By Chris Bowlby
Presenter of Diplomatic Dinners
Hosting a diplomatic dinner is full of pitfalls. Get it right and important relationships can be formed. Get it wrong and serious diplomatic incidents can follow. So, what happens when food and drink get mixed up with foreign policy?
From grand, set-piece occasions to intimate lunches and dinners, diplomats have always used food and drink to try and further their cause. But it can be a hazardous tactic.
Take what is called "placement" - deciding who sits where at a meal. The former British ambassador in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, calls it "one of the most sublime arts of diplomacy".
In Washington the embassy employed a social secretary whose job was to know all the gossip - who had had affairs or rows with whom - so they could be seated accordingly, says Sir Christopher.
Then there's the tricky issue of status. One diplomat in Australia turned over his plate as he felt his place was too lowly. "But he was extremely greedy so he only did it for the first course," says Lord Carrington, who was High Commissioner in Australia at the time.
Try working out that seating plan
Even cutlery can cause trouble. Hugh Lunghi, who was a British interpreter at Winston Churchill's wartime meetings with Stalin, saw the Soviet leader thrown into confusion by an elaborate place setting.
"How does one use these tools," he asked. In the end, though, Stalin conceded: "We are primitive in our approach to food. We have a lot to learn from you."
Stalin might also have wanted lessons in how to use diplomacy to promote national cuisine. Even in Paris, a great culinary capital, the British embassy has developed a secret weapon - a French chef trained to cook puddings and pies.
When her husband was the ambassador there Lady Jay imported all kinds of British delicacies, including a cheese called Waterloo. Her only failure was jelly, which the French never took to.
"I tried it very, very wobbly, very firm but I could never get it right. The chef said to me 'I think we ought to forget jelly'," she says.
The most accomplished diplomatic diner should really be prepared to eat with enthusiasm whatever is served. Michael Shea, formerly the Queen's press secretary, remembers her eating some sort of rat in south America and dried bat in the pacific islands.
"You have to be polite about it because it can be one of the national dishes," he says.
Cutlery confused Stalin
Veterans of Middle East diplomacy, like Sir Antony Acland, came across the ceremony of the sheep's head, where the eyeball was given to the guest of honour.
"You knew that honour was being done to you and the host knew that he was doing honour to you," he says. "But it wasn't exactly an extremely tasty morsel that you had to somehow get down."
Some menu items are politically unpalatable. The former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, remembers a delegation from the World Wildlife Fund which had come to China to promote the protection of rare species. At their farewell banquet hosted by the government in Beijing, the second course was bears' paws.
But one of the worst diplomatic hazards of all is drink. Veterans joke about being asked to "lay down your liver for your country".
"Foreign guests were plied with drink and some of them, including very high ups, including our ambassador... just fell on the table," says Mr Lunghi, of his time in Moscow.
Stalin, meanwhile, used to stay sober enough to exploit others' lapses by drinking water disguised as vodka.
There have been times when British diplomacy has made full use of alcohol. When Christopher Soames was ambassador in Paris in the 1970s "he just sort of showered the place in champagne", says retired senior Foreign Office official Sir John Ure.
One is an expert at diplomacy
That approach was frowned upon by those who thought the Diplomatic Service was too extravagant. These days consumption is more modest.
But the government does keep a large wine cellar near Whitehall with nearly 40,000 bottles. The head of government hospitality, Robert Alexander, is in charge of deciding who is served what. Only heads of state are allowed the finest vintages. Other wines are chosen in the hope of improving the atmosphere.
"You have to bear in mind that a lot of ministers are meeting people for the first time so they do occasionally need a conversational aid and the wine and the food can help provide that," he says.
But does all this entertaining really make a difference? Mr Patten has his doubts.
"I think there is a certain amount of tosh talked about this, principally by those who confuse foreign policy with being nice to foreigners," he says.
Others say a successful meal can be the making of a diplomatic relationship, like the first time Tony Blair met George W Bush.
"It was an event at which the personal chemistry between the two men matched pretty well and you saw that very early on in the meal," says Mr Meyer, who witnessed it.
But it all takes careful planning, and a strong stomach, if eating for your country is really going to work.
Diplomatic Dinners is broadcast on Tuesdays at 0930 BST on Radio 4.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The unfairness of it is that it can turn two countries into enemies because of personal differences between the representatives. But I doubt if those differences represent the people of respective countries.
I am disgusted that taxpayers' money is being used to hold extravagant dinners and drinking sessions by the Foreign Office. When exactly are they going to be held accountable for how they are spending our millions? Down to the last penny?
Well that explains why George and Tony have made such a dog's breakfast of their own foreign policies.
Of course diplomats say it's important to serve champagne and caviar - they like it! These are public servants consuming lavish food and wine at public expense with precious little to show for it. How much grand dining has been spent on wooing the Iranians, North Koreans, Russians, Syrians? Millions of pounds worth and with few tangible benefits.
We should sell the wine cellar and use the proceeds to pay off some of the national debt. We should only serve still water and dry biscuits (if they want a hearty meal they can pay for it out of their over-inflated salaries that go with their over-inflated egos).
Huw Sayer, Norwich, Norfolk
Given the numbers of starving people in the world and poverty in even the most forward of 'developed nations', I would have thought that most civilised countries would have done away with these wastes of finance and food years ago.
All the comments posted below are so negative! Has everyone lost their sense of occassion or are we as a nation becoming so cheap that nobody is allowed to treat themselves once in a while?
If you moved into a new area and decided to invite the neighbours round for dinner as a means of introduction and promoting community spirit, would you crack open a bottle of wine and prepare a decent supper, or would you treat them to a glass of tap water and some dry crackers?
John, London, England
What a bunch of bores you lot are. Seriously, lighten up! I'm as stingy as the next person when it comes to the government's rampant taxation and spending, but can also appreciate that many in the foreign and diplomatic corps are exceptionally well qualified at what they do and have poise, manners, integrity and intelligence that belie their pay grades. That dinner layouts, place settings and what is served can cause such an uproar clearly illustrates the climate these folk have to work in. Anything to alleviate the situation I say!
Perhaps all of those people above who complain about the so-called excesses of diplomats would like to donate some of their food and wine to the starving millions? If a good bottle of Claret between ambassadors helps mutual interests, then who am I to complain?
Extravagant Dinners! Why not? It's about promoting an image of your country to the rest of the world. It's also a brilliant excuse to eat some really tasty dishes and drink some excellent wine.
Edward Thomas, Derby
I wonder how many of those complaining about the extravagence of these dinners plan on having "dried biscuits and water" for Xmas dinner? Frankly paying for a few bottle of booze seems cheaper than paying for a war. Equally as the nephew of an ambassador I can tell you the pay isn't worth the workload and dangers either.
As for the comment about having "dried biscuits and water" for Chrismas dinner; the difference is that when I buy my Christmas dinner, I pay for it myself. When ambassadors have extravagant dinners....I pay for it too.
Ben, Newcastle upon Tyne
It has often been said that food is the best way to a person's attention or heart. In Shona language there is a common saying, which losely translated is 'wining and dining strengthen relationships'So to get your foriegn policy right through food is one way of many possible means. Not bad, for food is meant to be enjoyed!
Martin Maruza, Harare, Zimbabwe
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