by Stuart Kelly
In May of this year, I received an email via my website www.rmsolympic.org from a gentleman owning a French gothic mansion named ‘The Towers’ in the north of England who claimed his home contained a missing portion of the Olympic’s a La Carte Restaurant. I had alluded to a section of missing panels from the Restaurant on my website about the panels from the Restaurant that were formally at a house in Southport and are now on the Celebrity cruise ship Millennium. The owner of the newly discovered house sent me photos of the interior of his house and I visited him to find to my amazement the panels were indeed genuine and markings from Harland & Wolff were to be found on sections that had been removed during refurbishments of the house. I found the owner and his wife, Mark & Ann Bolger, to be extremely friendly and hospitable and they were very excited to discover that a precious historic link to the Olympic and, by extension, her ill-fated and infamous sister ship was present in their home. The panels came to be in their house as its then owner in June 1936 had purchased a remaining section of the Restaurant’s panelling from Jarrow where the Olympic was being broken up. Their house also contains a large section of what appears to be corridor and staircase panelling from the great ship making it a hugely atmospheric surrounding.
More photos at: www.rmsolympic.org
Upon their discovery, Mark & Ann began thinking of holding a Titanic themed dinner surrounded by the panels of the Olympic’s restaurant. On 20 October 2012, the 102nd anniversary of the Olympic’s launch, that dream became a reality and myself and my wife were very lucky to be invited to join a gathering of Ann & Mark’s family and friends in eating of a full eleven course meal based on the Titanic’s First Class menu of 14 April 1912 complete with game bird, cigars and Waldorf pudding. The preparation for the dinner took months and Mark & Ann employed a chef with experience of cooking meals inspired by historical menus and recipes. He examined the menu from the First Class Dining Room on Titanic’s last night and aimed to recreate it as far as possible using Rich Archbold and Dana McCauley’s 1997 book Last Dinner on the Titanic as a reference. I was privileged to be asked to give a speech before dinner explaining the significance of the panels, how they came to be in the house as a result of the Olympic’s scrapping in 1935 and the Olympic’s panels were an ideal setting for a Titanic inspired meal due to their similarity to those on the real Titanic. I talked about the dinner hosted by the Wideners in honour of Captain Smith in the Titanic’s restaurant the night before she sank. It did indeed feel profound to be eating the same kind of food that Captain Smith and some of his most illustrious passengers on the Titanic would have ate surrounded by the same magnificent interior decoration over one hundred years ago.
As a whole, the meal was an eating experience like nothing I or almost any of Mark & Ann’s guests had before. It made me think our wealthy Edwardian ancestors were indeed either glutinous, extravagant or possibly both and were perhaps trying emulate the sumptuous meals enjoyed by the French Monarchs who also inspired the decoration of their staterooms on the decks above the dining saloon. We did not know quite what to expect when we were summoned for dinner by the master of ceremonies after my speech.
A suitably exquisite dish inspired by the sea to start off. The Oysters were served in the Olympic Lounge in their shells and showered in vodka. They took some time to come out of their shells, but eventually, they moved gracefully towards my mouth. My own experience of the taste made me think of the seaside as it was of cold fish and salt.
After our first course we left the RMS Olympic Lounge and sat down to dinner and the master of ceremonies held a moment of silence for the Titanic’s victims and Mark led grace. The atmosphere was convivial and the conversation lively. We talked about many of the same topics that our forebears of 1912 would have likely discussed: current affairs, travel and business. Everyone knew we were about to enjoy a unique and nostalgic culinary experience.
In a miniature soup bowl, we were presented with a small garnish at the bottom of the bowl. I asked the waitress if we were supposed to eat it with a fork; however she came with the soup and poured it over the scallop/garnish. It made for another appetizer which was as exotic by nature as by name.
III. Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce
The only fish course of the evening was from Scotland: Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce. Perhaps to pace the culinary marathon that was this dinner, it was served in a small quantity. It was fresh, clean and Mousseline Sauce I had never tasted before, it the first of many maiden savoury sensations.
Served in three small circular dishes, many of the guests commented upon this course during and after the dinner. The familiar dishes of chicken and vegetables were complimented by quintessentially Edwardian dish of Filet Mignons lili. This was another dish I had only heard about through looking at menus from the Titanic and other ships a hundred years ago. It was a delightful and memorable taste.
This course is the closest of the twelve to being the "main" course. Of the choices the menu of 14th April gives, Lamb with mint sauce is among them which I imagine many readers will remember James Cameron having included in his movie with Cal ordering erroneously in the Port Side Verandah Cafe. The serving on the 20th of October 2012 was rather more authentic and included roast duckling with applesauce, sirloin of beef and potatoes and vegetables all done with exquisite attention to detail.
It was after this course that the guests were making comments that they'd certainly had the most filling meal in a long time. With the ‘main course’ out of the way, what could the remaining seven courses have in store?
VI. Punch Romaine
After the main, there was a dessert like interlude with a yellow punch with spherical ice cubes served in a cocktail glass. It felt very sophisticated and high society, making me think of the Hot Lemonade and Highballs being drunk in the Cafe Parisien by Lieutenant Stefansson and his friends just before 11.40pm that fateful night. It was an interlude from the rich and very tasty food we had enjoyed so far. We'd hardly put down our glasses when the master of ceremonies announced the next course.
VII. Roasted Squab with Wilted Cress
The menu we experienced up until now was largely a course for course copy of the original menu devised by the Titanic’s Head Chef, Charles Proctor, from his galley on D Deck. Due to the rarity of squab, pigeon: another game bird was substituted. The pigeon meat was baked in pastry. Another first time experience came to me and I suspect many of the other guests around the table. Despite being an animal lover, I enjoyed the taste and wouldn’t say no to another guilt-filled indulgence in it. Most of us were starting to feel quite full by this time and eating the pigeon was another sensation that made you feel as if you physically getting larger and filling every inch of your waistcoat and tails.
VIII. Asparagus Salad Champagne-Saffron Vinegarette
The Asparagus was served on a small dish and was consumed quickly by most of the guests. By now, we could sense pudding and cigars were looming at and of this remarkable evening. The salad made us feel healthy and perked us up after the very filling previous courses.
IX. A Cold Dish
Pate was served as another 'cooling' dish that led to the sweets of the evening. We certainly needed some respite for hot, rich courses to enable us to pace ourselves.
A full selection of the sweets at the bottom of the menu of 14 April 1912 was prepared for the guests as my friends’ house. Waldorf pudding which was based on the modern interpretation of the original dish based on Waldorf Salad that was included in the Archbold and MacCauley book from 1997. It was delicious and was a harbinger for coffee and ice cream to follow. Peaches in Charteuse jelly, chocolate éclairs and French Ice Cream were served from a trolley tended by the uniformed maids and waiters who had looked after us so well for the last three hours.
The dessert in an Edwardian meal was not characterised by sweet dishes the final food course was a selection of cheeses to be sampled before the diners rose: the men usually to the Smoking Room, aft on A Deck and the ladies to the lounge or the underused Reading and Writing Room forward that Thomas Andrews proposed to reduce in size due to the ladies' refusal to retire in sufficient numbers.
XII Brandy, Coffee & Cigars
Mark laid on French Napoleon Brandy, the finest Cuban cigars and fresh ground coffee to round off a most splendid evening. I retired along with the men top the patio on a cold crisp night, making us think of what it would have been like on the aft unenclosed promade deck outside the Smoking Room as the temperature steadily dropped and icebergs formed. The Ladies retired to the RMS Olympic lounge to be surrounded once again by the a la carte Restaurant Panels. It was a truly heart warming way to conclude a remarkable and truly amazing meal. My mind boggled at the effort that had gone into it and the achievement it represented.
The meal was a resounding success which left everyone incredulous as to how the First Class Passengers could have possibly consumed so much food in one evening, let alone every evening. Mark & Ann were assured by their guests that the evening had been a triumph and the gathering of family of friends the dinner had been for had paid off left them determined to recreate the Last Dinner on the Titanic again in their amazing house with its authentic and indelible link to the glorious history of the Olympic and Titanic.
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