NOBLE ROT : THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE DRINK COLUMN
1st February 2020
I did not have an excessive Christmas. January, therefore, did not prompt stern thoughts of self-reform and self-denial. One of the more agreeable features of middle-age is the realisation, even if only in theory, that less can be more.
Instead of joining a gym, going dry and vegan for a month and all the rest of the vain groupthink of the season, I beguile these drab and melancholy days with thoughts of spring and the golden glow of summer beyond it, of sun, trees in full billow, roses, seaside trips, long magic dusks and of course the odd glass of white wine. Any white I drink in the current dead season aids these reveries.
A few summers back I had something of epiphany with a certain white, which hitherto I had rather snobbily looked down on. In Whitstable, Kent, it was that I rediscovered Muscadet and in short order reassessed it. Don’t laugh, oenophiles. Yes, it’s good old table wine: of course, we all want to drink good Chablis all the time but when you walk into a restaurant in Britain this is often not possible, unless you want open wallet surgery with no guarantee of a decent drink afterwards. I stopped buying ‘affordable’ Chablis in restaurants after I was once too often served thin and indifferent ‘village’ wine from the region (I have drunk many excellent village wines from Chablis but alas not often in British restaurants).
These thoughts hovered when looking at the wine menu of an excellent fish restaurant on the front in Whitstable, but let me digress for a moment to advise Whitstable newbies on the best way to ‘drink the town’. There are many good pubs there and a few rotters.
When arriving in Whitstable which, charmingly, still has a small working harbour, the best thing to do is walk to the front from the station – and you are well advised to take the train as the roads in and out of the town are notorious bottlenecks – a journey of about 15 minutes, slip down one of the alleys off the high street and head straight to the Old Neptune, an ancient weather-boarded inn on the beach painted white and blue. When I say on the beach I mean literally. It is one of a very few pubs in Britain that sit on a beach rather than by one. The Old Neptune has paid heavily for its location: it was washed away twice in the 19th century, the last time being in 1897 when it was rebuilt using timber from the destroyed beer house that was its previous incarnation plus the remnants of various cottages. The interested reader can find out more here: http://www.thepubonthebeach.co.uk/
Over the years the floorboards have warped which gives the visitor the amusing feeling of being slightly drunk from the moment they walk in. The Old Neptune has a great array of beers but I generally drink the Guinness, which is excellent. The jukebox has most things a connoisseur of 20th century rock and pop music would require in a pub. I am particularly fond of listening to Whiskey in the Jar by Thin Lizzy while taking the ‘Liffey water’, black Irish complementing black Irish I suppose you could say. David Essex, the Seventies pop singer, lives in the town and I am sure the jukebox will contain the necessary tribute should he walk in the pub while I am there.
Gazing west from the beer garden one can see the Isle of Sheppey and the spectral shore of Southend-on-Sea beyond; looking east the observant viewer will clock the Second World War Maunsell sea forts on the horizon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maunsell_Forts. Invigorated by the Old Neptune’s drinks and views you are ready to walk the short distance down the beach to the Royal Oyster Stores, the fine old fish restaurant I alluded to earlier. If one has time I strongly advise walking further on to the harbour, a journey of less the ten minutes. Here you will find extremely fresh oysters being sold from a stall on the waterfront, six or a dozen at a very fair price – extremely fair given some restaurant prices for oysters – being ‘a starter before your starter’ so to speak.
Back to the drinks menu that day of my epiphany: I ordered a bottle of Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie: Domaine de la Mortaine. I suppose it would have been a 2014. My wine snobbery revolves around two beliefs that I know are unsound to say the least but I find hard to leave behind: wine I drink should be French because French is always the best, and it can only be good if it has an elegant, old fashioned label or logo. This Muscadet, when it arrived, challenged the latter nostrum. Nonetheless I was charmed by the image: a scratchy Quentin Blake cartoon in red ink of a couple larking about with glasses of wine. It turned out to be the perfect thing to drink when eating seafood: dry, clean, pale, with a slight but lovely aroma which somehow mixed the sea with floral notes. This Muscadet at least was back on my map. As I ate perfect cod and chips I watched a white sail out on the Med-like blue waters and thought about the locus genii of England and its dear old enemy France. The two countries had set quite a double act on the table before me that day.
A little research revealed that it is the sur lie you must look for in Muscadet. It spends six months on its own sediment of dead yeast particles and this is what gives it its distinctive taste.
I went in search of this particular Muscadet, which is produced by Sébastian Chéreau (the family has been making wine for two centuries). I found it was sold here by Yapp Bros, and they have been shipping it since 1973. At £11.25 a bottle it is wonderful value and will turn any seafood dinner, even a chip-shop supper, into a sophisticated feast. After tasting it I feel sure you will henceforward be an unabashed Muscadet drinker.