The Origins Of Our Great Society
In 2008, the world’s oldest and most renowned gastronomic society, The International Wine & Food Society, celebrates its 75th anniversary. In 1933, André L. Simon, CBE, Legion d’Honneur, and renowned bibliophile, gourmet, wine connoisseur, historian and writer, co-founded with his friend, A.J.A. (“AJ”) Symons, The Wine & Food Society, nicknamed “André’s Wonderful Invention.”
Born in Paris in 1877, André found himself in London in 1902 as the English agent for the champagne house of Pommery et Greno. A year later, his writing career was launched when the editor of the Wine and Spirit Trade Review commissioned him to write articles on the history of the champagne trade in England. During his lifetime, André was to write over 100 books and pamphlets on wine and food.
The Society’s present Honorary Chair Hugh Johnson, OBE, reminiscing about his literary apprenticeship with André, wrote in 2003: “To André the acts of writing and editing were almost sacred. He loved printer’s ink, as he said, almost as much as wine and would take rare books from the shelves of his amazing library . . . to caress them with his huge hands.”
André prospered in London in the early 20th Century. His business flourished and his reputation as a wine writer and connoisseur grew. By the outbreak of World War I, he had married and fathered five children. He then departed for France where he served as an interpreter. His service culminated most appropriately by his writing a clause for the Peace Treaty protecting French wine from German competition by making the French appellations contrôlées binding in Germany.
With his return to London post-war, he resumed his duties with Pommery and his prodigious writing about wine. But the publication in 1929 of his The Art of Good Living was soon followed by the Depression and, in 1932, the loss of his position with Pommery.
Throughout his London years, André had been associated with various organizations dedicated to fine wine and food, primarily with The Wine Trade Club in the early days and the Saintsbury Club following the War. Through a literary dining club, Ye Sette of Odd Volumes, he met AJ who was founder of the First Edition Club, another private club dedicated to writing.
André, free of his professional obligations yet still with his familial ones, sought to combine his loves of wine and writing with the publication of a subscription magazine – an enterprise that needed to be financially sound. A mutual friend, J.L. Garvin, Editor of The Observer, suggested that a combined wine and food society, whose dues-paying members would receive a journal as one of its benefits, would be more marketable. In his autobiography, In the Twilight, André recalled:
“[Garvin] was quite sure that a periodical dealing with wine was
out of the question; the number of people, in England, outside the
wine trade, who had their own cellars, was so small that the lay
demand for a wine magazine would be insignificant. Wine was of
interest to so few, whilst millions wanted not only more food but to
know more about food. Why not, he suggested, get all gourmets
and gourmands into a Good Food Club, give them fine meals, and
make their annual subscription cover the cost of a monthly circular
about the food of each month. . . .”
With the First Edition Club suffering financial hardships, AJ likewise was available for a new venture. On October 20, 1933, André met AJ for lunch to discuss collaborating. AJ felt strongly that the wine aspect should be partnered with food. Recalling the luncheon, André recalled in In the Twilight:
AJ “agreed with Garvin that food was more important than wine
but he thought that my knowledge of wine might be of value if presented
as food’s partner. We talked it over on a number of occasions
and finally decided to start a Society to be called the Wine and Food
Society ‘to bring together and to serve all who took an intelligent
interest in the problems and pleasures of the table.’”
Thus, The Wine & Food Society was born. André, as president, became responsible for dinners and tastings and for editing the Wine and Food, A Gastronomical Quarterly. He was to lead The Society for decades.
AJ became The Society’s first secretary. He was to play a short but prominent role in The Society, being responsible for the production of Wine and Food, soliciting advertising, and contributing articles. It was a great loss to The Society when he died prematurely in 1941 at age 42.
In In the Twilight, André wrote recognizing AJ’s invaluable contributions and referring to the initial events held by The Society:
“These first three Meetings, as we called our functions,
were entirely my own work, not too bad work, you may
think, but I can tell you without any false modesty that what
my friend and Partner did was ever so much better. He had
good friends in Fleet Street, youngish men of about his own
age. . . . Symons, not The Society, invited his friends, sat with
them at table, talked to them intelligently and amusingly, and
the next morning The Society had the most wonderful free
publicity. . . .”
The Society’s First Meeting was an Alsatian luncheon on November 14, 1933, at the Café Royal which was founded fittingly by a Parisian wine merchant in 1865 (and is still a thriving eatery at 68 Regent Street in Piccadilly). The five-course menu featured La Perdrix aux Choux and wines from Dopff’s, all at a cost of 10s 6d per person. With 232 attendees on that first occasion, André’s Wonderful Invention was off to a grand start.
In not too many years, The Wine & Food Society had evolved into The International Wine & Food Society. In the decades following, André’s energy and charm, intelligence and knowledge, enabled him to generate Branches throughout the world so that today there are more than 7,000 members in 150 Branches in 25 countries.
André believed that “a man dies too young if he leaves any wine in his cellar.” In keeping with this philosophy, he left only two magnums of claret when he died in 1970 at age 93. Thank you, André and AJ!