour of Versailles. He preferred to be seated near the door so he could slip away early.

The largest banquet in history was in around 1730 when King August II fed some 30,000 people at a military feast in Radewitz, Poland.

The drink of champagne was made popular by a magnificent banquet thrown by the Marquis of Sillery in France in the middle of the eighteenth century. Once his party had got going, some girls dressed as ancient Greeks celebrating Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, appeared on the floor carrying flower-wreathed bottles of the new drink. The corks were popped and the fizzy wine was poured into unusually large glasses especially made for the occasion.

George IV's coronation banquet in Westminster Hall on July 19, 1821 was perhaps history's most lavish meal, costing the equivalent of £20 million. Turtle soup was followed by salmon, turbot, and trout, venison and veal, mutton and beef, braised ham and savory pies, daubed geese and braced capon, lobster and crayfish, cold roast fowl and cold lamb, potatoes, peas and cauliflower. There were over 1,000 sides dishes, nearly 500 sauce boats brimming with lobster sauce, butter sauce and mint. Peers lobbed whole chickens up to their famished families who were gathered above.

George IV coronation banquet

In ancient Hawaii it was forbidden for men to eat with women and women were not allowed to eat certain food. The taboo was broken in 1819 when King Kamehameha II held a banquet where he ate with women. They named this festive dinner a Luau.

Queen Victoria was a famously fast eater, often getting through seven courses - 50 dishes - in less than half an hour, which meant many of the guests at a banquet barely  got a mouth full.

Mark Twain once quipped "A banquet is probably the most fatiguing thing in the world except ditch digging. It is the insanest of all recreations.”

When he was Papal Nunco to France, the future Pope John XXIII was invited to a banquet. His dinner partner wore an extremely low cut dress, which the prelate affected not to notice. During the meal when dessert was offered however, he selected an apple & offered it to the lady. She refused…he urged “please take it madam. It was only after Eve ate the apple that she became aware of how little she had on.”

When a US President eats at a foreign state banquet, his food is actually prepared and served by White House stewards, who call the hosts ahead of time to find out what everyone will be having.

Sources Radio TimesSource Food For Thought: Extraordinary Little Chronicles of the World by Ed Pearce

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