“We’re dining in college tonight,” he answered, gesturing down toward the Bodelian. I had fully anticipated that he would take me to Woodstock, or an apartment in some Victorian pile in North Oxford. It had never occurred to me that he might actually live in a college.”
“In hall, at high table?” I felt terribly underdressed and pulled at the hem of my silky black top.
Today, in the world of All Souls, Diana follows Matthew home to dine “in college.” This has a very precise meaning in Oxford, where it refers to the tradition of taking a meal with the students and fellows of a college in formal dress and academic robes. It’s a production – if you’d like to read about it, I found accounts here and here.
We rounded the corner and turned toward the Radcliffe Camera. When we passed by the entrance to Hertford College without stopping, I put my hand on his arm. There was one college in Oxford notorious for its exclusivity and rigid attention to protocol.
It was the same college famous for its brilliant fellows.
As it turns out, Matthew’s a member of All Souls, a prestiguous college of graduate and postgraduate fellows established in 1438. The college has extraordinary entrance requirements – you must apply within three years of receiving your bachelor’s degree from Oxford or while studying at Oxford as a postgraduate and pass two examinations. You must sit for two “papers,” or exams, from a general discipline and two from your specific discipline in the humanities and social sciences.
Sample questions include:
- Should intellectuals tweet?
- Is vegetarianism the future?
- ‘Secure people dare.’ Do they?
- What, if anything, is wrong with using drones in warfare?
- What are universities for?
- Is the financial sector larger than it should be?
- Can we be forced to be free?
- How can words be beautiful?
- “Every act you have ever performed since the day you were born was performed because you wanted something.” Do you agree?
- What, if anything, is wrong with selective schools?
- Why is a leather jacket more acceptable than a fur coat?
Notice something? This isn’t the exam that Matthew sat for when he became a fellow. That exam no longer exists. True to the text, it required students to write coherently for three hours on a single word – “innocence,” for example. All Souls dropped this requirement in 2010. If you pass the exam, you might be invited to present a viva – that is, a live explanation of your answers. If you do, expect the rest of the college to attend.
Diana gives a rather extensive description of Matthew’s rooms–methinks Deb has a bit of a thing for interior design–which includes an Aubusson rug and William Morris furniture. If you pay less attention to home goods than Deb does and cannot bring them immediately to mind (I couldn’t), I gathered some examples of those items.
The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat, and he smiled as I tasted the tartness of the apple for the first time. “It’s an old recipe from Normany,” he said.
Jacques Pepin, one of the fathers of modern French cooking, has a recipe for veal scaloppine with cream, calvados (apple brandy), and apples that sounds just about right. The cuisine of Normandy is heavy on apples and the region is famous for its cider. In Normandy, you’d also expect to dine on seafood and excellent cheeses, like Camembert and Neufchâtel. As we learn later in this book, Matthew is from the Auvergne–so I rather wonder how he chose a dish from Normandy to feed Diana. The cuisine of the Auvergne, by contrast, has a lot of pork, cabbage, game meat, cheese, and river fish. Perhaps it’s not as amorous as veal and apples? Then again, I can’t find “veal” or “apple” on any list of aphrodesiac foods.
“Are you going to tell me what it is?” I asked around the flavors in my mouth.
“Malmsey,” he replied with a grin. “Old, old malmsey.”
Your last tidbit for today is about malmsey, a varietal of wine grown in Madeira. The grape–Malvasia–is white and is one of the four recognized styles of fortified wine.
If you have thoughts, comments, or questions, you can find us at @chamomilenclove on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until Chapter 15,