.......but I've now been subjected to Corporate Catering not once but twice within the space of as many (or as few) weeks. Clearly, somebody up there doesn't like me!
The two occasions couldn't have been more different from each other: one taking place amidst the simple charm of Harold Acton's limonaia, and the other in the high-design, glass and chrome vastness of the state-of-the-art conference centre in Gateshead. Opened by the Queen, I'm told - which, if nothing else, is a 'six degrees of separation' type of connection between the two venues.
For my sins, I was in Gateshead attending a conference for several days, which is where the Corporate entertainment kicked in......lunches provided each day on a scale and with an aesthetic that took its tone directly from Roman Banquets. Or worse. Many, many tables, groaning under barons of beef and sides of roast pork; tempanyaki sizzling away, alongside dazzling arrays of sushi and sashimi; towering presentations of crustacea, and more varieties of salad than you could possibly imagine. And those were just the first courses.......when it came to desserts, the cornucopia stretched into the distance of gateaux, and meringues, and tarts, and exotic fruits and more variations on whipped cream and strawberries than you could shake a stick at!
As for the attendant alcohol, acres of bar space were devoted to phalanxes of wine-filled glasses - red, white, and pinkish - with water, and cranberry juice for the faint-hearted. The dominant tone was one of sheer excess, which I suppose on one level ought to have given rise to a sense of disapproval.
It didn't, of course. I rather like food.....and the prospect of this mouth-watering display quite got the gastric juices working.......
And that was where the problem lay: badly-managed expectations. When it came to eating any of this stuff - unless I was strangely unfortunate in my choices - it ...was... unremittingly.... awful. Dire, in fact. The sushi was like eating chalk (I'm unsure quite how they managed that), and the beef, which looked so succulent and promising, took me straight back to that grey and stringy substance that was regularly served up for lunch at school. Vegetables, ditto. All deeply depressing.....
But the reality is, that it needn't be like this. It is perfectly possible to feed large numbers of people at one time without throwing all culinary standards to the four winds in the process - I know; I've done it. I suspect it comes down to the people in charge not really knowing what good food tastes like when it is actually good, not when it just looks as though it should be.....all presentation, and no actual substance. I should have suspected as much when I identified the catering supremo on my way in, a man who looked startling like John Prescott , our late and (as far I'm aware) entirely unlamented deputy PM: not only would the mantra of spin-over-substance be something he'd entirely understand, but I seem to recall that he began his working life serving cups of tea on the Mersey Ferry. Which says it all.
And in the same theme, the early evening cocktail party suffered from much the same problem. Against a background of trays of green and blue and pink cocktails (the pink one I tried; a lot of gin, with a hint of Creme de Fraise, and maybe some lime juice as well), a couple of girls in skin-tight and extremely revealing frocks gave their all to disco versions of 'Your 100 favourite Classical Hits' on a couple of electric violins, as they gyrated in time to the music. You have to hand it to them - to combine Beethoven with lap-dancing requires a certain skill! As it was, the event was summed up for me by the distinctly old-fashioned hrmmph of a tweedily-clad lady delegate standing disapprovingly just to my left: "Vanessa-Mae", she said "has a great deal to answer for!".
And, you know, I couldn't disagree.
Roast Beef, with Gratin of Turnips.
Vanilla Cheesecake, with Poached Blueberries