Blasted by commercialism, swept along by shoppers, it’s a weary NICK HAMMOND who brings his family to the wreath-laden door of The Oriental Club. Salvation lies within…
CHRISTMAS truly comes to those who wait.
While I respect those earnest souls who do their Christmas shopping in the Summer and who spend the year devising their festive timetable (actually, scrub that, I don’t respect them at all) it seems to me that only in the last couple of weeks does Christmas truly become Christmas.
I try to emerge from my chrysalis of curmudgeon to allow in a crack of festive light around about the third week of December. Which is why the fabled Oriental Club Family Christmas Lunch came at just the right time.
The lights in London are at their sparkling best, made all the cosier by the darkling Winter nights and not the sun-splashed Autumn evenings when they first seem to put in an appearance each year.
And so, under the cheery glow of aforementioned illuminations and with the sounds of steel drums playing jingle bells at Bond Street station ringing in our ears, the family and I descend on the seething masses.
One of the greatest things about The Oriental Club, I reckon, is that while you are forced to wrestle your way through the throng until Oxford Street, you are but a sidestep from a parallel universe.
Just five yards from the main thoroughfare into Stratford Place and you are seeing through a glass, darkly. You can sill make out the surge and swell of the tide of humanity. But you’ve been plucked from its maws and placed on a nearby rock merely to unconcernedly observe, rather than participate.
Standing like a sentinel at the end of the cul-de-sac is Stratford House, flag gently fluttering, a warm welcome awaiting within. It is like finding an oasis after crawling through a O’Toolesque desert.
Normally youngsters aren’t permitted in the hallowed halls. But once a year, a magnificent exception is made. And so my girls, resplendent in their best attire, and arguments about lipsticks and high heels left far behind them, are excited to see what all the fuss is about.
Dad, in his wisdom, has told them during the preceding months what a wonderful world it is in which he lives. How he has mastered the great, staggering, swaggering city that is London and now glides through it serenely with a civilized stop off at every tube station.
Of course, it’s nothing like that in reality, as I drag my bag-trolley through yet another puddle in Savile Row, but I like to encourage their daydreams.
I’ve told them about ‘my’ secret place, where you’re welcomed like a long-lost family member; where indescribable desserts and steaming plates of wildly exotic dishes vie for your attention. Kids love all that stuff.
We are ushered to our rooms and daughter No.2 and I (we are taking advantage of two of the Club’s rooms for the night) are treated to a suite of our own. This gives her instant bragging rights over her sister and the place become HQ for the next 24 hours.
A flight of fancy to the Belgian waffle store just along the way is but a thing of the moment, and they’re soon slurping chocolate sauce with relish while reclining on the sofa in front of the TV and gas fire. They learn fast.
In the morning it’s an enthusiastic family which falls like wolves on the breakfast banquet. A morning’s stroll follows to see the John Lewis window display (foxes, badgers, rabbits and squirrels having a merry old Yuletide); a short trip to the parlours of Marylebone to inspect the sort of Christmas presents we’d buy each other if we could afford it; and then it’s time to head back for the main event.
The wondrous Dining Room is bedecked with Christmas spirit and I begin to feel the first stirrings of the season in the old bones.
There’s a duo playing Christmas songs and we’re handed a glass of Prosecco. The world is becoming a more wondrous place by the minute. I’ve also sold my wife glorious tales of the fare on offer at the Club, and I’m confident that Executive Chef Wesley Smalley won’t let me down when it comes to the crunch.
And the crunch comes soon enough with fresh toast and a tureen of Potted bacon, prune and Armagnac with pickles.
All three Hammondesses have no hesitation in plumping for the turkey special, complete with mandatory pigs in blankets, sage and onion stuffing and bread sauce. I, on the other hand, have no desire to look beyond goose. Ah, that greatest of table fowl; rich and rewarding, laden with flavour, barded with fat. The Club serves goose in great, dark slabs, with roast potatoes you’d happily sacrifice a limb for and an unctuous jug of gravy, a selection of on point veg and a bottle of House Claret – voila!
Party hats are ceremoniously placed, crackers cracked, appetites appeased. By the end of the repast I am akin to Santa himself, pot bellied and full of bonhomie. And bless my soul, while we nibble crackers with the last of the Tunworth, the old fellow himself puts in an appearance.
In pride of place near the fireplace, St Nick welcomes all youngsters near and far and hands each a gift. As is his wont, they are perfectly chosen; books for my readoholic girls who spent the rest of the afternoon duly entranced within the pages of their gifts.
I now have a new litmus paper for this time of year. From hence forth, I decree, it shall not be Christmas until the Oriental Club Family Christmas Lunch.
Let the festivities commence!