Right now, my fantasy dinner party is with five warm-blooded individuals of almost any description. Having been deprived of conviviality for 14 months, I’m happy to sit down with anybody who is not a chainsaw murderer or a member of the Kardashian family.
I’ve reluctantly decided there should be no guests who need to be dug up before they can RSVP. Tempting as it would be to converse with the dead, I cannot bear the thought of Shakespeare fumbling with my mobile phone or of helping Cleopatra with her bandages.
(For the record, if ghosts were allowed, I’d ask Charles Dickens, who knew the difference between a frigid banquet and a boisterous feast. We’d have goose. Tiny Tim would sit at the head of the table and Anthony Bourdain would carve.)
The warm-blooded guest list is trickier, so we’ll start with the setting. Let’s rule out any establishment where the waiters hover their pinkie finger over your plate while painstakingly describing the 14 ingredients and 17 stages that went into your salad.
I once shared a meal in Kyoto with Martin Wolf, a marvellous dining companion, at which the waitress expounded misty-eyed on the provenance of each exquisitely arranged delicacy. Before she had got even a quarter-way through her exposition, Martin, in the midst of a hurricane-speed monologue on Ricardian equivalence or some such, had polished everything off. The waitress continued heroically to point out every imaginary detail of his now empty plate.
So we’re going with an Italian cornucopia, bursting with flavour. The chef is Umberto Bombana. Instead of his usual location at Otto e Mezzo in a Hong Kong mall, we’ll transport him to a spring evening on the Tuscan hills outside Siena.
We’ll start with something not strictly Italian, some luscious Hokkaido oysters with a sharp piri-piri sauce, accompanied by a diamond-dry gin martini or a 2018 Poggio Alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia, a Sauvignon Blanc-dominated blend. All the wines are recommended by my childhood friend, Nick, who lives in Tuscany and who will be smuggled in as a sixth guest.
Next is a cornucopia of homemade charcuterie, served with a Masseto 2015 Merlot, the first of the super-Tuscans from Bolgheri we’ll be sampling/quaffing tonight.
We ought to decide who is coming. First up is David Sedaris, who mixes snort-your-soup-out-of-your-nose observational humour with aw-shucks sentimentality. At a book signing, Sedaris once talked courteously and at great length to my friend before writing the dedication in her book: “It was lovely meeting your husband.”
Sedaris is a foodie. He has written hilariously about cuisine, including the time when his boyfriend, Hugh, wouldn’t eat seahorse on the grounds that they are “friendly” and “never did anyone any harm”. What, asks Sedaris, “as opposed to those devious, bloodthirsty lambs whose legs we so regularly roast with rosemary and new potatoes?”
Next to him, we’ll put Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead and a writer I greatly admire. She has the ability to place the most ordinary of words — air, brick, soil — alongside each other so that one illuminates its neighbour like atoms exerting an invisible force. I’m not religious but everything Robinson describes, from droplets of water to the wrinkles on a human face, reveals the mystery of God.
God is certainly present in our next course, the lobster and seafood bisque. I once had it at Otto e Mezzo and can taste it to this day, divinely tangy yet subtle in its complexity.
We’ve gone on to a lovely Sassicaia 2015. The guests are beginning to relax. David Attenborough, my childhood hero, is telling a story about a sloth. Earlier, he was marvelling, with the wide eyes only a life-hungry nonagenarian can muster, at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s descriptions of Nigeria. Adichie is the only one of my guests I have ever met properly. The author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a brilliant novel set against the backdrop of the Biafran war, she will bring both an intellectual fire and a bell-like laugh to the evening.
We’re on to the pasta course. Chef Bombana has emerged from the kitchen to grate shavings of black truffle over our homemade tagliolini with butter and parmesan.
We’ve saved the best bottle for last, a velvety 1985 Sassicaia, which will go down wonderfully with a door-wedge cut of Argentine beef served medium rare, with mashed potatoes and a chimichurri sauce.
My last guest has been quiet, almost in the shadows. But as the evening wears on, he has come out of his shell and is clearly enjoying himself. I have idolised Bob Dylan for 40 years. How many times have I teared up at the sheer genius of his verbal conjuring, his smoke-ringed visions of highway drifters and lost lovers, of wandering saints and wicked messengers? It dawns on me that all my guests are wordsmiths. But, for me, Dylan stands on a mountaintop of his own.
We’ll bring out the tiramisu. Later we can have one more cup of coffee for the road. Before that, there’s another bottle of Sassicaia to be opened, and a murmur as Dylan reaches for his guitar. I know he didn’t show up to collect his Nobel Prize. But tonight we don’t have to worry about that. This is my fantasy. And Bob is coming.
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