Thursday, 18 November 2010
I last posted on the discovery of Shackleton's scotch in the antarctic. Now comes word of 200 year old champagne discovered in the frigid waters off the Aland islands in Finland, champagne that was destined for the Russian Tsar's court at St. Petersburg. Unlike the scotch find, a lucky few have been able to taste it. Champagne expert Richard Juhlin declared the liquid drinkable, with subtle hints of honey. But don't get too excited just yet -- remaining bottles could fetch as much as $70,000 at auction.
Monday, 15 November 2010
While on the theme of drink, a story from some months ago. Eleven bottles of century-old scotch, left over by Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1907, were fortuitously discovered. They have been resting in the antarctic ice at the perfect temperature of -30C, cold enough to preserve the alcohol, but not enough to freeze it. Alas, the scotch will not be available for sale, but rather will be preserved and samples taken for the benefit of master scotch-makers. Whether the original recipe, dating from 1896 or 1897, can be recreated is another matter. What is not in doubt is that "scotch-on-the-rocks" jokes were in plentiful supply.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Port is not for the very young, the vain and the active. It is the comfort of age and the companion of the scholar and the philosopher.
-- Evelyn Waugh
Given the obvious temperament of the Idle Historian, and affinity for all things historic, it should not come as a surprise that I recently went in for a purchase of vintage port to ease the cold, dark autumnal evenings.
Port first became a popular drink for the discerning English gentleman in the 18th century when it was imported in large quantities from Portugal. Being a particularly rich drink, it also precipitated that most typical ailment of the middle-aged upper-class male: gout. A famous sufferer of gout, and port-drinking addict, was William Pitt the Younger who became Prime Minister at the almost impossibly young age of 24. A sickly child, he was first prescribed port to ease his gout (!) at age 14, and faithfully followed "doctor's orders" for the rest of his life. According to one contemporary: "Mr. Pitt liked a glass of port very well, and a bottle better."
Port does not always suit modern tastes. Though the best ports have a smooth, satisfying finish, it is often thought too sweet, and a tad bit "fuddy-duddy." Regarding the sweetness, in his witty book Everyday Drinking Kingsley Amis, despite a general proscription against sweet drinks (which the Idle Historian heartily agrees with), declares port to be "singular." It is a drink that requires no recommendation. Uncertain of what I should purchase, I finally settled on Dow's 2007 Vintage Port, reportedly a highly praised offering, and I was not disappointed. I partook of the first glass with an evening snack of Stilton, crackers, candied ginger, fruit, and chocolate, while watching an episode of the excellent new Sherlock Holmes series by the BBC -- an old-fashioned drink for a modernized show.
I cannot write a post about port without mentioning the important role that the drink plays in officers' mess dinners in the British/Canadian military tradition of such things. I have been able to participate in a few such occasions in my day. The toasts at the end of the dinner are given with port, and precise rituals are always observed. (This webpage will give a broad idea of all that is involved with mess dinner etiquette.) All other glasses and dishes are cleared from the table at the end of the meal -- reputedly a precautionary measures from the Jacobite days, when some officers subversively preformed a metaphorical toast to "the King (over the water)" by placing their port glasses over a glass of water. Clever chaps, those subversive Jacobite officers. The decanter of port is then passed along, and the decanter must not touch the table during the pouring process. The Loyal Toasts to the Queen, the Battalion/Regiment, etc. are then pronounced, and the port is drunk. Traditionally the junior subalterns (junior officers) are required to consume all the remaining port before the evening is over, but fortunately in these day in which we are rather more aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse, no one will force the junior subalterns to drink any more than they wish to. Which is a good thing, because I do believe port is to be enjoyed by the glass, and not by the bottle as per poor William Pitt the Younger.
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
The Guardian's Word of Mouth food blog has posted an intriguing article on Stilton. Somehow nothing says Englishness quite like Stilton, the "King of cheeses." Not even cheddar - that much more ubiquitous item of the cheese family.
The article describes how civilization was a prerequisite for cheese, and that cheese as such epitomizes civilization. It is an assessment that all cheese lovers would endorse. I myself am very partial to blue cheese, and beyond my fondness for the sharp taste I do think that it is fine for the digestion. I believe that the bacteria play the same beneficial role for the adult stomach that drinking from the garden hose accomplishes when one is a child.
Most people who have been reared in the Western world do seem to like cheese of at least some sort (though there are some exceptions). But the matter of cheese shows the importance of the education of the tastebuds from childhood and how ingrained our lingering cultural ideas regarding food are. Tom Parker-Bowles - food critic for Tatler - in the book The Year of Eating Dangerously journeys to Asia and partakes of meals which, to our minds, would be considered truly hair-raising dishes. Insects and the like. But when he describes blue cheese and how it is made to his hosts, they are utterly disgusted by the idea.
Bacteria and civilization. Always in delicate balance, as they necessarily must be in a good cheese.