The Royal Society is not an institution with which one would normally associate the Masterchef contestants, but (as you may have seen if you follow the programme) we recently had the excitement of a visit and a meal cooked for some Fellows and their guests. I had never thought of including liquid nitrogen, or calcium carbonate, or even dry ice as part of my cooking process, but they certainly added excitement both to the cooking and the menu!
The Fellows have always taken an interest in food, and, of course, drink. There is a relatively recent publication of a book by Raymond Blanc, with wonderful recipes to which Nicholas Kurti FRS provides a scientific explanation for what is happening to the food as it cooks, or an early recipe book by John Evelyn, or one by Charles Darwin’s wife. Food has always featured prominently – early meetings of like minded individuals even before the Society was formed took place in coffee houses.
There was a Dining Club, which in 1743 incorporated the Philosophical Club, whose records have survived from that date. It was specifically a weekly Dining Club, where the President was always elected President of the Club and therefore occupied the chair, or in his absence it was taken by the most senior member present, before attending the Society’s meeting. Visitors were encouraged, and many who attended found the discussions so agreeable they subsequently became Fellows themselves. Dinners were lavish, and always had a printed menu, though the nineteenth century ones were the prettiest; they listed never less than seven courses, excluding coffee. One menu, in 1935, had doodles by Sir Edwin Lutyens, though his mind seemed to be less on the menu and discussion than on thoughts of a lady!
The Society held an Anniversary Dinner at the time of the annual Anniversary Meeting, commemorating the founding of the Society, and this includes famous guests. The menu, though, was not as lavish as the Dining Club; a 1965 example only listed four courses, with wines, and the main guest was the Right Hon. Harold Wilson, OBE, FRS, MP, Prime Minister, though other politicians were also there, such as George Brown and James Callaghan. There were also some notable diplomats, including the Charge d’Affaires for the People’s Republic of China, and the Italian and Romanian Ambassadors, also a Nobel Laureate, the Lord Mayor of London, and academic figures. Judging by the after diner speeches, they all enjoyed their consomme, turbot, and lamb.
The interest in food was not only that of pleasure. From the founding of the Society in 1660 there are numerous accounts of how processes work, and how they can be improved; hence the process of making cider, or finding the best way to make wine, which had no less than thirty nine papers or letters presented to the Society’s meetings for discussion or publication in those very early years. The cider industry was important for trade, and the development of glass bottles to take the pressure; they were also used for making wine. This process, described by Christopher Merrett FRS and other Fellows, such as John Beale who owned extensive orchards, led, as even the French have acknowledged, to the invention of the sparkling wine later given the name of Champagne. So, as the weather improves and it is possible to sit outside and enjoy a drink and good food, I will think of the amazing menus produced by the Masterchef contestants, and celebrate the English invention of champagne!