A Nobel Banquet For An August Gathering

IN 1930, Sir CV Raman became the first Indian — in fact, the first Asian — to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. The Nobel Laureate in Physics was recognised for his discovery of the “Raman Effect”, an observation on the changed wavelength of light when a beam was deflected by molecules. 

In December of that year, at the Nobel Banquet held for all the awardees, Professor H Pleijel, the chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics — Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, gave the presentation speech in honour of Raman. “The Raman Effect has opened new routes to our knowledge of the structure of matter and has already given most important results,” Pleijel announced, calling on Raman to receive his Nobel from Swedish monarch Gustav V. 

The presentation would have been followed by the banquet for all the Nobel Laureates of that year, a tradition that had been in place since 1901. The year when Raman attended the banquet was a cusp of a kind: the event had been in existence nearly three decades at that point, but it was a couple of years away from major changes. In the early days, the number of guests at the banquet was a little over 100. By 1934, this had swelled to 150+ attendees, and upwards of 1,300 by the 2000s. The venue too had undergone a shift: from the Hall of Mirrors of the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm (for the first 29 years) to the Gyllene Salen (Golden Hall) of the Stockholm City Hall, when Raman attended his presentation ceremony. [The banquet would return to the Grand Hôtel over 1931-33, move once more to the Golden Hall, and finally settled on its current home: the massive, main Blå Hallen — Blue Hall — of the City Hall.]

At the 1930 banquet, the tables were possibly still arranged in the original horseshoe style, instead of the rows that are now the norm. A giant black and white photograph shows all the Laureates seated closely together, Raman among them. The diners’ details are barely discernible in the image, and neither are the famous glittering mosaics that fully covered the Gyllene Salen’s walls. The imposing figure of the Queen of Lake Mälar (depicted with Stockholm in her lap) that takes up nearly the entire wall at the far end of the hall, however, is clearly visible. On this night, all of the lamps along the walls would have been lit, bathing the gathered Laureates in their warm glow. 

Soon enough, the banquet would have begun, with a six or seven-course dinner being placed before each guest. For the 1930 ceremony, the menu encompassed tortue clair en tasse (clear turtle soup), truits au bleu à la financière (blue trout), dindonneau rôti, salade et gelé (roasted turkey, salad and jelly) and fonds d’artichauts à la Paiva (artichokes) for the mains. There was a scrumptious selection of desserts, including parfait à la Tosca (cream, egg, sugar and syrup boiled to a custard-like puree), petits fours (small confectioneries), fruits assortis (assorted fruits) and of course, café (coffee). The wine list for the evening featured four entries: Madeira (old stock); Niersteiner Rote Schmitt, 1926; Champagne (GH Mumm et Cie); and extra portwine (vintage).

The clear turtle soup from the 1930 banquet was a fairly permanent fixture on the menu for the early Nobel dinners, alternating with other consommés. Browsing through the menus for the banquets before and after 1930’s, artichokes also make a frequent appearance. From the initial French culinary influence though, later menus have been developed to have a distinct and prominent Scandinavian touch.

                           Image: Artichoke with broad bean and peas

As lavish as those early ceremonies from Raman’s era may have been, pulling off the modern iteration of the Nobel Banquet is a task that requires meticulous planning and attention to detail. The preparations for the December dinner begin in September, which is when the menu for the grand night is chosen, from among three options presented by renowned chefs. What the winning menu comprises is kept top secret until 7 pm of the day of the banquet. Eight head waiters, 210 servers, five wine servers manage the task of laying out the dinner before the 1,000+ guests in the Blue Hall in under nine minutes. Behind the scenes, the head chef works with anywhere between 20-40 cooks in the kitchen, while another 20 staffers take care of the washing up and moving of food items. Since about 1990, a specially designed Nobel dinner service has been used at the banquet.

None of this comes cheap. Circa 2009, the cost of the Nobel Banquet was estimated to be in the vicinity of 5 million kronor. What does that much money buy an intrepid chef? Well, “2,692 pigeon breasts, 475 lobster tails, 100 kilos of potatoes, 70 litres of sweet-and-sour raspberry vinegar sauce [and] 67 kilos of Jerusalem artichokes” to name just a few items from a shopping list for one of the Nobel Banquets of yore. Having the world’s leading intellectuals savour every bite though? Priceless.