It was my Uncle John who set me on the path to wisdom as far as drink was concerned. I was nine, I think, when he let me take a sip of his Martini. I can still taste that first, clean, clear shot striking home, and how my eyes watered. And later, much later it was Uncle John who went on to introduce me to the delights of Kingston Black scrumpy, the Old Fashioned, the Super-strong Pimms and, above all, to the Tinkle Crunch.*
Even if, during the immediate postwar years, when everything was rationed, spirits and wine were hard to come by for daily consumption, drink in some form or another, has always been part of the weft and warp of social life in my family.
My father was a man with a considerable appetite in every sense of the word, and , when people came for lunch or dinner, he would mix a jug of martinis beforehand (the jug was cunningly designed with a glass core to hold the ice, so that it would dilute the cocktail as it melted) to ease our guests into the appropriate mood before dinner. Wine flowed pretty freely during it. At the end there would be port or brandy for the men and ‘stickies’ – Cointreau, Kirsch or Benedictine – for the ladies, and then there was usually time for a quick whisky and soda before they jumped into their cars, and roared off into the night with a cheery ‘Cheerio, Jean. Cheerio, Richard. Marvellous dinner’.
As far as I know, none of them died on the way home, although a number may well have succumbed to liver disease in later life. Even my brothers and I had our ritual cocktails. While the grown ups circled round each other swigging their lethal snifters, getting red in the face and talking very loudly, so it seemed to us, we gulped down Dragon’s Blood which, my mother confessed years later, was made up of orange juice and green dye. It wasn’t alcoholic, but it got us into the way of thinking that drinks should be something special, something fun and pleasurable. Consequently, my relationship with drink has always been an easy one.
Drunkenness was frowned on - there was one occasion when my furious father pursued my Uncle Jonh around the house brandishing a rapier after John had teased my father once too often over drinks - but high spirits, quite another matter, were smiled on. And while the male adults tended to represent the boeotian element of drinking culture during my formative years, my granny and my father’s sister, Aunt Peggy, took care of the epicurean aspect of drink education. They both had superb palates, if limited resources, and taught me a great deal about how to appreciate wine in particular.
Of course, it was all French wine in those days, and really only claret and burgundy. It was only much later that I discovered the joys of the Rhone and the Rhine, and later still of Piedmont and Tuscany. Still, it was a useful and pleasurable start, and taught a certain discipline (which I wasn’t always able to observe as I got older).
It was when I went to Italy for the first time that I came across a culture in which alcohol, wine principally, had a normal, easy part in the everyday social life, quite different from the occasional celebration at home. People drank as naturally as they breathed, always with food, never to excess. It wasn’t a revelation – the revelatory side of that early Italian experience was limited to food, and to ice creams in particular – so much as a realisation that grew on me every time I went back to Italy. It was clearly a civilised way to behave.
When I went to university, these lessons got largely forgotten, as one tends to forget most things at university. It wasn’t that there was a drinking culture as such. It was just that we drank. And drank. Beer mostly, because good wine was too expensive and cheap wine too disgusting.
There was a fashion for parties to which you had to bring a bottle of something to drink. I always tried to take something reasonable, such as a bottle or two of decent Beaujolais, but there was one legendary figure who always took a bottle of ‘British sherry’. As even students had a sense of self-preservation that prevented them from touching this poisonous muck, he was able to reclaim the bottle at the end of each part, and turn up with it at the next.
Even so, I had already developed a taste for quality rather than quantity that has dogged me down the years. As my mother was quick to point out, there was little point in having champagne tastes when you’ve only got a beer income. Not that it’s stopped me exploring the vast and fascinating diaspora or drinking culture.
I look back to those formative years as valuable groundwork. Doctors and health professionals are very quick to quantify the damage that alcohol abuse does to individuals, families and societies. They haven’t yet managed to quantify how many lives alcohol has enlightened, jobs made tolerable, marriages saved, how many people it has helped take some pleasure in a dark and dangerous world. For me, it has always been a source of delight. Drink less, but drink better should be our motto. It’s just that I have a problem with the ‘less’ part.
* Tinkle Crunch: take a narrow neck glass, such as a sherry glass or small spirit balloon. Pour in a finger or two of cheap brandy. Place a slice of lemon across the top of the glass and carefully deposit a teaspoonful of Demerara sugar on top of the slice of lemon. Take the lemon and sugar in your mouth and chew a few times to get the sharp lemon juices and sweet sugar to mingle, and then drink the brandy through that mixture as quickly as possible. Tinkle. Crunch.
Matthew Fort is a British food and wine writer and journalist.
This article is taken from the latest number (37) of the Italian magazine Slowfood.