A peck of pepper, the crack of cardamom, sugar, spice and all things nice – that’s NICK HAMMOND as he delves deep into the history of one of West End’s finest Private Members Clubs in his latest Tale from The Oriental…
PAUSING to take a little spoonful of snuff from a hinged ram’s head in the library (an intro sentence of my dreams, by the way) I seek Laurence Singlehurst.
He’s the Club Librarian and filled to overflowing with lore, rumour and fact about the buildings, paintings, people and peculiarities that make the Oriental Club the beacon of elegance and eccentricity it is today.
My mission is to find out more about Richard Terry. He was the Club’s Chef de Cuisine back in 1861 and wrote himself into the history books by penning what must be the first curry cookbook in the country.
The Club has acquired a signed first edition of this beautiful little book – Indian Cookery – packed with weird and wonderful recipes. Such as head of mutton and the like, slathered with an assortment of spices and pastes to recreate the pungent aromas of the East.
I doubt any of the recipes are particularly tasty to today’s palate, spoiled as we are with lean cuts, carefully harvested and perfectly shaped fruits and spices picked at their very peak of the flavour spectrum. But it’s fascinating nonetheless and must have been quite the coup for the Club back in the day.
Indeed, The Oriental Club must be the only establishment in the whole of the country which has had freshly cooked curry dishes on its menu every day since. Some of the advertisements in the book are worth a study; condiments imported from Calcutta, including pickled chillies, Bengal Club Chutney, bamboo pickle, Tipparee Jam, Arrowroot and Guava jelly to name but a few.
Can you, for a moment, imagine you’re a ex-military man back in prosaic London? Where once you watched sunset over tiger-pocked jungle; fished for mahseer in clear mountain pools; went pig sticking with your pals on a day off and wore full dress in the stultifying, stupefying heat of Bombay; now you find yourself window shopping and strolling through manicured parkland as a weekend treat.
The evocative smells of Indian cookery must have been like manna from heaven then as you threw open the Club door, passed your hat and cane to the doorman and repaired within for a G&T before lunch and the chance to catch up with the chaps.
Those same smells drift through the Dining Room today as the Club serves up both Eastern and Western menus. Today, it’s Goan Chicken, Lamb Rogan Josh, Prawn Dansak and more. And it’s enjoyed by young and old, ladies and gents alike.
Later in the afternoon, I wend my merry way to the Calcutta Light Horse Bar, an airy, informal space bar overlooking the courtyard and festooned with yet more historical delights for those of an enquiring mind (the brass plate on the door, for example, is the real one from the original Calcutta Light Horse Bar, taken by decamping soldiers when they packed their bags and left upon India’s independence in 1947).
The walls, for instance, are spaced with original sketches by Captain Atkinson of the Bengal Engineers, taken from his famous book, Curry and Rice. You’ll find a copy tucked away on the corner of the bar, underneath the brass gong. But that’s a story for another day.
Captain Atkinson sketched Punch-like, satirical and whimsical everyday scenes from the East – and these little portraits hung on the walls were thought to be rough copies of the originals made famous in the book.
It wasn’t until Mr Singlehurst was poring over these with the former Club Librarian, Mr Timothy Carter, that the latter spotted that these were, in fact, the originals. These charming drawings were since taken by Mr Singlehurst to none other than the Antiques Roadshow, where they were confirmed as the real deal – life through the eye of the Captain in his corner of India.
It’s a delight to look over them now during the quiet bit of the afternoon, with perhaps a glass of London Pride to aid digestion. In fact, it’s true to say that in virtually every room at The Oriental Club, there’s a story to be told, but I’m keeping my powder dry on much of it so far. I’ll tell you about the simple but beautiful sketch of a happy looking Winston Churchill, one day…
But as anyone who’s overindulged on curry and beer will tell you, there can too much of a good thing so I won’t overload your palate on this occasion.
Suffice to say a little curry and rice, a ram’s head topped with snuff, a handful of original drawings and a little good food, wine and company should satisfy you for now.
It does me.
‘Curry & Rice on Forty Plates, or The Ingredients of Social Life at “Our Station” in India’ can be viewed digitally at www.archive.org. Better still, visit The Oriental Club and see the real deal in situ.