Moderation in (Almost) All

Book review of Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table by Cita Stelzer

Books Food History
Top table: Churchill (left) drinking al fresco with Montgomery (right) in 1994 (Imperial War Museum)

Cita Stelzer has had the agreeable idea of compiling a short book around Churchill’s tastes in food, drink and cigars, and his use of mealtimes to further his diplomatic and political aims. The materials in the various Churchill archives are abundant, and she makes industrious use, both for text and illustrations, of menu-cards, bills from Claridges and the Paris Ritz, cartoons and photos, some of them rare. This is clearly a “must-read” for Churchill connoisseurs, but general readers will find it vastly entertaining too.

Churchill’s approach to good living was marked by three characteristics: amplitude, discernment and moderation. The first emerged early. As a young man he became a favoured customer of the Pall Mall wine merchant Randolph Payne, whose cable address was “Luscious, Piccy, London”. When Churchill went to South Africa in 1899, ostensibly to cover the war as a journalist, they shipped to him there, aboard the SS Dunnottar Castle, an initial order of 18 bottles of St Emilion claret, six of 1889 Vin d’Ay Sec, six of white port, six of Vermouth, 18 bottles of 10-year-old Scotch and six of 1866 Very Old Eau de Vie. That was the pattern. Churchill always had to earn his own living but later in life he boasted that there had never been a day when he had not been able to drink a bottle of champagne and offer one to a friend. 

He was always particular about his food, but disliked richness for its own sake: he preferred, for instance, clear soups such as consommé to creamy ones. (He always said the real test of a cook was the ability to make good soup.) According to Mrs Georgina Landemare, who for many years was the cook at Downing Street, Chequers, Chartwell and his private London house, his favourite dish was Irish stew, which he liked with “plenty of small onions and not much broth”. He taught General Eisenhower to like it too. He was not fond of puddings, and loved to complain bitterly if they “lacked a theme,” as he put it: indeed he complained often, sometimes ingeniously. Thus, distrusting a cluster of ill-favoured quails, he denounced the crime of “stealing these mice from the tomb of Tutankhamun”. What he liked to end a meal was Roquefort cheese, a peeled pear and a mixed ice-cream. 

On wine, especially champagne, he was an expert. He sometimes drank, when he could get it, the famous Krug 1920 and 1926. But his choice was vintage Pol Roger. He admired the 1921 year but his favourite wine of all was the vintage Pol Roger of 1928 (the year I was born) which he was heard to declare the finest wine in history. Madame Odette Pol-Roger, whom he got to know in 1944, used to send him a case of the 1928 every year on his birthday, until supplies ran out. When he acquired a racing stable after World War II he named a horse Pol Roger, which won the Black Prince Stakes in 1953. Madame Pol-Roger created a special Cuvée Winston Churchill in return. 

The great man usually drank in moderation. Bob Boothby, who studied such things closely, said he saw Churchill affected by liquor in the House of Commons only once. This was during the abdication crisis. When he returned at 2.30pm a bit sozzled from an embassy lunch, he broke the rules, asking supplementaries at Prime Minister’s Questions, fell foul of the Speaker, and was howled down — the only time this happened to him in half a century of Commons service. He usually had a drink going from an early hour in the morning, but this was a very weak Scotch, sipped slowly and made to last hours. He avoided cocktails and was careful not to mix his drinks. He was fond of remarking, “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me.” 

Moderation, curiously enough, was also the note of his cigar-smoking, in the sense that while he normally had a cigar lit, he puffed it very little and inhaled the smoke scarcely at all. Advised by Dr Thomas Hunt (the gastroenterologist and my father-in-law) to use a cigar-holder, he devised instead what he called “belly bandoes”. When waving the tip of his cigar at a candle, he “lovingly wrapped a piece of gummed brown paper around the other end” so that it “stopped the end from becoming too wet when I chew it.” The belly bandoes limited direct contact with the tobacco and hence the amount of nicotine he absorbed.

In fact his cigars constantly went out, and had to be relit. For this purpose he used specially large matches, which remained lit after the sulphur had burned off, so that it did not contaminate the aroma or taste of the cigar, usually a Romeo y Julieta. These matches had two wicks, long and thick, made of cedarwood and sent specially from Canada. He gave me one in 1946, the first time, aged 17, I met him — it was a formidable piece of timber. 

Churchill realised, long before the First World War, that big cigars were part of his visual personality, and beloved of cartoonists, so he always displayed them, lighting and relighting them. But as Lord Beaverbook remarked, there was not much actual smoking: “Churchill smoked matches, and ate cigars,” he recorded.

The last word on Churchill’s acceptance of the good things in life was said by his old friend F.E. Smith: “He was easily satisfied with the best of everything, and the longer the better.” But no one grudged him the best. Cita Stelzer prints a delightful photograph, taken at Cherbourg in 1944, showing a quintessentially comic French working- man leaning over the door of Churchill’s car and using his cigarette lighter to get the old man’s cigar going — a precious glimpse of the entente cordiale in action.