THERE were six of us to dinner that night at Mike Schofield’s house in London: Mike and his wife and daughter, and my wife and I, and a man called Richard Pratt.
Richard Pratt was a famous gourmet. He was president of a small society known as the Epicures, and each month he circulated privately to its members a pamphlet on food and wines. He organized dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served. He refused to smoke for fear of harming his palate, and when discussing a wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. ‘A prudent wine,’ he would say, ‘rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.’ Or, ‘A good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humoured.’
I had been to dinner at Mike’s twice before when Richard Pratt was there, and on each occasion Mike and his wife had gone out of their way to produce a special
meal for the famous gourmet. And this one, clearly, was to be no exception. The moment we entered the dining-room, I could see that the table was laid for a feast. The tall candles, the yellow roses, the quantity of shining silver, the three wineglasses to each person, and above all, the faint scent of roasting meat from the kitchen brought the first warm oozings of saliva to my mouth.
As we sat down, I remembered that on both Richard Pratt’s previous visits Mike had played a little betting game with him over the claret, challenging him to name its breed and its vintage. Pratt had replied that that should not be too difficult provided it was one of the great years. Mike had then bet him a case of the wine in question that he could not do it. Pratt had accepted, and had won both times. Tonight I felt sure that the little game would be played over again, for Mike was quite willing to lose the bet in order to prove that his wine was good enough to be recognized, and Pratt, for his part, seemed to take a grave, restrained pleasure in displaying his knowledge.
The meal began with a plate of whitebait, fried very crisp in butter, and to go with it there was a Moselle. Mike got up and poured the wine himself, and when he sat down again, I could see that he was watching Richard Pratt. He had set the bottle in front of me so that I could read the label. It said, ‘Geierslay Ohligsberg, 1945’. He leaned over and whispered to me that Geierslay was a tiny village in the Moselle, almost unknown outside Germany. He said that this wine we were drinking was something unusual, that the output of the vineyard was so small that it was almost impossible for a stranger to get any of it. He had visited Geierslay personally the previous summer in order to obtain the few bottles that they had finally allowed him to have.
“I doubt whether anyone else in the country has any of it at the moment,” he said. I saw him glance again at Richard Pratt. “Great thing about Moselle,” he continued, raising his voice, “it’s the perfect wine to serve before a claret. A lot of people serve a Rhine wine instead, but that’s because they don’t know any better. A Rhine wine will kill a delicate claret, you know that? It’s barbaric to serve a Rhine before a claret. But a Moselle – ah! – a Moselle is exactly right.”
Mike Schofield was an amiable, middle-aged man, but he was a stockbroker. To be precise, he was a jobber in the stock market, and like a number of his kind, he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed, almost ashamed to find that he had made so much money with so slight a talent.