England hasn't traditionally been famed for its gastronomic delights, but last week London was the setting for a fascinating culinary extravaganza called "The Complete History of Food." Housed in a white stucco mansion in ritzy Belgravia, the sold-out event provided an unusual tour of food through the ages, focusing on the innovative pleasures of various eras.
Visitors were escorted first into a sumptuously decorated medieval-style library, where "Dr. Ben" examined us according to the Hippocratic notion of "humorism" or "humoralism." I myself was diagnosed as phlegmatic -- which seemed preferable to alternatives such as choleric (hot tempered) or melancholic (irritable). Dr. Ben prescribed "cabbage, capers and artichokes" to boost my yellow bile and bring me back into balance.
For good measure, he also recommended a dose of Courvoisier cognac -- a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that the luxury distiller was co-sponsoring the event, which it saw as a canny marketing gimmick for its popular cognac.
Elixirs from the Pirate Ship Bar
We were dispatched down a passageway where we picked our way down narrow planks laid across a flooded hallway-cum-lake teeming with eels, and into the dank bar of a model pirate ship where we were served elixirs for our particular diagnosis concocted by mixologist Joe McCanta of trendy Saf Restaurant and Bar, London's first gourmet raw restaurant. I was wondering how I'd navigate back across those planks without falling into the water as I downed my apricot martini and munched on truffle-and-porcini-flavored popcorn.
Making it safely back to dry land, we headed to the roof terrace of modern times, where we sampled Ferrero Rocher chocolate look-alikes, actually made of duck foie gras -- with a port reduction center and coated with caramelized almonds and gold leaf -- dreamed up by Michelin-starred chef Alexis Gauthier. It was served beside a fizzy cocktail, reformulated so that only the grape was carbonated. Very cool.
From here we worked our way back in time, entering a dimly lit family room where we watched 1950s sit-coms on a black-and-white television set, while we scratched and sniffed a picture of a TV dinner of roast chicken and minted peas. Apparently no chef worth his apron dared to create a tasty treat reminiscent of the 50s. "It's interesting that the TV dinner happened," said my guide. "But not something you'd want to eat."
L'Essence de Courvoisier
Next we took our seats at a dining table situated inside the body of a replica dinosaur. The year was 1853 and we were guests at the Iguanodon Dinner, thrown on New Year's Eve by biologist Richard Owen, who coined the word "dinosaur." On the wall beside us hung a black-and-white image of Owen's original 22 guests perched inside a remarkably similar beast.
While it was impossible to see what was on their plates, we dined on delicate duck confit with lentils and beetroot, served up by the chef of London's super-chic Bistrotheque restaurant, and sipped a summer punch of green tea, apple and elderflower -- and of course more Courvoisier cognac.
For this event, my guide told me, the building was stocked with 111 cases of liquor, which were served to guests during the tour, and an £1,800 bottle of L'Essence de Courvoisier bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter, which enthusiasts could purchase before leaving.
Our final stop was the renaissance banqueting house, echoing a garden party thrown for Queen Elizabeth I in 1575. This was the era when sugar first came on the scene, and all around us spun sugar statues lined the shelves and decorated the tables. Dessert: small, architecturally perfect jellies imbued with Courvoisier XO and, for theatricality, served with ambergris posset. They didn't advertise the fact that ambergris is in fact a lumpy material produced in the digestive system of the sperm whale and then regurgitated.
This was the work of the event's co-sponsors Bompas & Parr, a London-based company known for its whimsical and surreal jellies, often in the shape of famous London landmarks. Last year they created an equally eccentric marketing event, staging the Architectural Punch Bowl, an entire room filled with enough punch to serve 25,000 people, complete with orange wedge rafts on which visitors rowed across it.
This time around, the "Complete History of Food" exhibition may not have been quite as dramatic as the giant punch bowl, but it was certainly memorable in its own way and attracted about 2,000 people over five days, at £25 per ticket. Whether it worked as a marketing ploy for Courvoisier and Bompas & Parr is hard to judge, but one giddy visitor told me, "You just can't help having fun." Adding, "I'm going to buy some Courvoisier right now. Gallons of it."
Experience The Complete History of Food for Yourself
Tour the London exhibit of The Complete History of Food, staged in a Belgravia mansion. Hear celebrated chefs explore food trends from historical eras going back 730 years, including Medieval times, the Renaissance and the 1950s. Listen to what they have to say about it.
The Marketing of Indulgence: Courvoisier's Complete History of Food