Thursday 30 April 2020

In Which We Serve

So there have been some upsides in the last week or so:

1) I finally got rid of the rotten Lambrusco. Half went into a Bol Sauce. Half went into a venison stew. They both tasted okay.

2) We’ve been catching up on our movie classics and arthouse cinema. Most extreme so far has been The Colour of Pomegranates (1969) by Sergei Parajanov, a richly symbolic contemplation of the life of the eighteenth century Armenian poet Sayat Nova. Yes, there are pomegranates in the movie. Also grapes, chickens, candlewax, stringed instruments, mime, death, sheep, stepladders, cosmic despair, ambisexuality, tableaux vivants and tall hats. It’s better than I make it sound. I can’t remember if I was drinking anything at the time I watched it or if it just feels as if I was. I’m pretty sure I had something on the go for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats The Soul (1974) a film which, in comparison with The Colour of Pomegranates, is as approachable as an episode of The Dean Martin Show.

3) Some of the paint I used to paint the bathroom with was so old it smelt like cheese. It had to go on, of course, so now we have a cheesy blue bathroom wall. I’m getting used to it though; I even think I might quite like it. Plus, I have an idea that the fumes coming off the cheese paint exhibit mild hallucinogenic properties.

4) We now have enough booze to last us ten whole days, following a raid on a large branch of Tesco. I cannot believe how comforting this is.

5) Should I try harder to pick a suitable drink to accompany my arthouse evenings? PK would, obviously. Nice Pouilly-Fumé for La Règle du Jeu; cup of tea wih a nip of Scotch in it for Brief Encounter. I’m angling for a Powell and Pressburger mini-fest (A Canterbury Tale followed by The Red Shoes) but can’t imagine what would go with either except maybe a hand-crafted ale for the first and a bucket of Kir Royal for the second. Or some hallucinogens.

6) Apparently, people are drinking more during the lockdown. I seem to be drinking slightly less. I’ve even lost weight. I must try to drink more.

7) Or at least sniff the freaky wall paint in the bathroom more than I currently do.

8) Giovanni Pontano, the writer portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni in Antonioni’s La Notte (1961), another arthouse special, barely drinks during the course of the film, even though he’s given plenty of opportunity - at a book launch, in a nightclub and at a flash party. I find this almost impossible to believe: a writer who abjures booze. Am I missing something? Then again, I’ve been drinking tea and sniffing paint, so what does that prove? Everything is now like a scene from an early Sixties postneorealist Italian movie. What was I drinking while we watched La Notte? Whisky-soda? A Campari?

9) The wall paint has persuaded me that after all this is over, if it ever is, we should dress much like Jimi Hendrix in the photo above. This would be a way of expressing our joy at being alive, our defiance of convention, our sense of liberation. All those beads and drapes and spangles might make the daily health walk a bit of a chore, but if Jimi could hack it, so can I.

10) I’m also planning to see Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) in a cunning piece of curatorial theming with Fear Eats The Soul (both films dwelling on the heartaches and complexities of a May - September romance). Since I only know the Sirk film by reputation, I’m not sure what to drink with it. I’m guessing Dry Martinis or more Scotch, served neat in a tumbler the size of a storage tank, or perhaps glazing some gigantic ice cubes. Something a bit John Cheever, either way.

11) Biggest regret, though, was not recording Carry On Cleo (1964) when it was on and pairing it with Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954) before watching the two, back to back, along with a nice Chianti. But there’s always next week. You’ve got to stay positive, haven’t you?


Thursday 23 April 2020

My very own wine merchant

I never thought I would actually miss wine merchants. Being surrounded by actual bottles of wine, looking at labels one can only dream of buying, the serendipity of finding something interesting. And, that final confirmation of purchase, the bottles wrapped in tissue paper, artfully twisted with a snap of the wrist.

Plus of course, that playful banter with wine merchants, me struggling to appear knowledgeable, and them trying to upsell me into something costing more than I really want to spend. (They usually win – but, to be honest, so do I, since I end up drinking better wine than I would otherwise have planned.)

None of which you get from a website. Oh, it’s all very efficient, but you immediately have to start filtering your options – red or white? Italian or French? – so serendipity disappears. And then you have to choose how your options are presented, like “Price low to high”, basically a test of nerve as to how far you can afford to scroll down.

And where do your chosen wines end up? In your “basket”. When was the last time you went around a wine merchant’s, filling up a wire basket?

My usual opening gambit in a wine merchant’s is that I’m “just browsing”, but that doesn’t cut it at the moment. Full marks to my local posh wine merchant, which is valiantly open, but keen to keep queuing to a minimum; they have a list of “rules” on their door which, along with the now common, social distancing, one-in one-out regulations, limits visits to four minutes, hardly time to lust over the clarets. In present circumstances, drooling is clearly unwelcome.

In fact they state bluntly, and using red type, "Absolutely no browsing please.” They are posh enough to add that “please”, but I think we can safely assume that browsing is off the agenda for now.

And I’m missing that whole wine merchant experience. So as most of our activity at the moment has to be done virtually, I wondered if I could create a virtual wine merchant, as if to sell myself wine from my own meagre cellar…

“Ah welcome back, sir. Don’t I recognise you from yesterday? You were wearing the same, er, slippers?”

“Yes, me again. Thank goodness, I see you’ve still got some actual bottles of wine, there behind the cat food, DIY tools and tumble dryer… Alright if I browse?”

“I’m afraid that won’t take you very long, sir.” (There is an all-too-brief pause, while the visitor considers the all-too-well known wines.) “Is it for yourself?”

“Afraid so. Don’t think I’ll be taking wine to anyone else’s house for a little while yet.”

“A special occasion?”

“Well, we have almost completed a 500-piece jigsaw…”

“And what is sir eating tonight?”

“It’ll be sausages.”

“Not the duck, sir? I’ve got a lovely French red that would go with duck…”

“No. Sadly duck didn’t seem to be on the menu. The phrase I heard was simply “Dinner?” Not as in “What would you like for…”, but as in “I suppose you want some?” Rather like the prix fixe in a restaurant. Except that usually, one has a choice of restaurants.”

“When I said duck, sir, of course I meant sausages. I have something that would definitely go with game, red meats, or, er, sausages.”

“There’s not much choice here, is there?. Your stock is definitely looking a bit low.”

“We’ve not had a delivery lately, I’m afraid. Couldn’t get a slot. But we do have this excellent claret, great vintage, drinking well now…”

“I think that’s really one to share with guests.”

“Might be past its best by then, sir…”

“Well, is there anything else you’d recommend?”

“I wonder if you know this one, sir? A very nice Rioja indeed.”

“Actually yes, I do. I remember drinking that in Barcelona… But I was going to save it for a special occasion…”

“Well sir, look at it this way – how many jigsaws have you got?”


Thursday 16 April 2020

This Happy Breed

So in the last few days:

- I listened to an oddly chaotic radio programme fronted by Melvyn Bragg, in which gin and the gin craze of the eighteenth century was the subject. Almost everything that was said by Melvyn and his guests has now escaped me, except for the chant No Gin, No King, which was apparently taken up by enthusiasts of the drink whenever they felt it to be threatened by vested interests.

- We Zoomed some people in New York who reckoned, quite blithely, that they’d probably both had the coronavirus. Which meant they probably gave it to us the last time we saw them a few weeks back. Which might explain my current lack of focus.

- We went to a small local Tesco and asked for the cheapest whisky they had.

- It was also claimed that, among its many sovereign properties, gin ‘Revived marital bliss’. It emboldened the warrior and kept out the cold as well, but we knew that already. Marital bliss, though.

- I’ve started drinking screwtop rosé with a chunk of ice in it to make me think of happier times in the South of France. Top tip: be careful when pouring the rosé into a glass already containing ice - if it tumbles from the neck of the bottle straight onto the ice cube, it can bounce off the cube and out of the glass, ending up all over the table. I’ve lost precious centilitres this way, through clumsiness and inattention. I don’t like to think how many.

- I stared for some minutes at what’s left of the wine rack. It’s mostly spaces, now.

- In fact things have got to such a pass that I forced myself to open that second bottle of Lambrusco, the dry variety that’s been sitting around since Christmas, the horrible one. Bit of roast chicken to mask the taste, I thought, that’ll do the trick. Chilled the awful beverage in the fridge, wrestled the cork out with an accompanying whiff of sulphur springs, poured some out, tried it. Still unspeakable.

- The guy next door has, it seems, got a large order of wine coming to his house, plus painting and decorating supplies. I am seething with envy, although I don’t know which I want more - the wine or the painting and decorating stuff. Probably the latter.

- Should I acquire a hair trimmer? My hair is already out of control; by the end of the month it’ll be preposterous. At the moment I’m trying for the Ian Gillan out of Deep Purple look, but I think it’s going to end up that bloke out of Hawkwind, the one who wasn’t Lemmy.

- I even tried pouring the Lambrsuco straight onto an ice cube, half-hoping it would splash over the side of the glass and deal with itself that way. Tragically, no. Still undrinkable.

- We Zoomed our two sons for a family conference. The younger of the two made a Bolognese sauce while talking to us. It was as good as watching TV, the way he did it.

- One of the many downsides of excessive gin consumption is of course, spontaneous combustion. The body becomes so infused with alcohol that almost any increase in external temperature is enough to start it burning. Studies were carried out in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Elderly women who also happened to be chronic alcoholics were thought to be at greatest risk. I make a note to myself to ask my wife - if she finds me spontaneously combusting, somewhere around the house - to use the Lambrusco to put me out.

- I think I might be coming down with hay fever. No wonder I can’t get anything done.

- And we might be running out of box sets to watch. I mean, friends recommend new box sets all the time but I’m not sufficiently gripped. I bet our next door neighbour, with his wine selection and his tins full of paint, is hooked on everything that comes up. He can afford to be.

- On the other hand, we have got some cheap Tesco whisky.

- I really must do something about the gin that’s been sitting there for a couple of months. Apparently, people once took it in their tea. Now that’s got to be worth trying.

- And only another month of this to go!


Thursday 9 April 2020

Guilty or not guilty?

My anxiety continues over my wine cellar – or, as perhaps I should call it now, my wine stockpile.

Oh yes. We’d have a different attitude now towards wine cellars if we called them stockpiles of wine, wouldn’t we? But what is a wine cellar if not stockpiling? We have our sophisticated notions of laying down, and storing; but is it really that different to laying down toilet rolls or storing corned beef?

When consumption becomes surrounded with moral judgments, with observations about those with storage space and those without, and when discussions of selfishness and greed and necessity are flying around, does some of that thinking apply to wine as well as to food?

I was reassured when the government issued its edict that “off-licences and licensed shops selling alcohol” could remain open, alongside other essential services. Great, I thought, no need to feel guilty about drinking wine. But my nearest wine merchant still pulled down its shutters. In fact it went so far as to remove all the tempting bottles from its windows, a grim and disheartening sight. Did they think people might, as signs elsewhere encourage us, break the glass in emergency?

And then The Wine Society ceased deliveries, Understandably (because their warehouse staff were at risk), but at the same time they described their own service as “non-essential”. Which just brought my guilt feelings back.

So should I just give up wine for the duration? According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol is an “unhelpful coping strategy” for the possible stress and isolation of lockdown. Well, it helps me cope, pal.

One commentator argued that we could use this period of lockdown to “wean ourselves off” alcohol, in a kind of Dry Covid. His argument was somewhat undermined, however, by opening with the fatuous observation that “The government’s approach to alcohol has always been incoherent; we can buy alcohol in petrol stations, for example, but it is against the law to drink drive.” Petrol stations also sell kindling and coal, but most purchasers seem able to resist the urge to light their fire in their vehicle.

Give up drink for a month? Sorry, bad punctuation. Give up. Drink for a month.

Embarrassed by the notion of wine deliveries, I would simply have to brave the supermarket. And that despite reading of someone who was halted at the checkout for buying more than three of an item – six bottles of wine. Worse, they were shamed by having three publicly removed from their trolley.

Yet when I visit myself, gloved and nervous – and buying other essential items like bread, I hasten to add – I spot two young women wrestling a case of sauvignon blanc into their trolley. Sorry, is that one item?

In my supermarket, they always have to apologetically open a case and scan a single bottle in order to put six through the till – so surely that’s six of an item? Not one? Or could I buy three cases?

I decide to avoid a potentially embarrassing incident, and prioritising quantity over quality I buy a clearly single unit – a box, of Australian Shiraz. It may be dreadful wine, but at least I’ll have 2.25 litres of it. That’s what I call a coping strategy.

That evening, Mrs K asks if she can have a glass of wine to put into a stew she is making. She does make spectacular stews, and they last several meals, but I mean to say, cooking with wine at a time like this? It’s like using up your flour to make glue.

I measure out some of my coping strategy into a tumbler, and hand it over. “Is that as much as a wineglass?” she asks, looking at it dubiously. I reply with that time-honoured wine-drinkers response – “That depends on the size of your wineglass…”


Thursday 2 April 2020

Spirituous Liquor

So as one week lethargically follows the next, I find myself thinking about spirits a lot of the time, these days, what with one thing and another, mostly as a way to lighten the present burden. Gin, whisky. Whisky, gin. And sometimes, just sometimes, my thoughts are echoed by, say, this snippet which I come across from Luis Buñuel:

After the dry martini comes one of my own modest inventions, the Buñueloni, best drunk before dinner. It’s really a takeoff of the famous Negroni, but instead of mixing Campari, gin and sweet Cinzano, I substitute Carpano for the Campari. Here again, the gin - in sufficient quantity to ensure its dominance over the other two ingredients - has excellent effects on the imagination. I’ve no idea how or why; I only know that it works.

Talk about an intelligent use of one’s drinks cabinet. And gin as the great imaginative stimulant: of course. It always comes back to gin.

Then, a few days after my encounter with Buñuel, someone emails me with, among other things, another snippet, this time from that fake F. Scott Fitzgerald letter which was circulating a while back - the one about being quarantined during the Spanish ‘Flu epidemic - especially and not least the bit which goes:

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

I mean, if I hadn’t subsequently discovered that this started life on McSweeney’s, well, I’d still be musing on the exact quantities Scott and Zelda were planning. It still seems alarmingly plausible, even now. Plausible because, not least, of the absinthe. Gin and absinthe: I must try it one day, if I can ever get any absinthe. If I can ever get out of the house.

And then what do you know but a day later, on A Drinker’s History Of London, I find another piece of pandemic-themed invention:

The ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set) mixed and chilled as appropriate and gently imbibed.

To which some bright spark has added a more specific Quarantini recipe in the comments section at the bottom:

4 Parts Deaths Door Gin
1 Part Killepitsch Liquor
Several Szechuan Peppercorns

The world is turning inwards as a result of Covid 19 and what it finds in this process of involution is that its collective mind is turning to spirituous liquor, as so often in the past. To put it another way, my mind is turning to spirituous liquor and I’m not alone. Wine won’t do it any more, it’s too frivolous. Wine can’t address the needs of the current ghastly situation. At the moment my own Quarantini is whisky and soda, which I reckon has powerful antiseptic and antiviral properties, especially if drunk in a seated position. Next thing is to try it lying down, as it might be, in bed, recovering. Then maybe walking around at a distance of two metres from passers-by. Then lying down again.

I admit this particular Quarantini isn’t new, nor exactly a recipe, more a statement of fact. Then again, that Red Snapper thing from a few weeks back was scarcely more complicated and it has its own fancy name, so I’ll stick with the elemental ur-pairing for now. Unless there’s something I could add to that whisky and sparkling water mix which would elevate it to the level of something something nameable without actually ruining the taste. I mean, no bitters or vermouth or anything like that. Actually I'm thinking: Paracetamol.