THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE DRINKS COLUMN
WHAT I DRANK IN A CRISIS
1st May, 2020
I don’t drink much at home on account of living alone and viewing the consumption of alcohol away from the dining table as a being chiefly a social and collaborative pastime which, if done properly, is not far short of an art. Of course I do drink alone from time to time: champagne on the Last Night of the Proms, a slow bottle of Margaux to beguile an election night; beers for the World Cup and Derby Day; and of course there are sundry evenings where a glass or two takes away the cares and sharp edges of life for a while.
When World War Virus began I found I had no desire to drink. For the best part of three weeks I did not touch so much as a wine gum. Then, on a raid to M&S, I bought a bottle of their Chianti Classico to partner up with spaghetti puttanesca, garlic, anchovies, tomatoes, black pitted olives, capers (optional). Puttanesca, to happily digress, is a dish about which there are many myths, from Neapolitan whores either living on it or using it as a come-on for trade, to its invention by a restaurateur who had to feed a party from a larder empty except for the aforementioned ingredients. Whatever, it is a fine concoction to which I sometimes add sardines and onions, and I prefer it with spaghettini, the thinner version of spaghetti, or Chinese noodles. Heresy, you say? Well, one must think of one’s waistline occasionally.
For years Chianti had been rather a joke to me, a sort of Seventies relic that I unfairly associated in my mind with shag-pile carpets and bullfighter posters from Spain. I was wrong, so very wrong, and I learned the error of my ways years ago in Tuscany, home of that wine.
A friend and I had travelled from Salzburg to Venice and then on to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance and home of the Florentine steak. I had done a little research in a ten-year-old guidebook, and one evening we sought out a restaurant which had been praised in the book. Luckily it was still there. It stood a street or two back from the Arno, one of those unpretentious family places that had, I hoped and imagined, been there since before the Risorgimento and had probably cooked Pomodoro for the Allied troops in 1944. Despite communication problems, little Italian on our side and even less English on theirs, we ordered two steaks and asked the waiter to recommend a local wine: he bought us a chianti ‘from the hills’ or dalle colline, as they would say. The bottle was not encased in the traditional straw wrapping – known, incidentally, as a fiasco – but was nonetheless a revelation to me, a rich berry wine that had enough body to be interesting but light enough so not to become what I call chewy. It had a longer finish than I would have expected – I like a long finish with wine. I came away a Chianti convert and even, perhaps most of all, enjoy the lower grade wines of the region, particularly those lighter structured varieties with quite noticeable raspberry or cherry notes. These I am more than happy to drink peasant style from a tumbler with a bowl of spag or some Italian sausages.
I was reminded of that pleasant memory when bringing my shopping home through a south London dystopia of boarded-up pubs, dead shops and long queues for supermarkets.
‘Champagne – the quickest road out of Welfaria,’ the novelist Evelyn Waugh snobbishly wrote in response to the establishment of socialist Britain just after the Second World War. To be honest I have had similar feelings about Britain for years, and now the virus has emboldened leftists of every stripe – George Galloway has even called for a new Beveridge Report – it may mean that Waugh’s acute observation will once more become all too pertinent – at least for those of us who are still able to afford bubbles when the financial hangover of World War V arrives . . .
However, despite my hand lingering over a bottle of minor league champagne when last at the shops I did not yield: we are after all in genuinely sombre days. If I do give in I will plump for a bargain – Andre Carpentier at £14 a bottle. You can get this in Tesco and I would very much say that two bottles of this are well worth one of the more famous labels at circa £30 a bottle. The Carpentier is what I have named un classique en miniature (I don’t know if the editor will allow me to coin such phrases: he is an expert in French where I can only order a beer and say oui like wee and merci like mercy) (permission granted. Ed). It has all your champagne notes present and correct in a smallish way that reflects its value price – and let’s face it, some champagnes at bigger prices simply do not have the correct attributes. Thus you have the famous brioche notes, the floral chords and even a nice little mousse, and all for about £2.80 a glass. Not bad, eh? When you consider what people pay for Prosecco – one Italian export I could do without – it makes the Carpentier the bargain di tutti bargains. If things get really bad, a half pint of that taken at some speed will be a great balm and, like Jupiter, a bringer of jollity. Churchill was of a similar mind, spending large amounts of his income on Pol Roger, and swearing by a pint of champagne as a hangover cure. Let’s not forget that two years ago we were promised the return of imperial pint bottles of champagne once Britain was out of the Gordian knot of Brussels legislation. May it be so.
Last night in an off licence cum grocers I bought a bottle of Louis Jadot Chablis by mistake. I hold my hands up, I was being cheap. I very much wanted a cold glass of white burgundy: the previous days of hot weather having put my mind in that direction after a long pissy winter. I picked up what I thought was a general appellation bottle for £13 but found at the till I’d picked the Jadot at £18.99. I went with the error and was very glad I did. On the nose it had freshness like a cut dessert apple in peak season juiciness, yet in the mouth it performed a trick best summed up as buttered minerals, with just the right corrective of acidity. The happy road out of Virusville stretched before me as I ate roast chicken done French style with lemon, garlic and thyme, and – warning – I found myself further along that road than I thought: the Jadot is fiendishly drinkable and in the time it would normally take me to drink half a bottle of red, I had depleted the Jadot down to a final generous glass – which of course I drank: we live in uncertain times: therefore I hope, gentle reader, you will forgive me this indulgence.
During the night I dreamt I was about to perform a sex act on a woman when a strange creature like an anchovy fillet popped out of her vagina and sang a song from the Muppet Show. I had never associated white burgundy with lysergic reactions before but I felt it only fair to warn you.