In the first of a series of blog posts about this year’s course, Residential Dean Rebecca Thomas shares her thoughts on the exquisite experience of Formal Hall at Oxford Summer Courses.
It is well known that one of the greater delights one can experience in Oxford is formal hall at one of the colleges. Fortunately, students and staff at Oxford Summer Courses are afforded the opportunity to experience two such dinners: in the tranquil setting of Somerville, and in the hallowed hall of Wadham. The etiquette of these dinners is steeped in well-established tradition, which it is necessary to navigate to ensure the evening runs as smoothly as possible.
The first obstacle one must overcome is what to wear to such a dinner. I observed my fellow diners arriving in a vast array of outfits – indeed, even within the male wardrobe, for the gentlemen appeared in a variety of crisp shirts and ties, some wearing dinner jackets, others with waistcoats, and even a kilt. The women were all perfectly coifed, with their faces made, their bouffants styled, and adorned with beautiful gowns and their finest jewels. I myself tend to opt for the famous little black dress option, favouring timeless style over ephemeral fashions, and so I arrived in glittery heels and a charcoal dress (appearing five minutes late, as any lady who wishes to make an entrance should).
We meet in advance of dinner for drinks on the lawn and some sparkling pre-meal chatter. The options for drinks consist of prosecco and juice for those not yet advanced enough in age for a tipple. The staff members are distinguished by their academic gowns, which billow in the wind as the course director gives his welcome speech to the diners, and raises the first toast of the evening.
After a brief opportunity to have our pictures taken, we advance to the dining hall. In Somerville this is an easy affair, on account of the proximity of the hall, but when we dined at Wadham it was a short walk, much to the chagrin of several ladies, the incline of whose shoes created a not inconsiderable difficulty.
The students are invited to enter the hall first, followed by staff members who sat at high table. The halls are of course a delightful setting, surrounded by the portraits of the former principles and important alumni and benefactors of the colleges, in order to remind students that they reside in a place that has seen history unfold within it. Before we ate all rose for a Latin grace, read by an esteemed colleague, and then we sat. The meals all begin with a bread roll, to be placed on the small plate to the diner’s left, with a butter dish passed around the table. The college’s catering staff pour white wine into the cups of the elder diners, and whilst both sparkling and still water appear on the table to be poured at the leisure of those who wish to hydrate.
The starter is served – at Somerville this was a delectable duck salad; at Wadham it was a flavoursome leek and potato soup with a poached duck egg and smoked mackerel. Once the dishes are all clean, they’re whisked away and replaced with the main course – at Somerville, rack of lamb; at Wadham, rump. The meals were both served with delicious potatoes and seasonal vegetables, seasoned in the characteristically rich styles of both colleges. The meals were naturally accompanied by a red wine which was carefully chosen to complement the meat. And as the wine flowed, so did the conversation; the seating plan was pre-arranged, eliminating the element of choice and so ensuring that a perfect pace is kept. Indeed, despite the surprise element, the company undoubtedly enhanced the dining experience – after all, it was only the finest members of society in attendance at the dinner, meaning that an engaging discussion awaited in all directions.
Then, pudding: at Somerville this was a light cherry cheesecake, served with a drizzle of chocolate sauce; and at Wadham it was a zesty tarte au citron, which combined the sharp citrus of the lemon with the rich buttery shortcrust pastry base. We finished our dinners with a cup of coffee and the colleges’ own chocolates, giving ourselves a small caffeine boost before we moved on to our evening activities.
I can highly recommend this dining experience – so long as one uses cutlery from the outside-inwards and is highly polite to the serving staff, all one has to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy being served such nourishing and delectable courses as appear before one’s hungry eyes.