Lifting the spirits
AS THE governor of North Carolina said to the governor of South Carolina, 'It's a long time between drinks.' I never quite understood the humour of that joke, if a joke is what it is. That is until I found myself sitting at a dinner-table recently, staring at the empty wine bottles in front of me with a sinking desperation as we fin- ished the main course.
The worst part of an evening out is that dreadful hiatus or arid purgatory when the coffee has not yet been served and the alcoholic refreshment has run out. Worse still, I suppose, is when, after the coffee has been poured, the hostess offers her guests only soft drinks, or at best some leftover white wine that has been warming nicely in the meantime. These days, to ask for spirits would make one seem a lush. Yet at this time in the evening both the soul and the digestive sys- tem crave something more than plonky plonk. It is then that one begins to long nostalgically for the heyday of the after- dinner drink, that moment of golden con- viviality and civilised excess when small glasses were passed around and something very alcoholic was poured into them.
Away with your Bailey's Irish Cream et al. I refer not to those stomach-churning subjects of Eighties television advertise- ments, but to the strong, serious stuff that opens the floodgates of conversation and catapults a mundane evening into the realm of an occasion.
Ever since drinking port became fashion- able in England in the late 18th century, there has been a fine tradition of prolong- ing the hours spent around the dining- table. There were stories about people remaining at the table drinking port for over three hours. Pitt the Younger, a 'three-bottle man' (albeit the bottles were smaller then) occasionally went straight from the port to the porte of the House of Commons.
But port is out these days. It has been relegated to the miserable province of mid- dle-aged businessmen sitting smugly in the Savoy Grill or at tedious Conservative Association dinners. Port reeks of chauvin- ism and Little England. In my view, though, the best reason for abandoning port is that it produces the most vicious hangover, far worse than that engendered by whisky or brandy.
Ah, brandy. To paraphrase Dr Johnson: claret is for boys, port for men, but brandy is a drink for heroes. Brandy has more stay- ing power than port. One glass or balloon can be made to last a whole evening. It sits well with the increasingly fashionable cigar, now even acceptable as a smart woman's smoke. It is more versatile than port, going tolerably well in its Cognac form with a tarte tartin and certain other apple-based puddings.
Which brings us to the main point, the finale. The best after-dinner drinks are those that can be imbibed with the pud- ding. The most distinguished of these is Imperial Tokay (made from the Tokaj grape) from Hungary. Michael Broadbent, the wine writer, described this as 'a prince among wines, more of a liqueur than a wine'. There is a dry Tokay, but the sweet one is the drink to which Broadbent was referring. The tsars of Russia so valued its exquisite honey taste and golden-brown appearance that they kept their own pri- vate vineyards. When they were ill, they asked for a glass, believing the drink con- tained healing properties.
Tokay goes perfectly with puddings, both light and heavy. It can hold its own with an apple crumble, a chocolate mousse, even a Key Lime pie. It is especially good with anything that contains caramel or burnt sugar, a crème brill& or Iles flottantes. Like champagne it even has its own musical accompaniment. Noel Coward wrote a song for his 1890s operetta Bitter Sweet about 'this golden sunshine of a summer's day'.
Another perfect complement to pudding comes, surprisingly, from the Italians. I say surprisingly because most Italian digestifs taste like cough medicine; notably Femet Branca and Fernet Menta, which are sup- posed to be hangover remedies as well. Limoncello, however, goes back beyond the last century to Ancient Rome. The Emper- or Tiberius retired to the island of Capri for many years. While there he became partial to a liqueur made from lemon rind and sugar, lemons being plentiful on that island. It has an unfortunate reputation of being only for tourists. But this is to belie its delicious sea-breeze fresh taste and tangy citrus aroma. The finest limoncellos come from southern Italy, either Capri, Naples or Sorrento, and should be slightly cloudy in appearance with the palest of yel- low hues (the inferior variety is a dark, clear liquid uncomfortably like urine). It must be kept, like vodka, in the freezer. In the north, the Venetians make pleasant digestifs. The visitor to Florian's café in St Mark's Square can still taste that establish- ment's scented beverage made out of rose petals, but it has not been overtly popular since Casanova's day.
Also sadly neglected in recent years is that sublime produce of the French monks, chartreuse. Green chartreuse is associated with the aesthetic movement of the 1890s. Indeed a song lyric, again from Bitter Sweet which for some reason provides a quick tour of after-dinner drinks, explains, 'We like Beardsley and green chartreuse.' I first drank it in a fish restaurant in Paris called Marius et Jeanette. It came, like brandy, in a balloon glass, after the pudding. The trick with chartreuse is to fill the balloon so full
'Look at the state of this place.' of crushed ice that the drink becomes a frappe. To pour it down the throat neat is inviting disaster as most bottles don't come out less than 40 per cent proof.
In Hungary, where my mother was born, they drink a large variety of post-prandial concoctions. One has semi-religious conno- tations, or rather is the Hungarian equiva- lent of what Swiss St Bernard rescue dogs carried in barrels attached to their collars. This is a black, noxious brew called Unicum. It is supposed to soothe the intestines after several large helpings of goose and red cabbage but tastes so bitter that it is often better to take one's chances with indigestion. My advice to people who ask is stick to cherry brandy.
Which brings us back almost full circle. It may be that the best we can do in this country is to persuade unimaginative householders to lay in a good stock of brandy and port. For some reason exotic liqueurs never took hold of the English except in one of their decadent faux-liter- ary phases. But as the country faces the prospect of seeing in the new Dome, per- haps something stronger and sweeter is called for to sugar the bill.