Banquets remembered

Loïs Moss, President 1994-95, Wrexham Representative 1993-94, Society Demi-god, and Banquet chef many times, shares her memories of Banquets past.

When I joined Taruithorn in 1992, the banquets were very different to the ones held now. The society had only been going a few years, so probably the most distinctive difference is that back then the age range of attendees was far smaller and there were no children. The banquets also started in the evening, making them shorter, these factors combined to create quite a different atmosphere. They were certainly more drunken, riotous and I was going to say adult, but thinking about it, today’s banquets seem more adult, so perhaps a better way to describe it is they seemed more teenage. Banquets were an excuse to dress up, eat and drink far too much, and then stagger back to your room or someone else’s and pass out. This was helped by the fact that the clearing up was done the next day, so none of us had to be in a fit state to make sure the place was left tidy at the end of the evening.

That’s not to say that no tidying up was done. One tradition which had already become established by the time I joined was that at banquets and other parties, a mathom would be constructed by Mark Poles at the end of the evening. This was made from a combination of leftovers of whatever had been drunk, so wine, beer, cider, fizzy drinks, fruit juice, port… all went into the bottle together. At the next gathering, the mathom would make an appearance, usually as a forfeit option. At one end of Trinity term party, when playing pass the parcel, my forfeit was to sing a Tolkien song or rhyme. Anyone who knows me knows I’d rather do almost anything than sing (or dance) in public so I chose instead to down in one, a pint of the now rather dubious looking mathom from the previous term’s banquet (and possibly the Christmas party since there was often a kind of solera-style system going on with mathoms). Things went a bit hazy after that, but whatever else was in it, there was definitely cherryade. In spite of that, to this day I’d still rather down a pint of dodgy-tasting mathom than sing or dance in public. Mark still makes killer cocktails, and if I have learnt anything, it’s to never trust a cocktail made by a teetotaler, it will make you fall over!

In light of the general alcohol consumption, it was probably a very good thing there was no dancing at the early banquets, that very much being the preserve of the Arthurians. A fact I was very glad of, had there been dancing, I’d have probably never joined Taruithorn. Costumes were most definitely a big thing though, though there wasn’t a costume competition they just added to the general atmosphere. Food-wise things were simpler back then too. We usually had just 3 courses and a meat and a veggie option for each course. Compared to the lavish many-coursed ones I’ve been to in more recent years, that seems very Spartan now. Though that’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of the food provided and there was always definitely plenty to drink.

The high value placed on eating and drinking with the common theme of Tolkien as the excuse to bring us together, appealed to me greatly as I’ve always had a Hobbit-like love of food, right from being a small child. Although there aren’t that many descriptions of food in Tolkien’s works, the passages of the Dwarves descending on Bilbo and eating him out of house and home, Beorn’s breakfast and the cake-making in Smith of Wooton Major always appealed to me. Some of my earliest memories are food related, standing on a chair aged 2 ¾ grating apple (and my fingers) into mincemeat at Christmas stands out as a favourite. As I got older, I grew to love cooking almost as much as I loved eating. In my teens I really wanted to go to a local college to do a catering course, but for a variety of reasons I ended up at Christ Church doing Biological Sciences, lamenting the fact that we didn’t even have a microwave available to us to do the most basic of cooking. So it wasn’t really a surprise when I found myself eagerly agreeing to cook for the Taruithorn banquet in my second year, such did I miss being able to cook during term time.

The first banquet I’d attended had been Hobbit themed and the ones prior to that had been Barad-Dur banquets, so for the first one I catered we decided it was time for the Elves to have a turn. There was some ‘debate’ amongst the banquet committee as to what Elves would eat, but eventually it was decided Elves would definitely eat pâté, so that took care of the starter. The main was venison in red wine with juniper, cooked to a recipe provided by Andrew McMurry. Sadly cruel eld prevents me from remembering what potatoes, vegetables or vegetarian options were provided, but the venison stew sticks in my mind. Not least because I spent the night before the banquet chopping up huge lumps of venison into bite-sized chunks and dropping them into the freshly cleaned salad drawer of my fridge to marinade in red wine overnight. There was a minor panic upon reaching the kitchen in Magdalen the next day, with the revelation there were no pans large enough to cook the stew in, or even a suitable combination of smaller ones. Cue the ever helpful Andrew making a very quick trip to Boswells with the instruction to buy the largest pan they had. He was successful and for the grand sum of £18 a 20 pint aluminium pan was procured which I own to this very day. Dessert was homemade brandysnap baskets with ice cream which I was able to provide thanks to taking over the kitchen at 9 York Place, home to Victoria Clare, Mark Poles and Stephen Lander for an afternoon. The whole experience taught me that catering for 30 on a single domestic electric oven isn’t the easiest thing to do, enough oven and hob space was definitely a challenge and so I was very glad I’d decided on cold starters and desserts.

With the budget we’d allowed for the banquet I was able to ensure there was plenty of money to procure enough alcohol to float an Oliphant. As well as buying in all the usual beer, cider, wine and port, I decided that we’d welcome people to the banquet with a punchbowl full of my very own special version of Miruvor. I seem to remember that in addition to providing free-flowing libations for the banquet there was more than enough alcohol left for the end of term party and we also made about £120 profit. The idea had been that if would be nice if we could make a bit of money from the banquet which could be used to help subsidise future events such as Gandalf’s fireworks and to provide a cushion in the bank account. As it was, having been so successful with the Rivendell banquet, I was able to go on a massive shopping trip after Halloween to purchase props for the planned return to a Barad-dûr banquet in 1995. My favourite purchase being a candle shaped like a hand, with a wick in each finger end which ended up in pride of place in front of Sauron on the top table.

Cooking and catering remain things I very much enjoy doing. For a number of years now I’ve helped run the catering at Fools and Heroes Summerfest, which since it’s a LARP event allows me to combine my loves of catering and costuming. I’ve also catered or made celebration cakes for a number of events for family, friends and work. Without doing the Taruithorn banquets I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to do all those things and that would have been a shame. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in knowing you’ve just turned 15kg of meat into dinner for dozens of hungry people, so I’m always looking for new opportunities to indulge my passion.

Over the past 10 years or so I attended several of the banquets again and seeing the changes that have gone on gave me pause for reflection. Whilst it was thoroughly enjoyable for all us oldies to turn up to the banquets for a mini reunion, our very presence did turn the banquet into a very different beast. I wondered what I’d have thought as a student, to a load of middle-aged people I didn’t know turning up to our main event of the year. We also seemed, to my mind at least, to be somewhat more rowdy and apt to get drunk on the whole than the current members, polishing off all the alcohol by about 9.30pm one year…. Ooops! Realising the pool of potential attendees was getting increasingly large, I decided not to go to the banquets anymore. It would be a shame if a current member missed out on the experience at my expense. The idea of doing an oldies banquet was mooted after that, and there seemed to be general interest. A suitable venue is proving more difficult to find, but watch this space….

I still look back at my time in Taruithorn and the banquets in particular with great fondness, not least because I gained a wonderful group of friends for life. The banquet may have changed almost beyond recognition from what it was back in my day, but it’s still a brilliant experience not to be missed during your student days.

If you’d like to relive a taste from a Banquet past, then here is the menu and recipes from Rivendell 1994.

Rivendell 1994
Welcome drink – Miruvor
Starter – Chicken liver pâté or homemade cream cheese pâté served with bread rolls,
Main – Venison with red wine and juniper
Dessert – Homemade brandysnap baskets and ice cream

Venison with red wine and juniper
This recipe has evolved over the years and I seldom stick to the exact recipe. You can add any number of additional things to it too, harder root vegetables such as carrots and potato can go in at the beginning with the meat. Sweet potatoes cook a little quicker so I’d add them after an hour’s cooking. Barley should be added along with the mushrooms. Ensure if adding barley that you stir during the remaining cooking time and watch the liquid level as it will absorb quite a lot of liquid as it cooks. A handful of cranberries or redcurrants, fresh or frozen can be nice too added with the mushrooms if you’d like more of a fruity flavour.

Ingredients
2lb/1kg venison, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8oz/250g mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 bottle red wine – preferably something soft and fruity, like a Merlot or Grenache.
1 tblsp of crushed juniper berries
A few sprigs of thyme and parsley, chopped
A bay leaf
2 tblsp of redcurrant jelly or sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil
A few tblsps of cornflour or plain flour to thicken the sauce if required.

Method – Night before serving
1. The night before you want to serve the stew, cut the venison into bite sized chunks and put into a non-metallic container. Cover it with the red wine and add the crushed juniper berries.
2. Cover and refrigerate until required.

Method – Day of serving
1. Get the venison out of the fridge and drain off the red wine and juniper berries into whatever you’re going to cook the casserole in. If it’s a slow cooker, set it on high to heat up. If it’s going to be done in the oven or a pan, start it heating in the oven or in the pan. Cover the dish if you are able if cooking in the oven or a pan or alternatively check and top up the wine as necessary as it cooks.
2. Sauté the onion in some oil, adding the garlic when the onion is looking translucent. Cook until the onion starts to take on some colour. Add to the slow cooker, casserole dish or pan.
2. Brown the drained venison in some oil. Add to the onion and wine along with a bay leaf & herbs.
3. Cook for about 5 hours in a slow cooker on high, 2 hours in the oven or in a pan. If cooking in a pan, ensure you stir every so often to prevent it sticking.
4. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook for another hour or so until the meat is tender. Uncover the casserole dish or pan if cooking by that method to reduce the liquid.
5. When cooked through and the meat is soft, you can thicken the gravy if necessary by mixing a little cornflour or plain flour with some additional cold water or wine and stirring through. Allowing it to boil for a few minutes to cook the starch and allow it to thicken before adding any more.
6. Taste and season with the red currant jelly, salt, freshly ground black pepper and additional herbs and juniper if desired.

Miruvor
Ingredients
1 70cl bottle of Midori
1 litre bottle of Vodka
2 litres of lemonade
Lots of ice
Mint leaves, edible flowers and/or Marachino cherries to garnish

Method
1. Place the ice in a large bowl. Err on the side of more ice rather than less and larger chunks or cubes of it if you can so that it chills rather than dilutes the mix.
2. Pour the vodka and Midori over the ice and stir.
3. Gently pour the lemonade over, stopping to let the foam subside and then stir gently.
4. Garnish with mint leaves and edible flowers if you’re feeling posh, Marachino cherries if you’re not!