Watching a programme on the famous London Hotel The Ritz has Murray Chalmers thinking about the nicer things in life.
One of my favourite quotes ever came from Andy Warhol who, when asked what he would most wish for, answered “money for everyone”.
This struck me as one of the most profound comments ever uttered by my hero – still lazily dismissed as a glib controversialist by those who label him the banal king of 57 varieties of Campbells soup cans – but, for me, the true artistic genius of our times.
I’ve been thinking a lot about luxury recently, mainly because I watched a programme about the Ritz hotel, but also because there is such a lack of glamour and excitement in life right now.
I have to say I loved the programme, which was only made in 2019, although it already makes the hotel seem amazingly anachronistic and even more out of touch than normal – given that it was made in a year when no one could have imagined the horror the world would find itself in a year later.
Beacon for wealth
The Ritz, a beacon for wealth, ostentation and gilded privilege, sums up part of my life lived in the fast lane of the media world in London, when expense accounts were large and we children of the 50s and 60s could sit in the Groucho private members club and feel that the capital was our playground.
This was an age when there was always time for another drink, another party and even more fun. Life seemed eternally optimistic and I feel very grateful to have lived in and beyond those hedonistic times.
I distinctly remember my annual visits for a check-up to my doctor always ended with him saying “your liver is fine” and me asking “how can that be?”, knowing that he’d been at the same party as me the night before.
Even then, going to posh hotels like the Ritz, the Connaught or Claridges felt like a rare treat and a stay at the Ritz in Paris (far nicer and even more chic than the London hotel) made everywhere else pale in comparison.
My stays at the Ritz in Paris were normally when I was accompanying Yoko Ono, so her gang were treated with even more reverence than normal. I must admit that the quiet hum of efficiency hanging in the hotel air above a decorous layer of deference was both captivating and guiltily intoxicating, especially after a Champagne cocktail or two.
While swimming in the beautiful ornate pool of this loveliest hotel in my favourite city of Paris I did sometimes think back to my life growing up in a Lochee tenement and thanked God for health, good luck and a career – even on the unfortunate visit when I swam in the Ritz pool with shingles, thinking it was a heat rash, and checked out under a scratchy cloak of itchiness, calamine lotion and shame.
Of course the Ritz was never real life, which seemed to pause as you went through those famous Parisian revolving doors, the same doors captured in the footage of Princess Diana’s arrival at the hotel on the night she died.
In truth, I always felt like a tourist in the Ritz and could never really escape the feeling that I was somehow punching above my weight – but then that’s one of the points of grand hotels, really, behaving like you were born to the life while secretly smuggling in wine from the supermarket down the road because it’s a tenth of the cost of the mini bar.
Real life in the Ritz, for me, meant taking the postcards from the stationery drawer in my room, keeping each day’s new soaps and bath oils and wondering if they really would notice if the bathrobe were to disappear – all to prove that, for a short time, I was part of a lifestyle that was both impossibly glamorous and ultimately unattainable.
The food in the Ritz was amazing – both in Paris and in London – and it was while remembering the beauty of the London dining room that I also recalled the brilliance of executive chef John Williams MBE, a legend at the hotel since 2004.
As the TV programme continued and I was reminiscing with my friend David about lunch with Kylie and drinks with Siouxsie Sioux in the Ritz bar, we both got a bit giddy with the feeling that one day we would all have a world outside our window again, even if mine is now very different to the starry episodes of the past.
I was also a bit giddy with the effects of the very good Justerini and Brooks burgundy stocked by Balgove Larder, a bottle of which didn’t really even touch the sides that night (to be fair, there were two of us drinking and we were both a bit down about lockdown).
As is now the norm after a few glasses of wine and thoughts of escapism, I was soon online looking for the Ritz Cookbook and when I saw it was available for £20 (the same figure that Douglas Ross abstained-voted against paying to those on Universal Credit, people who need it to buy food and heat their homes), I was sold. A day later, 240 pages of vicarious, sublime glamour were in my hands.
This is a beautiful book, not just for the recipes within but for the depiction of perfection and attention to detail that only the best dining rooms and bars achieve.
As such it’s one that is ideal for those interminable days of winter when a gale is blowing outside and respite from the drudgery of life can be provided by just thinking about the very idea of making a slow-cooked duck egg, pomme purée and truffle or saddle of lamb belle époque for your tea.
It’s probably true to say that my current inertia means that I will cook very few dishes from this book during this hellish year but it’s an excellent reminder of the power of imagination and how remembering happier, safer times – not necessarily in posh hotels – can be a way to get through the toughest days.
There’s only one blight with this cookbook. One of the final recipes is for a coffee mousse with marsala jelly which comes as a reminder that some things, however poshly presented, will never bring happy memories.
As with bluebottles, snakes, rats, flavoured waters and buying pre-cut onion, I have to ask myself what is the point in jelly, Rowntrees, marsala or wine gums?
Even the word gelatine makes me wince. Apart from that, the book is highly recommended.
Closer to home, joy was brought by a lunch delivery from Tayble Deli in Dundee, part of the Dundee Cooking Academy and the new Howff Secret Supper Club family. The deli produces affordable takeaway food with dishes prepared by chefs with high end-Michelin star experience – and it shows.
I was already a fan of the deli on Bank Street before we went into the first lockdown and it was great to discover I could order their great food online.
One of the issues I have locally is that I don’t always want a home delivery of very cheffy food, although of course many times I do want that and would wholeheartedly recommend somewhere like the Tayberry.
But yesterday I had a fairly busy and stressful morning and it came to lunchtime and I couldn’t be bothered cooking, and I certainly didn’t want anything fussy.
That’s not to say I don’t want innovation and top quality – for want of a better descriptive phrase what I really wanted was the equivalent of food from a street food stall, with punchy flavours cooked assertively.
That’s exactly what I found in the new additions to Tayble’s home delivery offerings from which we ordered the following: bao buns with crispy pork, honey mustard dressing and Asian slaw; teriyaki glazed chicken wings with spring onion and sesame; smoked haddock and dauphinoise bon bons with crispy leek and smoked cheese sauce; bao buns with sticky cauliflower and Asian slaw; feta salad (those two simple words hide the joy to be found in this dish) and a dessert including white chocolate Oreo fudge and a ginger snap and tonka biscuit.
The savoury dishes were all £6.50 except for the deliciously fresh feta salad, a bargain at £3.50. Lunch came to a total of £29.50 but two of us got three meals out of it, with me finishing the delicious bao bun for breakfast. For food of this quality, delivered to your door, I call that a bargain.
Lewis Donegan, executive head chef of the venture, is on to a real winner here. Everything we had was delicious and I will definitely be ordering from Tayble again and again.
I will also be ordering from the more complex dishes offered by the Howff Secret Supper club, a newish venture that was set to launch as a physical space before lockdown but is now online for the time being.
With the Ritz cookbook, a delivery of such great street food from Tayble, a bottle of Burgundy and the first episode of the glorious First Dates on TV (I don’t believe in guilty pleasure, only pleasure) then January can do one in the grandest way possible.
Bring on the spring!
The Ritz London cookbook by John Williams, MBE, £20
Tayble Deli: Facebook Tayble Deli