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Edmund Penning-Rowsell the host

4 Mar 2002 by JR

(originally published in the Financial Times in December 2000)

For a long-term subscriber to Marxism Today, Edmund Penning-Rowsell has always been surprisingly conservative in the dining room.

This is surprising since in so many other matters he is, despite the ultra-conventional suits and ties regarded as mandatory for dinner, as flexible and open-minded as one could possibly desire. When I took my first tentative steps in the wine-writing world, a 25-year-old-hippie with preraphaelite frizz, he welcomed me with open arms and an open mind, treating me with extraordinary modesty. 'How interesting!' was his courteous catchphrase from that era, as I regaled him with a new, half-digested 'fact' about the fast-evolving wine scene.

It was not long before he as consultant editor of the Haymarket Publishing trade magazine Wine & Spirit invited me, the juvenile editor, to his house in the Cotswolds. (He retained a flat in London WC1, forever answering the phone with a brisk 'Terminus 2309'.)

Edmund and his wife Meg have always enjoyed entertaining and have the books, many of them, to prove it. There is the book of guests and menus (with wines of course) bound with a strip of William Morris linen. (E P-R was a founder member of the William Morris Society.) And then since the late 1940s there have been a dozen or so cellarbooks logging meticulously every bottle bought and consumed, with date bought, price paid (galling reading) and details of each cork-pulling occasion together with a tasting note. The entries are typically made in EP-R's trademark green ink.

Meg and Edmind met in Hyde Park the mid-1930s when they were both in their early 20s and new to London. They both happened to be watching a particularly self-satisfied rider on Rotten Row when he fell off his mount. Both laughed involuntarily and from then on they were a couple, united in their scorn for the establishment (Meg's brother went off to fight in Spain).

Which returns us nicely to the apparent conundrum of Edmund's dining dogma. No food should be too spicy or strongly flavoured. Nothing sweet with the first or main course (although he has a penchant for chocolates and fudge after a meal, with coffee served from one of a series of differently sized glazed brown cafetières bought in France). Redcurrant and horseradish sauces are regarded as an aberration. French cheeses the same. English cheese, preferably Cheddar or double Gloucester are the staples on the Penning-Rowsell cheeseboard with Cantal the only French cheese worth the bother of importing.

Vegetables and fruit should ideally come from the Penning-Rowsells' own well-tended garden. As advised decades ago by the late Bristol wine merchant and mentor Ronald Avery, thin cheese biscuits are routinely served with the bottle of champagne carefully selected from the whitewashed cellar before dinner, after the red wines (mainly claret, though he has some very fine burgundy) have been decanted into his elegantly ancient decanters with nerve-rackingly narrow mouths.

The hardware is as much a pleasure in the Morris-wallpapered Penning-Rowsell dining room as the victuals. Blue and white is the colour scheme - broad, shallow bowls with fine silver spoons - although green and black are allowed for the dessert plates decorated with engravings of Médoc châteaux. A stout glass goblet as tall as a double magnum is exquisitely engraved with their initials and the slogan 'Beve con noi' (drink with us). Its elegant typeface suggests it was a present from the Wine Society, the Stevenage-based wine buying cooperative of which Edmund was chairman for 23 years until 1987 (and which he scrupulously never mentioned in his columns in this newspaper).

At each place is a forest of glasses, either Wine Society, Harry Waugh or Berry Bros (none of this newfangled Riedel nonsense). Cotswold water is drawn from the kitchen tap and allowed to stand in the hatch between kitchen and dining room in a large glass jug before being used to sluice a series of wines of the highest quality.

After a meal this hatch becomes a battleground between the dozens of empty, pink-smeared glasses (leftovers are frowned upon) and the Penning-Rowsell cats with names like Cos and Pétrus.

Washing up is another ritual. A dishwasher has now been installed but wine glasses must be carefully rinsed in piping hot then cold water before being polished with Wine Society tea towels.

And then to bed, none too steadily up the dark, uneven stairs.

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