10 December 1999


Oh how they danced… And if there was an extra spring in

the step of members and guests at the Farmers Club Ball, it

was because the beef on the bone ban had just been lifted.

Photographer Keith Huggett was at the Le Meridien

Grosvenor House on Londons Park Lane to catch the

occasion on film while Tessa Gates delved behind the

scenes to find out what makes the event tick

The annual Farmers Club Ball is a grand occasion to be enjoyed to the full. Expectations and standards are high. Guests are dressed to the nines, speakers are chosen with care and with so many farmers present, the food has to be up to scratch.

The main ingredients for the dinner are always British, and this year members and guests tucked into 180kg of pork loin served with crackling and apple sauce and 295kg of vegetables . They were served with the quiet efficiency that can always be expected at Grosvenor House – the Earl of Grosvenors London residence until the 1920s – and everyone was enjoying the meal too much to wonder what it takes to serve 800 people simultaneously with four courses, wine, and coffee. Efficiency on this scale doesnt come without a lot of forward planning and that begins 12 months earlier.

&#42 Dinner dance

The Farmers Club first booked Grosvenor House (rebranded this year as Le Meridien Grosvenor House) for its annual dinner in 1952 and by 1963 the event had become a dinner dance. "With a regular booking such as this we would have formally re-offered the preferred date, last December," says conference and banqueting manager James Pickersgill who already has bookings in hand for other events in The Great Room up to the year 2004.

By June, talks were in progress about the choice of menu. "The Farmers Club wants to support the industry and with 800 people getting together for a meal like this, it makes quite a statement," says Mr Pickersgill. With all sectors of livestock farming facing hard times, choosing the meat for the main course this year was more difficult than usual. Farmers Club chairman James Naish opted for pork.

Whole menu ideas for the dinner were put to a taste test by Mr Naish and his wife and Farmers Club colleagues Helen McCulloch and Group Captain Grieve Carson. Four starters, three main courses and three desserts were chosen and cooked for them to taste. "This menu trial is done for the majority of large functions," explains Mr Pickersgill. "We get together for about two and half hours and it helps us build up a relationship with the client and ensures that they are happy with the menu."

Four weeks before the event client and banqueting manager get together again to reconfirm details and they talk three or four times more with a final chat two days before the ball to confirm numbers.

With the menu set there is the little matter of seating and staff to attend to. For this ball 800 chairs were set around 80 tables covered with 4800ft of linen laid with 6860 pieces of cutlery, 6820 pieces of china and 4000 glasses.

The day of the ball (Nov 30) started at 8.45am for Mr Pickersgill with a meeting to discuss the days business with director of conference and banqueting John Prior. By 9.30am he was at his third meeting of the day. Over the following few hours he ensured checks were made that everything was in place for the ball from menu cards to balloons.

He was also on standby for a room change for the Miss World luncheon for 800 guests, for Grosvenor House has the room to run several large functions simultaneously – without any fuss.

&#42 Number no problem

"Numbers are not an obstacle for us," says Mr Pickersgill with classic understatement.

By 8pm the head waiter had lined up his staff, the kitchen was buzzing and the guests were ready to eat: Dinner was served. It only took 25 chefs, seven sundry managers, 80 silver service waiting staff, 26 wine butlers, 12 bar staff… The list goes on to total 114 people all intent on providing a smooth operation.

With the plates cleared, speeches over and wine flowing, guests finally let down their hair to make this essentially formal occasion finish with a real swing on the dance floor and some rousing songs.

But when the ball was over and the echo of Auld Lang Syne had died away, Mr Pickersgill and the staff still had work to do. It was 2.30am before he could take a taxi home. But nothing was still, even at 3am in the Great Room. It was being transformed yet again, this time for a British Council of Shopping event.

Just hours after the dancing shoes had been kicked off, the ballgowns hung up and the dinner jackets consigned to the wardrobe, Mr Pickersgill was working on his report of the event. And within a week or two, staff at the Farmers Club will be offered the opportunity to book again for November 2000 – a diary date most members will hope they can mark in ink rather than pencil. &#42

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