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Wine articles

There’s something oddly egalitarian about champagne

This article originally appeared in the Spectator

The British are notoriously cheap when it comes to wine; the average bottle price is around £6. On one wine, however, we’re happy to spend five times that: champagne. We love champagne, and champagne producers love us: Britain is their biggest export market and it’s only getting bigger: up by 4.5 per cent last year.

In fact, champagne as a dry sparkling wine was created specifically for us. Until the mid-19th century, most production from the Champagne region was still red wine. French connoisseurs thought the fizzy stuff rather vulgar. Bertin du Rocheret, a wine merchant, compared it to ‘beer, chocolate and whipped cream’. It would have been a rich yellow wine fortified with brandy; a sort of sparkling sweet sherry, beloved by Russians in particular.

While Veuve Clicquot built her business on the Russian market, others such as Pol Roger saw that the future lay with the expanding British middle classes. Champagne was drunk as a dessert wine in Europe, but the British already had port, sherry or madeira for that so they wanted something before or with the meal. The wine became drier to suit demand.

Better vintages in the 1870s meant riper grapes, which needed less disguising with sugar. The product was becoming more consistent, ripe for mass production. By the 1890s Moët et Chandon employed 1,500-people, held stocks of ten million bottles, owned 20,000 casks and lit their cellars with 30 tonnes of candles a year. Laurent d’Harcourt, président du directoire at Pol Roger, told me that ‘the key to champagne’s success is consistency’. This is achieved today by blending vintages and grape varieties from all over the Champagne region.

The other key is marketing. Pol Roger’s son Maurice visited London in 1899 and sold his wine to hotels, clubs and regiments. Ads featured images appealing to women, such as elegant ladies in Art Nouveau splendour. For men there were saucy showgirls and naughty 1890s gents. Later, Pol Roger became Winston Churchill’s favourite — something they like to mention on occasion. Champagne producers flatter us by saying that they keep their best and driest wine for the discerning British (and it may even be true).

Unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy with their-communes, vineyards and vintages, you don’t need specialist knowledge to buy champagne. You can get Bollinger at the corner shop. Despite its prestigious image, there’s something oddly egalitarian about champagne, which is perhaps why experts are often disparaging about the big brands. The cognoscenti prefer ‘grower champagne’, made by the person who grew the grapes from a specific patch of land, just as in Burgundy. The public care less. ‘The customer just wants magic’, as Laurent d’Harcourt put it to me. There’s a danger that in trying to make champagne more like Burgundy it will lose its greatest strength: its simplicity. What makes this especially true is that the quality of the big brands has never been better. Wine magazine Noble Rot ran a blind taste recently of some of the world’s leading sparkling wines. They were surprised when non-vintages from Pol Roger and Taittinger were placed above their favourite grower champagnes. The top two places, however, weren’t even from Champagne: they were English. Sacré bleu

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Books Wine articles

Did Jesus drink wine?

This article appeared originally in the Oldie magazine.

Did Jesus drink wine? You’d think the answer would be a resounding hell yes! Just think of the Wedding at Cana or the Last Supper. Then there’s Holy Communion; wine plays a sacred role in most Christian churches. But a couple of years ago I discovered that not all Christians agree.

My wife comes from a family of Southern Baptists who live in Iowa. Her grandparents were missionaries. They do not drink because they believe that the Bible expressly forbids it. I asked my mother-in-law about this and she explained the logic to me: Jesus didn’t turn water into wine in the miracle at the wedding at Cana, he turned it into grape juice.

If I’d been a bit quicker on the draw I would have quoted Psalm 104:15 ‘wine maketh glad the heart of man’ and we could have had a proper Bible quote-off but my Biblical knowledge is a little lacking. So I decided to do some research. It turns out there is a whole branch of writing arguing that the Bible is explicitly anti-alcohol. Pastor John Hamel, an Evangelical preacher from Nashville, writes:  “the fermentation of wine. . .  is a process of decay, which is rooted in death. Satan is the author of death, not Jesus or His Father.” It’s a rather circular argument. And this proscription against fermentation would preclude eating sourdough bread, sauerkraut, salami and cheese which no Christians as far as I know have a problem with.

Far more convincing is the Reverend William Patton’s 1871 work, Bible Wines, which has become the bible of non-alcoholic Christianity. I think this is the origin of my mother-in-law’s point about the Wedding at Cana. According to Patton, the Greek word, Oinos, used in the Gospel of John meant ‘new wine’ which could also mean grape juice. Except that it doesn’t. I spoke with Canon Dr. Anthony Phillips, an expert on Biblical Greek, who told me that it always means wine and that “there is a Greek word for grape juice which is trux but as far as I know it does not appear in the New Testament.” He went on to say “to argue this (grape juice) is what Jesus ordered is specious. Is it seriously suggested that at the Last Supper, Jesus produced grape juice?”

In a climate such as Palestine it would have been nearly impossible to preserve grape juice without fermentation.  Yet William Patton’s book is a picture of a parallel world where rather than make wine, the ancients would have preserved grapes by boiling the juice or pickling whole grapes. But of course they wouldn’t because they would have just turned it into wine.

Wine was ubiquitous in the ancient world. According to wine historian Hugh Johnson the only book of the Old Testament that doesn’t mention wine is Jonah. The usual Hebrew word in the Bible for wine is Yayin. Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Birk confirmed to me that it never means grape juice. Naomi Alderman, a novelist with a good knowledge of Hebrew both ancient and modern, told me “abstaining from alcohol isn’t considered positive in Judaism, in fact there are festivals where you’re actively supposed to drink. No evidence ancient Hebrews drank grape juice, plenty of wine-jar evidence they drank wine!” In present day Armenia they have found remnants of winemaking from 6,000 years ago. Even under Islam, Jewish and Christian communities made and indeed still make wine.

The only reference I could find to total abstinence comes from Numbers: “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink. . . ” This is the Nazarite vow, a holy order who also vowed not to cut their hair. This is not the mainstream Jewish view of alcohol. John the Baptist was a Nazarite and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is explicitly contrasted with him: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber (oinopotes in Greek literally wine drinker), a friend of publicans and sinners!”  

Unlike with many other things, the message from the Bible on alcohol is clear: drink good, drunkenness bad. For most of Protestant history, this crucial difference was understood. John Milton, the poet laureate of Commonwealth, wrote a paean to the joys of ”spicy Nut-brown Ale” in L’ allegro. Methodists now shun alcohol but the founder of the movement, John Wesley drank wine and was a beer connoisseur. The stereotype of the tight-lipped unsmiling Calvinist is an enduring one yet John Calvin himself wrote “we are nowhere forbidden to laugh, or to be satisfied with food. . . . or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.’

American Protestantism used to be similarly relaxed about drink. The first crisis of the Pilgrim Fathers when they arrived in America was that they didn’t have any beer to drink. But following independence, the country developed a serious drink problem. In his book The Alcoholic Republic the historian WJ Rorabaugh estimates that the average American in the early 19th century put away a pint of spirits per day. The understandable reaction to such excess was the Temperance movement which flourished on both sides of the Atlantic. Initially this just meant temperance, moderation, but it soon moved to prohibit alcohol entirely. Much of the energy from Temperance came from Evangelical Abolitionists. They’d freed the black man from slavery, now they turned their attention to the working class at home who they saw as enslaved by alcohol. William Patton, author of Bible Wines, was just such a man. The techniques of the anti-slavery movement were used to demonise alcohol: mass petitions, articles placed in the press and striking prints depicting the misery of alcohol, and religiously-infused public meetings.

The roots of Protestant abstinence lie not in the Bible, but in an entirely understandable attempt to stamp out drunkenness. This mass movement later led to Prohibition with all the crime and unhappiness that went with that. One of the problems with this absolutist attitude to alcohol is that it makes drinking something illicit. When eating with my in-laws rather than the bottle of wine at the table I would sneak off for a surreptitious dram of whisky in my room.

From learning a bit about Biblical abstinence,  I am struck by the unyielding certainty of its proponents. They know better than scholars of the ancient world, people with a knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew. And yet ordinary Baptists aren’t always so closed off. Earlier this year I had lunch with Spanish winemaker. His wife’s family also didn’t drink for religious reasons. Rather than write an article in the Oldie, he politely discussed it with them. He pointed out that Jesus did indeed drink and showed them the evidence. Rather than falling out with them as I would have if I tried this, they were persuaded and, having been abstinent all their lives, now go on wine tasting holidays with their daughter and son-in-law.  People changing long-held beliefs in the face of evidence? Surely a miracle to rival turning water into wine.

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Recipes

Wellness is balls and crisps are ace

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The above is a short extract from the two page lunch box rules booklet provided by my daughter’s school. Below is an article I wrote for the Spectator about crisps and biscuits. Also you may have noticed that I have changed the title of the blog. This is to reflect it’s role as a place to access all my writing rather than just my musings about booze.

To alleviate the pain of being sent back to boarding school, my mother would make potato crisps for my brother and me. She’d slice the potatoes carefully with a mandoline, lovingly fry them in sunflower oil, let them drain on kitchen towel and then sprinkle with sea salt. They were nice, but I hate to say this Mum, they weren’t as delicious as salt & vinegar Crunchy Fries, a now defunct snack similar to a Chipstick.  I tried adding vinegar to my mother’s crisps but they just went soggy.

When I’m abroad the thing I miss most about Britain is salt and vinegar crisps. Not any of that faux natural kettle chip nonsense but Golden Wonder (far superior to Walkers.) When it comes to crisps, the nation agrees that the classics are best. Earlier this year Richard Osman from the television game show Pointless ran a Word Cup of Crisps. Over one million votes were placed in a competition conducted on twitter. In the final pickled onion Monster Munch triumphed over Wotsits. Monster Munch aren’t even made from potatoes and they’ve never been near an actual pickled onion. They are cooked up in a laboratory and all the better for it. As a child I imagined crisp factories to be wondrous Willa Wonka-esque places full of mad scientists concocting crazy flavours.

In Britain we aren’t noted for our culinary prowess but we are good at processed food. As the first country to industrialise, we were the first to create food for the machine age. Canning brought good quality healthy food high in vitamins and nutrients to the working classes in industrial cities who had no access to fresh produce. Canning preserves fresh foods but soon scientists were creating entirely new kinds of food. Marmite, for example, is a by product of Burton-on-Trent’s brewing industry. It was in biscuit form, however, that industry and food found their apotheosis. McVities founded in Edinburgh in 1830 had a winning streak that ran from Chocolate Digestive in 1925 to 1985 with the launch of the Hobnob, the last great biscuit. They’re still made in factories in Carlisle, Stockport, Halifax, Harlesden and Glasgow even if Mcvities are now owned by a Turkish company.  It wasn’t all British ingenuity however,  flavoured crisps were invented in Ireland by Tayto’s in 1950s. The Irish food aisle in my local supermarket is a wall of Tayto’s. Their salt & vinegar is particularly fine.

When I was growing up crisps were considered a health food. They were made from potatoes, dammit. Well or maize and flavour enhancers in the case of Monster Munch. Plain digestives were positively ascetic. But now our great British foods are under attack. At my daughter’s school they are specifically forbidden from bringing crisps and biscuits in their lunch boxes. The cult of Wellness stalks the land with its pseudo scientific pronouncements against gluten, sugar and ‘processed food.’ We are told that sugar is as addictive as tobacco. Ella Woodward, the Nigella of Wellness, wrote how she became ‘totally-hooked on sugar laden convenience food.’ Jamie Oliver has campaigned successfully for a tax on sugar.

Wellness recipes substitute maple syrup for refined sugar but don’t explain why it’s healthier or more natural. They’re both sucrose and both come from plant sap. The American food writer Adam Gopnik makes a good point when he says ‘every attempt to say what nature wants us to do turns out to be what someone thinks we ought to.’  Cutting out gluten makes even less sense. In fact, unless you’re a coeliac, it’s probably detrimental to your health. There’s a nasty streak of snobbery in the Wellness movement: cheap foods that people like, biscuits, crisps etc are demonised whereas expensive organic foods are considered healthy.  Maple syrup is much more expensive than sugar. The sugar tax will disproportionately fall on the working class, the main consumers of fizzy drinks. In order to cut out gluten, the Hemsley sisters, currently starring in their own series on Channel 4 recommend substituting plain flour, 30p a kilo, with coconut flour at £5.

McVities tried a bit of substitution of their own in 2012 in order to make their digestive lower in saturated fat. Much to the horror of biscuit fans the new ones turned out to be oily and crumbly. There was outcry at teatime across the land and sensibly in 2014 McVities reverted to the old recipe. Classic British biscuits don’t take kindly to improvement. My wife attempted to bake chocolate digestive biscuits using organic  flour and high cocoa fat chocolate. We both took a nibble and agreed that they weren’t a patch on McVities.

The truth is that biscuits taste best when made in a big factory in Harlesden. ‘Processed’ and ‘convenience’ are dirty words nowadays when it comes to food but  I think they should be celebrated. On a sustenance level they have enabled our society to thrive but they can also be something unique and delicious. Bill Bryson referred to the chocolate digestive as “a British masterpiece. “ They’re Britain’s equivalent of Coq au Vin or Linguine Vongole except they’re available in every corner shop in the country. They’re a truly egalitarian delicacy.  So when I pack my daughter off to school with her carrots sticks and sandwiches, I like to smuggle in a couple of digestive biscuits wrapped in tinfoil. It feels like a subversive act and I know they’re good for her.

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Books Wine articles

Empire of Booze Nooze

I have a book coming out on 3rd November. I am not sure if I have mentioned it. It’s called Empire Of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass. You can order a copy by clicking on the jacket on the right. I’m going to keep readers updated with events and publicity on this page.

Here is a rundown of some of the publicity that has appeared:

Nice long review in the Guardian by Bernard Porter: “He clearly knows his booze. Perhaps a second edition might be purchased with a crate of samples.”

“Never mind books about drink — a book you can drink, now that’s a Christmas gift.” Ian Sansom in the Spectator

Simon Woolf writing in Palate Press has this to say: “Joking aside, “Empire of Booze” is that very rare beast – a non-fiction book written largely about wine (or wine-derived alcoholic drinks) that manages to be witty without being contrived, accessible without talking down to anyone, and educational without being preachy. I’ll raise my glass to more of that in 2017.”

Top MP Keith Simpson calls it “informative but amusing.” Thanks Keith!

Marcus Berkmann in the Daily Mail seems to really enjoy the book:

“his book is well argued and full of fascinating booze-related facts”

And: “…it’s an ambitious undertaking, but he achieves it with a sharp eye and an understated humorous touch I rather liked”.

Proper historian and wine expert Giles MacDonagh reviews it here: “There is a strong element of 1066 And All That but behind the self-mockery and light-hearted banter, there is plenty of information.here”

Nice mention here on wine blog Sediment, “ebulliently-written.”

Review in the Glasgow Herald. Thinks books is going to be a great success which is nice.

Review in Mail on Sunday, 30th October, not online yet. Here’s a snippet: “Fascinating pub trivia… Henry Jeffreys is a wine columnist and drinks writer who clearly knows his stuff.”

“If you wanted a project to ‘drink the empire’, this is your handbook.” Tamlyn Currin on Jancisrobinson.com

The Carouser gives is 8.5 out of (I hope) 10:

“Empire of Booze is not just another style guide to drinks but a very well written, humorous  book which traces the impact of alcohol on British culture and how British tastes for booze helped shape the drinks that are now consumed throughout the world.”

Some features and radio:

I made my parents very proud by making the front cover of the Bucks Examiner.

You can listen to me on the Food Programme on Radio 4 talking about Sir Kenelm Digby, cider and the Royal Society.

I was on Monocle radio talking about English Sparkling Wine at 22 mins 30 secs.

I wrote a booze book round-up in the Guardian. They didn’t let me recommend my own book (bastards!) but there is a mention at the end.

Long article in the Guardian Review on how alcohol works in fiction.

An article on British wines families the Bartons, the Symingtons and the Blandys in the Wine Society newsletter.

A little mention in the Drinks Business.

A feature in the Oldie on whether Jesus drank wine or not. You can read it here. Or if you can’t be bothered to read, I’ll give you the short answer, yes, yes he did.

I did a short interview on Vinolent where Joss Fowler said the book was “miles and miles better than I thought it would be.”

Article in Spectator on Champagne’s best customers, the British.

Interview in the Buyer.

I was interviewed by William Sitwell on Soho Radio on Tuesday 31 October from 9.30am. You can listen to the the whole show here.