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Historic Factory House lunch celebrates 200th anniversary

The centennial tradition of a celebratory 11-course lunch with 11 wines served by 11 waiters to remember the liberation of Oporto in 1811, took place in November this year and was a memorable occasion says guest Peter Cobb

1st Row from left to right: P.D. Symington, P.M. Cobb, I.S. Sinclair, A.B. Robertson, R.A. Reid, M.D. Symington, D.M. Symington, I.D.F. Symington, J.R.O’C. Symington, J.G. Guimaraens, A.J. Filipe, P.R. Symington, N.J. Heath. 2nd Row from left to right: H.J. Shotton, E.M. Mackay, J.A.D. Symington, H.P. Reader, J.L. Graham, N.R. Bridge, A.W. Bridge, R.A.D. Symington, J.L.A. Ribeiro, C.A.N. Symington, W.J.N. Graham, D.F. Guimaraens

The British Association in Oporto was formed on 11th November 1811. On that day, its home, known as the Factory House (factor being the old English term for businessman), was officially returned to the Brits after the French occupation of the city during the Peninsular War. Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army had actually ‘liberated’ Oporto in June, but the Factory House was only handed back in November, perhaps because of the symmetry of the date. In any event eleven members of the Port trade declared themselves to be the British Association that morning. They then sat down for a celebratory lunch at 11.00, and proceeded to get through eleven courses washed down by eleven wines served by eleven waiters. They further decreed that henceforth members must be British born directors or partners of British owned port companies.

One hundred years later a rather larger membership staged a similar affair in the Ballroom, which in turn was replicated in 1961 for the 150th anniversary. Clearly those of us who are privileged to be today’s members were expecting something rather special last Friday, 11.11.2011. We were not disappointed.  

The event had an added poignancy in that it coincided with Armistice Day. On arrival in the drawing room, and apparently to line our stomachs, we were given shell fish broth and a glass of Pol Roger Rosé. Thirty-three male members, sporting dinner jackets and black ties, and our one lady member in an elegantly décolleté ball gown then moved to the Dining Room just before 11.00. to observe the two minutes silence in remembrance of those fallen in war. This was followed by a rather racy grace from the Treasurer.

The Treasurer is elected annually on a rotor of seniority, and has virtual omnipotence for his year in office to run the place as he sees fit. This year it’s the turn of Dominic Symington, which is fitting as it was his grandfather, Maurice, who presided over the 1961 lunch. (See below for the menu and wine list).  

In true port-trade style we took the various courses and excellent choice of table wine in our stride – until, that is, we got stuck in to the vintage ports. As one would expect, these merited animated discussion. All were superb. Churchill’s 1997 admirably brought out the richness of the chocolate dessert, while the delicate and the lightly chilled Dow Colheita, which is in fact a cask aged tawny of one ‘vintage’ year, was an ideal complement to the strong tasting cheeses.  

Now all was set for the coup de grace. It is the custom at the Factory House at the end of a formal luncheon or dinner to move from the Dining Room to the Dessert Room, there to enjoy the wonders of Vintage Port, unencumbered by the aromas of the food that has gone before. This we duly did – to be confronted by walnuts and port decanters.  

The two old vintages, both coming from the House’s own stock, will linger long in the memory of all of us lucky enough to be present. Curiously, perhaps, both had virtually ‘lost’ their corks over time, in that without exception all had shrunk into the neck of the bottles. That there was no ullage was due to the original wax sealing the closure. Dominic Symington himself had carefully decanted each bottle, and all were in perfect condition. Taylor’s 1935 was the clearer and paler. It had lasted wonderfully and was very fine with good grip and a lovely dry finish. The Graham was perhaps even more remarkable, because the 1924 was not universally declared by all shippers. It was creamy and luscious with hints of mint and eucalyptus, still full, fat and sweet, very much in the style of Graham vintages to this day.

The last word must go to our lady member. Up until 9am that morning, Natasha Bridge had been in hospital on a drip, having, as she put it, “fallen foul of a recalcitrant prawn, which then had an alarming allergic reaction.” Not wishing to miss out on an historic occasion, however, she gamely discharged herself. At the lunch she was careful what she ate and drank – until she came to the ports. Having tasted the two older vintages, she decided that she had made a complete recovery. She thought both were fabulous, but that perhaps the Taylor had the edge. Which was something of a relief, because Natasha is a director of the company, besides being the daughter of the Chairman, and married to the Managing Director!

All in all it was a brilliantly organised celebration of a remarkable historical event. The original eleven members would have felt totally at home.

The menu:

Cream of Chestnut Soup                  Blandy’s Verdelho 1984
Blinis with Salmon Roe                      Olivier Leflaive, Rully Ier Cru
                                                             Mont Palais 2006
Cream of Leek and Oysters              J. Drouhin, Beaune 1er Cru     
                                                            Clos des Mouches 2007
Swordfish Raviolis in a Black             Anselmo Mendes Contacto
Truffle Sauce                                      Alvarinho (Vinho Verde)
Slow Cooked Bacalhau in                  L. Latour, Beaune 1er Cru       
Corriander Sauce                                 Vignes Franches, 2008
Lemon & Champagne Sorbet
Warm Duck Liver with Pear               Ch. Suduiraut 1er Cru 1996
Purée and Port Reduction
Pork Cheeks with Pumpkin Purée       Prats+Symington Chryseia
Beef Tournedo, Fresh Vegetables      Ch. Pontet Canet 1999
And Stilton Sauce

Seasonal Red Fruits,   Royal Tokaji Late
Strawberry Coulis,                             Harvest 2009
Raspberry Ice Cream,                                   
and Rose Petal Meringue

Medley of Chocolate                         Churchill’s 1997 Vintage Port
Serra, Ilhas de S. Jorge &                 Dow’s Colheita 1961
Stilton Cheese  
Coffee                                              Taylor’s 1935 Vintage Port
                                                       Graham’s 1924 Vintage Port

Written by Peter Cobb

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