Column: Wining & Dining with Rory McGrath and Rowan Pelling
Parker’s Piece, the verdant rectangle that is the south-east boundary to Cambridge’s city centre, is redolent with history. In the late 16th century, chef Edward Parker gave his name to the plot where he grew vegetables and grazed animals destined for dining tables of Trinity College. It was on the Piece in 1848 that the rules for Association Football were first put into practice. In 1974, on my first night as an Emmanuel College student, I witnessed a young and tousled-haired Griff Rhys Jones relieving himself of the night’s lager in the middle of Parker’s Piece. A strange choice of venue as it was the best illuminated spot in the vicinity. (Maybe that’s why the lamps there became known for posterity as Reality Checkpoint.)
In those days the Piece was dominated by a ghastly, boxy, excrescence on the side of the University Arms Hotel. (“Yes, your highness, a carbuncle.”) This was the Regent St. Wing of the hotel and I’m sure historians will argue for decades as to how planning permission was ever granted for it; how many brown envelopes were involved, how many Masonic hand-shakes and furtive, extraordinary town-planning meetings took place. But, praise the Lord, it is now no more. After a two-year closure and an £80 million injection, the hotel has now been rebuilt and comes with a magnificent new restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, overseen by the tasteful and experienced eye of chef Tristan Welch. A lump of crass has been replaced by a touch of class.
The question: who would be an appropriate companion for lunch at a venue of such classiness and distinction? The answer: Rowan Pelling. Rowan is an acclaimed journalist and broadcaster writing features mainly on the arts and literature with a special slant towards the erotic. Her entry in Wikipedia also claims that she was once a stand-up comedian; but the Wiki makes that claim about most people, including, would you believe, Dianne Abbot, Sven Goren Eriksson and even me. In this case it’s true, Rowan explains: “A dear friend entered me for the Funny Women Charity Awards – a branch of the competition where people who are known for stuff other than comedy compete against each other in shortish sets. And I won. My routine was all filth-based, as you might expect, but it was good to discover that I could make a room of several hundred people laugh.”
After a stint at Private Eye, Rowan went on to take over and reinvigorate the ailing Erotic Review. More recently she launched a new magazine for devotees of ‘love and passion’ called The Amorist. (At last, someone who had read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and didn’t think it meant ‘lovely backside’.)
Spending a lunchtime with Rowan Pelling in Parker’s Tavern was going to be treat enough, but things got even better when Mr Welch came out to the bar to welcome us. Rowan had ordered an aperitif; a Negroni. This is one of my favourite cocktails (one of my top fifty favourite cocktails, in fact), so I consider myself a bit of an expert. This one was perfection. I was sipping a spicy virgin, because I love ordering them and was off alcohol for the day, as I was performing a brain operation later that afternoon.
Welch has an impressively heavyweight track record in the restaurant business, but a megalomaniac, celebrity-style chef he is not. Charming, self-effacing and amusing, he was also, on this particular day, extremely relaxed. “Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen smashing crockery and using unbroadcastable language?” I asked him, knowing he once trained under Gordon Ramsey. “No, it’s all under control,” he assured us, though he did admit to a slight anxiety about the forthcoming visit of Guardian critic Jay Rayner. (Some critics, it seems, cause more anxiety than I do.) I asked him to recommend something off the menu for today. “The langoustines are pretty amazing,” he informed us. Great, I thought, if I could spell ‘langoustines’, I’d write that down.
Ms Pelling was educated at Walthamstow Hall - the oldest all-girls independent school in Britain – and St Hugh’s College, Oxford. So our first lady of erotica went to the same college as Theresa May. (I wonder if that’s the first time the words 'erotica' and 'Theresa May' have appeared in the same sentence?)
Rowan’s elegant English-rosiness contrasts teasingly with her earthy voice and uninhibited conversation. And she has a wonderful smile which is (to paraphrase Henry Mancini) “wider than a mile”.
We were lucky enough to get a table by the window looking out onto the Piece. No television celebs urinating on the lamppost or 19th century football matches in progress today. The dining room is huge and therefore, even when very busy, it feels roomy and relaxed. If I were someone like Jay Rayner, I might say “The restaurant looks like a cross between a gentlemen’s club and a Parisian bistro”. But, as I’ve never been to either, I won’t.
For starters, Rowan went for the charcoal roasted West Coast langoustines, as recommended by the boss, and I chose the fish-cakes with chopped egg, parsley capers and lemon butter sauce. For a main, I went for roasted lamb rump with garlic and rosemary fondant potatoes. Rowan followed her langoustines with the lobster and macaroni gratin. (Really, Ms P, such shellfishness!)
While we awaited the starters and the sommelier poured Rowan a generous ‘taste’ of three different red wines, I asked her the one question that had to be asked. As someone who’s always thought of ‘erotica’ as ‘pornography for posh, educated people’, where does Rowan think erotica ends and pornography begins?
She has clearly been asked this hundreds of times before and makes it clear that this is only her personal opinion. Erotica and pornography, she considers two completely different things. Pornography delivers everything unsubtly and quickly. Erotica is more about what you don’t see or hear, what is held back rather than luridly displayed. Erotica is about the journey, travelling with excitement, promise and voluptuous suggestion rather than the arrival. The starters interrupted our sensuous discussion. Rowan’s langoustines looked gorgeous; plump and juicy. My fishcakes were just the right combination of firmness and gloopiness. I could not find fault with my roast rump and a forkful of Rowan’s lobster gratin proved that her meal was every bit as good.
We agreed there is a traditional and probably provable link between food and sex. Eating and love-making are primal needs and both sensuous. “And they can both be very messy, fiddly and involve knives and forks,” I added. Rowan looked slightly worried by this comment and was relieved when the main courses arrived straight away. She is unashamedly omnivorous, as am I, and I put it to her that there is something unsexy, unsensuous about vegetarianism. The very word ‘carnal’ tells us something surely about what we think about passion and flesh. “Carnal knowledge” suggests something altogether more exciting than “vegetal knowledge”. But Rowan warned that I might be showing my age (or, at least, my old-fashionedness). More and more fit and beautiful people are becoming vegetarians and vegans. Bone-in knuckles could be on the way out, tofu sausages could be on the way in.
The afterglow of a beautiful meal, two glasses of wine and two spicy virgins, was the time to ratchet up erotic conversation a few notches and start the rewarding – and totally gratuitous - slagging off of people we know in common in Cambridge and London. Details of this part of our chat, I’m afraid, have to be withheld for reasons of taste and legality.
If I were a proper restaurant critic like Jay Rayner, I might well sign off my piece about Tristan Welch’s Parker’s Tavern with a memorable and pithy one-liner, like: “You will imagine coming here for just a quick bite, but once here, you won’t want to leave.” But I’m not, so I won’t. Suffice it to say I was in damned fine spirits when I said goodbye to the sumptuous Ms Pelling and dashed off to do my brain operation.