The Wine Society’s 12th Annual Festive Dinner, which took place in the magnificent Merchant Taylor’s Hall in the City of London on December 18th was a resounding success. The delighted guest of honour, Paul Symington, was particularly pleased with how Portuguese cuisine impressed the guests, commenting: “In my long experience of promoting Portuguese wines in the UK, I have never seen an audience so captivated and enthralled by the quality of world-class Portuguese food, in this instance prepared by chef Rui Paula.” Paul added that it was a pleasure to witness the easy rapport established between the resident English chef of the Merchant Taylor’s Hall restaurant and his Portuguese counterpart, “the effortless understanding between Richard and Rui, and their teams, no doubt contributed to the exceptional quality of the food and service that the guests were privileged to experience.”
João Vasconcelos, Graham’s Market Manager for the UK, echoed Paul’s sentiment and mentioned that many of the Wine Society members attending the dinner made a point of letting him know that this was, by far, the finest Festive Dinner organized by The Society.
Following his welcome speech, in which Paul described how the great wines of the Douro are his family’s very lifeblood, it was time for fine Portuguese cuisine, accompanied by fine Portuguese wines (made by his family), to take centre stage. Each wine was described by Paul, as each course was served. Rui Paula designed the menu around the wines (Symington family Douro DOC wines and Graham’s Ports) and in this task his acknowledged talent was once more revealed: the perfect food and wine matches were unsurpassed. Rui thanked The Wine Society and Paul Symington for the unique opportunity to showcase his cuisine outside his native Portugal, where he owns and runs two of the country’s finest restaurants; one in Oporto (‘DOP’) and the other in the Douro region (‘DOC’), both of which have legions of fans.
Other highlights of the evening were the Graham’s Ports that were served with the dessert and cheese courses. The Graham’s 20 Year Old was served at just the right temperature (lightly chilled) with the exquisite ‘Abade de Priscos’ pudding, whilst the Graham’s 1970 Vintage Port stole people’s breath by its sheer quality (although those familiar with this Graham’s landmark Vintage weren’t in the least surprised that this Port still delivers so much pleasure, showing many years of life still ahead of it).
The excellence of the table wines was also extolled, the Altano Quinta do Ataíde 2008 Reserva interacting perfectly with the rich flavours of the ‘Francezinha’ (Traditional Oporto Veal Sandwich with Mozzarella Cheese and Crayfish Sauce), whilst the Chryseia 2007 married beautifully with another traditional Portuguese dish — the Suckling Pig with Potatoes Gallete (‘Leitão com Batata Gallete’).
The venue of the dinner, The Merchant Taylor’s Hall has occupied its present site between Threadneedle Street and Cornhill since 1347, in other words, it has stood in the same site for over 600 years. The Merchant Taylors’ Company is one of the Great Twelve Livery Companies of the City of London and can trace its foundation back over 800 years. Livery Companies, or Guilds as they were previously known, began in mediaeval times as fraternities, which were often religious but also existed to protect the interests of particular trades.
The Wine Society owes its existence to the Great Exhibitions of the mid-19th century. For the last of these, in 1874, various countries sent large quantities of wine in cask to be stored in the cellars of the Royal Albert Hall where, to quote from an early history: ‘it entirely escaped notice from the visitors’. Portuguese growers, who had taken great efforts to present their wines, appealed for help and it was the subsequent efforts to promote their sale that laid the seeds for the foundation of the Wine Society, the world’s longest established wine club. Yet another long-standing tie between Portugal and Great Britain, who share the world’s longest standing alliance between two nations.