Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
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."
It was my late mum who first drew my attention to
port.Whenever she was cooking the Sunday dinner, she always had a
little glass of it on the go. Her glass was a miniature tumbler
decorated with a band of chintzy pink frosting around the top. She
called it her 'noggin' glass. Nobody else in the household ever used
it. It emerged from a kitchen cabinet each Sunday and sat within
reach of the gas-stove, just next to her ashtray, her Kensitas
cigarettes and the Zippo lighter which she'd had since her ATS days.
"What's this?" asked your boyish correspondent
wandering into the kitchen. " Port." she'd declare. "It's
my lunchtime noggin. Hands off. You wouldn't like it anyway."
Naturally, I'd sneak the odd sip of it, if she wasn't
looking. What boy wouldn't? It always tasted a bit fierce to me
though, and for years I never progressed to drinking any more than
that one sip.
There is something about the English and their port and
yet, nowadays, most of us only ever drink it at Christmas. Mum,
however, always had a drop of port around the house, something which
I don't think was quite usual in army quarters among NCO's wives. It
was because of her fondness for port that I eventually began to learn
something of it.
In the mid-1970s, when I worked part-time as a kitchen
porter, I asked the restaurant owner, what might be a good port to
buy her for Christmas. A kindly chap, he offered to help me find a
rather better bottle of port for her than that which she usually
drank. He showed me a catalogue and pointed me at Lay & Wheeler,
Colchester's immortal wine merchants. At that time they still had a
wonderful shop in Colchester's Culver Street. In winter, whenever you
walked in, there'd be a coal fire glowing in the grate, a Dickensian
touch which always made the place seem something of a cut above. It
was around about this time, while still in my callow early twenties
that I began to learn that there was rather more to port than my
mum's Sandeman's tawny.
I once bought her a bottle of Taylor's 10 year-old,
which I thought would be infinitely better than her usual 'working'
After Christmas that year, I asked her what she'd
reckoned to it.
"Okay." she said, having considered the
matter. So would she now be upgrading her lunchtime noggin? Not a
bit of it. She was a Sandeman's girl to the end of her days.
By my late twenties, I too had developed a liking for
port. Taylors and Grahams Late Bottled Vintage (LBVs) appealed to me
more than the supermarkets' budget rubys. But if I ever had a bit of
extra money at Christmas, I went up to 10 or even 20 year-old tawnys.
I also learned to study the bottle to see who the shippers were.
Smith Woodhouse were apparently a good name, if only by virtue of the
fact that they'd been doing the job for two centuries or so and ought
to have known it by now.
Perhaps the reason that we British like our port at
Christmas is because in the deep midwinter, when our bones ache, when
our taste buds and sinuses are clogged with cold, it's a good rich
old bit of grog. It's cheery and strong, with perhaps, some of the
warmth of the Portuguese sun bottled into it. Like cinnamon, cloves,
nutmeg and oranges, on a cold winter's day, port is a treat:
a heavy topcoat and roaring fire of drink -- not some
thin little flute of a wine. It has, as we lads used to say, a bit
more lead in it.
The more robust fellows of the old City banking firms
once drank port by the pint at their jolly-ups. Perhaps a few still
wouldn't recommend the practice myself, since port, being a fortified
wine has a strength of 20% by volume. Used in such a cavalier
fashion it can be the stuff of banging headaches, instant dismissal
and long conversations on the Great White Telephone. Port is also
associated with gout. In Queen Anne's day, port wine, regarded as an
antidote to the dampness and fogs of England, was also errantly
recommended by physicians for the relief of gout, a thing which
possibly helped to speed her death at age 49.
Port, though, like a jumper, isn't just for Christmas.
I'll have a drop anytime between Hallowe'en and my birthday in early
March. Nor it just an after-dinner glass. It's a great drink, as my
mum demonstrated, for pecking at, while cooking on a winter's day.
Taylors, Cockburns and other purveyors also do a white port made from
white grapes. This is a dry drink which more often than not is drunk
chilled, as an aperitif. There are no rules though. I'll sometimes
plonk two rough-cut slices of orange into my port glass, and suck the
liquor through the steeped fruit, which, if it sounds inelegant, does
taste rather nice. In the end, though, Christmas or not, I prefer
those rich warm LBVs, sipped at room temperature, whilst getting the
dinner on. Because I'm still my mum's son and a vintage would be
wasted on me.