What impresses me most is the bottle of Cognac. Not because it’s in an understated, clear glass bottle; not because the year on the label reads 1975; not even because it’s from a single vintage instead of the more usual blend. No, what really makes its mark on me this afternoon is that the bottle laid discreetly in its presentation case before me is capped in blood-red wax. It’s not something you see every day – a phrase that keeps springing to mind throughout this blissfully long, decadent afternoon.
When I arrive at Hyde Park Corner for the Lanesborough’s first Cigar Luncheon, I’m greeted by the Household Cavalry stalking haughtily before waiting traffic. Nice welcome. And once escorted to the bosom of The Lanesborough, I’m taken aback by the elegance and spaciousness of The Garden Room.
I’ve been to this Mecca of cigar smoking in the capital before, of course, and it has always been a cultured place to enjoy a Habano, a drink and a bite to eat. But it’s normally busy, with comfortable leather armchairs and tables taking up most of the space. Today, there is a single long table, decorated simply with cut crystal and fine china. Apart from staff making last-minute touches, there is only me here. It’s a rare moment of solitude in this enchanted space, a chance to soak up the ambience in quiet contemplation.
Then Giuseppe is upon me with his warm, Italian welcome. Giuseppe is the bar manager of The Garden Room, The Lanesborough’s cigar guru, and responsible for stocking the bar’s not inconsiderable humidor with delectables. He’s a great guy, very knowledgeable and always generous with his time and expertise whenever I need some info for a story. I’m delighted to learn he will be joining us to dine and act as anchorman for the proceedings.
Other guests trickle in, and Krug Champagne is uncorked. I’m handed a Flor de Cano Short Robusto cigar to go with it and I’m pleased for two reasons: one, it’s a damned fine little cigar; and two, I have often opined that the UK regional edition Habano is a perfect Champagne pairing. The learned Lanesborough team have added considerable gravitas to my argument.
As I sip both bubbles and cigars delicately, a series of palate-drenching entrees are introduced. These little beauties are the real deal. A monstrously good raw oyster with mini cubed cucumber, lime and chill shavings is the highlight. Note to cigar lovers: oysters, Champagne and cigars are a killer combination. The Champagne floods the palate with fizz, the cigar coats with layers of smoke and the oyster washes away like a fresh, tingling Spring tide. Wow.
We’re given a pleasingly long time to smoke, drink and chat to our fellow diners, and I meet the two elegant lady diners from Chain of Hope, a remarkable charity carrying out life-saving cardiac work for deprived children all over the globe.
We all enjoy each other’s company so much that by the time we’re encouraged to take our places at the table, I’ve finished my Flor de Cano and feel a little empty-handed. Never mind, plenty of time to make up for that, I tell myself. Yet as I sit down and reach for my napkin, a silver platter arrives before me with 12 more Flor de Canos arranged clockwise upon it. I steal four o’clock with a murmur of thanks and fire it up with quiet elation. Crikey, this is something special.
With a starter of stuffed ballotine of foie gras with quince, balsamic jelly and espresso crumble, comes a revelation of a wine: a thick, honey-coloured sweet white from Venito. The Pieropan 2006 Passito della Rocca is the sort of thing normally associated with a dessert wine, but the slurps and appreciative gurglings from around the table prove this an inspired choice to open the batting. It’s such a hit that many of us continue to drink it all afternoon.
Sitting down, eating, drinking, chatting and smoking is such a rare treat these days. It feels a bit hoggish – but so what? It’s great fun and stimulates new and intriguing mixtures of flavours and smoke.
Next up is roasted new season partridge paired with a super 2009 Alvaro Palacios Priorat from Spain and no sooner have the dishes and the wine been announced, than another silver platter – this time laden down with the beguiling black and gold of Cohiba – arrives.
I don’t often smoke Cohiba, largely because in my opinion, they can be a tad overrated not to mention over-priced. But this is the Behike 52, a smash hit of a cigar and not to be missed. It’s a truly superb smoke, very refined, with lots of depth and class. It provides a subtle counterpoint with the soft, chewy seasonal game.
I take a moment to look around the room while all the other guests are engaged in animated discussion. It’s a vision good for the heart. Shafts of autumn sunlight pierce the inner sanctum of The Garden Room and pinpoint shifting swirls of cigar smoke that glide after passing waiters like ectoplasm.
The air is spiced with aromatic leaf. Faces are smiling, body language is relaxed. I catch Giuseppe’s eye and we share a moment, raising a glass to one another in recognition of something special occurring before our eyes. It’s not something you see every day.
As the afternoon wears on, we’re introduced to the beautiful Partagas 165th anniversary humidor, launched in Havana last year. It’s a limited run of only 165 and is to be auctioned for Chain of Hope this afternoon.
Before the bidding, though, we’re invited to ‘break’ another of these humidors to try the custom blends inside. What a treat. There are two choices, the Partagas 109 or the Sublimes. I choose the more full-bodied Sublimes to pair with an extraordinary cigar-shaped biscuit complete with an iced Lagavulin sabayon. A deep ruby 2006 Valpolicella Classico accompanies.
At last, replete and pushing away our plates, we tackle the Partagas and the red wax seal from the Hermitage Grande Champagne Cognac is broken.
It’s a fruitcake of a brandy, almost rose in colour. The Partagas is indeed sublime, smooth with a subtle power burning under the wrapper like the gently warbling engine of a Bentley.
The humidor is auctioned for more than £7,000 after some good humoured bidding. Several other items also raise valued funds for the charity.
The luncheon is over, yet we refuse to depart.
As our table is swiftly and smoothly cleared and The Garden Room restocked with its usual chairs and tables, we grab seats elsewhere and continue our discussions. We smoke more cigars and drink more Passito della Rocca.
We are united, a group of men and women from around the world, of differing cultures, religions and upbringings, enjoying a joke, drink and a cigar.
It’s not something you see every day.
The Lanesborough, Hyde Park Corner, London, SW1X 7TA. Tel. 020 7259 5599. Website.