"Can you be at the Ritz tomorrow morning by 11:30?" a Mr. Klein said out of the blue on the telephone. "Lord and Lady Spencer will be opening the new Ritz cookery school." "Tomorrow?" I said. "Tomorrow. Earl Spencer, you know, the Princess of Wales's father. And Lady Spencer, uh..." "...is her stepmother. Barbara Cartland's daughter," I said. "Yes, we-ell, yes. Well, can you make it?" I said this was jolly short notice, and I might be ten minutes late, due to a prior appointment at the other end of Paris. "Oh, that's quite all right," Mr Klein (who later turned out to be the Paris Ritz's president, no less) said. "Actually, we're expecting Lord and Lady Spencer at noon, but you know how it is, we want the press to be there before them."
I then knew exactly how it was: we - half a dozen hacks and twice as many photographers - were going to get the closest to a Royalty walkabout as could possibly be contrived. Be there before them. Don't leave before they go. Dutifully smile at their jokes. Don't touch. Look, but don't stare. Jot down every utterance, however inane. And, puh-leeeze, give a good plug to the new Ritz-Escoffier cookery school, ready from April 5 to take on Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in the highly competitive market of expensive Paris-based top class cookery schools (one week spent in the basement of the Ritz under neon lights, learning to knead pate brisee, starts at £450; the full 12-week course costs £5650,) whose attendance is roughly equally divided between English society debs (there is life after spag. bol.) and serious aspirant two-rosette chefs from all over the world (there is life after kiwi fruit.) In fact, the man in charge of the Ecole De Gastronomie Francaise Ritz-Escoffier, an inexpressibly chic American with a Mid-Atlantic accent called Gregory Usher, was poached by Mr Klein from La Varenne, which he manages to praise while letting it be known that the Ritz-Escoffier will be a lot "more inventive."
The following morning found us dutifully assembled in the immaculate Ritz basement kitchens - a far cry, indeed, from George Orwell's horrendous, squalid descriptions of the neighbouring Hotel Lotti's, circa 1928, in Down and Out in Paris and London. The New York Times was there, and the Sunday Times, and the Telegraph, and ELLE, and Le Figaro Madame. The white-hatted Ritz chef Guy Legay, one of the three French chefs to be awarded the Legion d'Honneur (the other two are Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros) was handing out his card to everyone in sight, and promising us he would explain the recipes again afterwards. It was all very cosy, due to the absence of students, who were not expected to start courses until about a month later. Gregory Usher looked charming. Mr Klein looked worried. And then, at 12:00 on the dot, They appeared.
As always when you meets celebrities whose pictures you've seen everywhere, you had to adjust for a fraction of a second to what they really look like. Raine, Countess Spencer, for instance, is much taller than you'd expect - almost as tall as her husband, whom she calls John (not Johnny.) This, coupled with the fact that Princess Di's dad is a quiet sort of unassuming chap, with a friendly manner and unsure smile (not unlike his youngest daughter's in the days when she tried to avoid the press outside her Coleherne Court flat,) certainly contributed to the instantaneous effect she gave - of being totally and immediately in charge.
Clad in an impeccably cut blue dress and a few good jewels (canary yellow diamond ring, diamond bracelet, huge pearl choker, pearl and diamond brooch, all in definite need of cleaning) Raine swept into the gleaming white-tiled kitchen, her husband meekly following three paces behind. (Well, perhaps two paces. Behind.) She exhibited definitely royal graciousness, underscored with Princess Michael-like aplomb. How perfectly lovely, she said, and how extraordinary that in forty years that she'd been coming to the Ritz, she'd never been down to the kitchens before. The two assistant chefs who were about to demonstrate how to cook a Tarte Tatin and a Mussel Soup were duly introduced. "Je ne sais absolument pas faire la cuisine," Raine said in excellent French, translating for our benefit "I really can't boil an egg", then switched back to French, never missing a beat. "Mon mari adore le Ris de Veau, vous savez. Nous venons ici depuis toujours." The Ritz people were impressed. We were impressed.
"Your wife speaks excellent French," I told Lord Spencer, who had pottered away from the group, unnoticed. "She does, doesn't she?" he said with obvious pride, beaming at her. "D'you know, she speaks Japanese too." Japanese? "With all those tourists coming to Althorp, our house I mean. She learnt Japanese and now they're tremendously chuffed when she starts speaking. Fluent Japanese, d'you know." Did he speak Japanese? Oh no, he said, he wasn't clever like his wife. But French, perhaps? Lord Spencer demurred. "Pas devant la famille", he said somewhat puzzlingly with an atrocious accent, making his point.
In the background, the two Ritz cooks had started preparing the mussel soup with swift, competent moves, chopping shallots and heating butter and mincing vegetables and in general being very, very efficient, without anyone paying much attention. The mussels disappeared into a pan, reappeared, got shelled and chopped so fast that I'd defy a competent cook to see how it got done, let alone our little platoon. (Guy Leguay said yes, the cooks would take more time during an actual class.) Within minutes, a small round pan containing an appetizing, sophisticated saffron-yellow steaming mixture was presented to Lord and Lady Spencer, who got at it with large spoons and obligingly posed for the photographers, the full spoons poised in mid-air. Then Raine spoon-fed Lord Spencer, twice (one of the photographers had missed his shot the first time round.) Excellent, they pronounced. Wonderful, very good, first class, absolutely marvellous. The two young cooks then started on the Tatin, ignored by the group - it was now time for the requisite bit of chitchat with Lady Spencer.
"When, uh, when was the first time you came to the Ritz ever," I asked. "Oh, it's such a long time ago," she said a bit vaguely. "Years and years and years. Such a lovely place." I was about to tell her her husband had just told me of his first stay here on Place Vendome, in 1947, aged 22, on his way to ski-ing in Meribel (he'd remembered how his telephone call to his family had been "a big thing, had to book it hours in advance, in those days") then checked myself. Raine Spencer had first stopped at the Ritz when she was still married to the Earl of Dartmouth, while her adoring husband was taking his first wife, Frances Fermoy, now Mrs Shand Kydd, to that same gilded, grand palace of a place. The Paris Ritz, one of the world's truly magical places, had started as separate memories for them - before their messy divorces, before their marriage.
So instead I lamely asked about her knowledge of Japanese. "There are already a lot of Japanese tourists coming to the UK, and we must attract some more," Raine said forcefully, her manner switching in a flash from Royal to New Tory - she reeled off so many figures she could have been Mrs Thatcher on the campaign trail. "The largest group is the Americans, two and a half million. Then the French, 897,000; then the Germans. I was in Berlin recently for the World Tourism Fair, you know." She is, she explained, a member of the British Tourism Authority, has been for years, long before she opened Althorp to the public. "I already was very active when I was married to my first husband." She was recently a judge in a Bed-and-Breakfast competition ("We British must stick to what we're best at, but excel at it") and another tourism design competition. What was she like as a judge? "Oh, I suspect I'm rather bossy," she said with a smile. "But it's worth its while - you feel you're doing something effective."
In past years, Raine Spencer has often been cast in an unfavourable light - her flogging off XVIIth century paintings to refurbish Althorp earned her a lot of flak, as did the tabloids' easy picture of her as the Princess of Wales's wicked stepmother, not to mention the high visibility of her best-selling authoress mother. But with our little flock of journalists, including the notoriously hard-bitten French photographers, she came out with flying colours. "Elle est très sympathique, cette Lady," the tall burly paparazzo from the Gamma picture agency, with his 35lbs of expensive Japanese hardware dangling from his soulders and neck, said between clicks.
Under the eyes of an agitated Mr Klein, I sidled up to her during a brief lull in the baking of the Tarte Tatin. Would she and her husband perhaps agree to a portrait picture upstairs, in the great Ritz hallway? "Of course," she said. We waited for the Spencers for a good while, slightly worried that once the function had been performed, they might have vanished to enjoy their holiday in Paris in peace. But they were as good as their word. "You must excuse us - my husband was a bit tired, and needed to rest for a while," Raine said. I couldn't help remembering that it was she who nursed him, willed him back to life ten or fifteen years ago, when he suffered a serious stroke and lay in hospital in a coma. She had never stopped talking to him for days, until he responded, and it was agreed in the family that she had "brought him back." "Are you all right, sir?" we asked. "Oh, yes, fine," said Lord Spencer. "Well," said Raine Spencer brightly, "where would you like us to stand?" She led her husband over Aubusson carpets into the great gilded and paneled corridor, its French windows opening onto the lovely indoors Ritz garden, and obligingly stood next to him in the best-lit spot, holding his arm and smiling. "We've been coming here for forty years," Lord Spencer said.
© Copyright Associated Newspapers - Mail on Sunday & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1988
CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT
Ingredients for 6 to 8 servings
3 layers of sponge cake
Sponge fingers for a charlotte
1 cup (1/4 l) black coffee
Chocolate Mousse (recipe below)
Brush the sponge cake layers with black coffee. Place one inside a flan ring on a serving platter. Slide the sponge fingers in-between the sides of the ring and the sponge base.
Pour a third of the mousse into the ring, smooth the surface and place the second sponge base on top. Fill with half the remaining mousse and cover with the remaining base.
Finish with the rest of the mousse. Decorate with chocolate curls and a dusting of icing sugar.
Refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Remove the flan ring before serving.
Mousse au Chocolat Ingredients:
5 tbsp (7cl) black coffee
9oz (250g) plain chocolate chopped into small pieces
1 cup (1/4 l) egg whites
6 tbsp (75g) sugar
Heat the coffee in a small saucepan until it almost boils. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until smooth and creamy. Leave to cool.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, but not overly so, then fold in the sugar little by little until perfectly smooth. Combine a little of the whites with the chocolate, then transfer mixture to the remaining whites and fold in, using a spatula. The mousse should be perfectly smooth when finished.
N.B. The egg whites are easier to beat and much smoother if a little lemon juice is added to them first
© Copyright Escoffier Cookery School, Associated Newspapers - Mail on Sunday & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1988