This was my first experience at a formal dinner here at Cambridge and I was a tad shocked. Although a fair chunk of the graduate students here are international students like myself a lot of them are true Cambridge scholars: they came here for undergraduate, left the 'Cambridge Bubble' on holidays only and came back for graduate studies. These are the ones to watch.
Somehow, and I am guessing it's through osmosis or magic, all of the knowledge of drinking games passes on to the new students (we are called, to my horror, "Freshers") and suddenly everyone around you is ridiculously drunk and you are having trouble not punching the American guy across the table from you as he name drops some distant relative from some ivy league school in the US. a) Why the hell would I know about someone not even remotely in my field? b) You are at Cambridge. Yes, the university that was ranked most like Harvard... beating Harvard.
Yes, yes. I'll get to the food when I've vented.
We were without wine that night (we weren't aware you could take wine in with you) and so we had to remain horrified in our sobriety. But the food was okay. They gave me a mushroom stack which was really nice but not exactly filling. There was some sort of soup for starters. Beetroot and something? It was okay. And for dessert I was served fruit salad. Cut up the way they do in pre-school.
So I sound bitter but I was quite happy with my meal. Being vegan means you tend to just be overwhelmed when you are able to eat something let alone have a special meal cooked for you.
Formal Hall happens twice a week at our college. It's more formal than the MCR Dinner (yes, that's right, more formal than having to wear a suit and tie (or the "women's equaivalent" as they so delicately put it) and your gown to dinner). It is also open to all students and is mostly frequented by undergraduates so we were a little worried about the drinking games.
However, we need not have worried because it turns out that the undergraduates of Cambridge are actually quite well behaved. Yes, there was some "pennying" (people drop pennies into other people's drinks and they have to drink it all at once) and some passing of the dinner mints (this is done mouth to mouth and earns you expulsion from the dinner because the mints are supposed to accompany the port, chaps, and are not for fun) but the presence of the fellows seemed to keep things a little tamer.
We had wine this time and it was truly awful. And the port! I forgot to mention the port! Each meal has a starter then a main course then a dessert then a cheese platter with coffee and port and after dinner mints. And the port tastes like fermented sultanas and methylated spirits. One of these days I'm going to go to a Trinity or King's dinner and see if the port tastes better in the wealthy colleges.
Anyway, my point was... we drank a fair bit too. It made the pennying tolerable and the Latin chanting (there is a lot of Latin chanting going on... which they practise to make sure they get the pronounciation right) hilarious.
The food this time was a bit of a problem. Firstly the waiter told me that the carrot soup was vegan. Then when she went to get my main course she told me that they had not prepared any vegan food because the catering lady had forgotten to tell them. Guess the carrot soup was not vegan after all.
The chefs were pretty good, though, and threw together some spiced beans in a tomato sauce with some polenta. It wasn't fantastic but at least I was fed and they seemed to have done a better job on the protein considerations this time.
Dessert was fruit salad. Cut up the way they do in pre-school.
Geoff wasn't invited. Matriculating graduate students only.
The wine was free and was plentiful and was actually good! (Up until this point I had assumed England thought that wine should taste like ethanol). And the food! Oh the food!
For starters we had polenta with watercress and some delicious dressing. Then the main course was a tomato stuffed with tofu pieces and nuts and vegetables and served with roasted root vegetables. And potato. There's always bloody potato. And for dessert... fruit! But not the way pre-school does it. It was a lovely pear that had been cooked in something like sugar syrup, white wine, cinnamon and star anise. It was chilled and served whole but sliced so that it made a little star shape on my plate while still sitting up like a pear would. I fell in love with it. But I ate it anyway.
Then we did a bit of musical chairs (there is designated seating except at Formal Halls) and moved to the New SCR for white dessert wines, coffee, cheese platters (of which I did not partake), port and mints. Except everything was actually nice this time!
The dinner was really amazing. The best million course vegan meal I've ever eaten.
So apparently we only get one more of these dinners and that's when we graduate. Except I'll be matriculating again next year and then graduating again three years after that (yes, my hobby is degree collecting) so I am very much looking forward to it.
And now I'll leave you with some images from around our street of this lovely (although a bit chilly and windy tonight!) city. Happy autumn!