I confess, I love a good vault. Take our country’s great churches. Mediaeval stonemasons crafted those lofty arched ceilings to soar heavenward, mingling with prayers, music and incense in a glorious metaphor for stretching out their hands in supplication towards God, touching the hem of the Almighty. This morning, Easter Day, those vaults will be more than usually ringing with the sound of voices uplifted in praise.
I also like the more prosaic structures built massively in stone and brick to underpin those ambitious ecclesiastical edifices. Under any self-respecting cathedral you’ll find an undercroft, in effect a cellar with stumpy pillars and sturdy arches supporting the whole structure above.
Such basements are not confined to church buildings. Look right across Europe, around any mediaeval town square, and you’ll discover, beneath the steps that lead up to the grand state rooms, to the piano nobile of the town hall, municipal office, or mediaeval merchant’s mansion, a door affording admittance to the lower level. Once upon a time servants would have come and gone by that door, and the wine, rich foods and all the other appurtenances of wealth and power would have been carried in and probably stored there, dry and secure.
Nowadays, though, it’s surprising how often you can find such rooms used not for storage, not even for servant access, but for eating: they seem perfectly suited to form restaurants that are properly serious about food they serve.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a bad meal in an ancient vault. I recall glorious sausages and beer in a Prague cellar some 20 years ago. Only a few years ago it was a suckling pig to share with friends in Botin, Madrid’s oldest restaurant. I’m sure I’ve also enjoyed several similar places in mediaeval Italy: I wonder if it’s simply by chance that my memory of them is blurred – or were they really, really good repasts?
Denizens of Newcastle may be familiar with Blackfriars Restaurant, which claims to inhabit the oldest dining space in the UK, which almost meets my criterion of being (partially, at least) vaulted: it serves great food, too! The original guest hall was built in 1239 by the Dominican friars, who also left a legacy of wearing back and white robes, echoed in the Toon’s team strip to this day.
In Oxford we often grab a quick but splendid lunch in the undercroft of the University Church, St Mary the Virgin. In a room where, from 1320, the city’s ancient University first held its Congregations, one can nowadays enjoy hearty home-made dishes, soup and a roll and a superior Oxford rarebit – well, Oxford would do that!
I was reminded of my penchant for vaulted eating-places during a recent visit to Belgium. After a few days in Bruges, enjoying a wealth of mediaeval architecture plus fine food and excellent (if formidably strong) beer, we found ourselves in Brussels with a few hours to spare before Eurostar transported us back to London. As we had done in Bruges and Ghent alike, we marvelled at its fine old buildings, particularly in the Grand Place (or Grote Markt), whose mediaeval façades tend to hide later structures, recreated after severe bombardment by French soldiers in 1695.
It was one of those dispiriting days for tourism. We wanted to see the magnificent Hotel De Ville and, preferably, climb its spectacular tower: but that wasn’t permitted on a Thursday. The rain of the previous days had stopped, but it was still cold: and then I spotted one of those doors. Instinct did not fail me: we descended half a dozen steps and found ourselves in, yes, a vaulted restaurant boasting the unmistakeably Flemish name, ‘t Kelderke.
Early signs were promising. Three or four blokes of a certain age, clearly regulars, were lunching individually, nursing a single glass of beer or wine and tucking into Brussels specialities.
Just near us sat a rather fussy guy on his own: clearly watching his figure, he refused the proffered basket of bread, and was particular as to how his steak would be cooked. As he tucked in, he mellowed. Indeed, he was preparing to leave when group of four or five locals came in, spotted him and greeted him: “Ah, M le Ministre!” (At least we could understand some of their conversation, Brussels being rather more French than Bruges or Ghent where Flemish (Vlaams), not French, seems universally spoken).
This was our last lunch in Belgium, so we needed to try the last few specialities. My excellent onion soup was followed by moules-frites, while Mrs Trafford enjoyed prawn croquettes followed by country sausages with stoemp, the local mix of mashed potato and other vegetables, reminiscent of the champ mash popular in English eateries nowadays (they do a good one at Milfield’s Red Lion).
So what is the link between excellent food and ancient vaulting? Somehow the relative gloom of a basement, with the oppressive sense of sheer weight of stone above, seems to encourage concentration on the food. You don’t get fast food or tourist rubbish in such settings: indeed, in a property vaulted eatery I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those colourfully illustrated, poorly translated menus so prevalent in tourist spots!
The people who work underground, as if troglodytes in a cave, believe in and love the food they serve: and those who go to partake, whether singly (which appears a trademark for good places to eat on the continent) or in parties, or maybe just a couple on holiday like us, cannot help be infected by the conviction they witness.
Dare I suggest, blasphemously, that it resembles the feeling you get in a cathedral? Great churches create an atmosphere of awe, a sense of devotion and permanence that, perhaps, even the irreligious or agnostic cannot entirely ignore. If cathedrals do it for the soul, I would argue – if tenuously – that undercroft restaurants do it for the stomach, for purely (somewhat gluttonous) physical wellbeing.
What’s not to like? Nothing to find vault with, surely.