Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brideshead Revisited with Brandy

Evelyn Waugh is another writer who's more than a bit of a snob, though in his case it's one of the things I find interesting about him rather than off putting. I loved 'Brideshead Revisited' when I first read it in my late teens and early twenties, but haven't revisited it for a long time. I might try and make it a New Years resolution.

It was written during the war which is probably one reason why it's so full of food, and most interesting from my point of view, drink. There's a dinner about half way through where Charles Ryder is dining with Rex Mottram, who we are given to understand is not quite a gentleman which has particularly stuck with me. Rex is paying, but Charles has chosen the dinner. It finishes with a fine old pale cognac served in a tulip glass, it's stated as being a year or two older than Rex - so at a guess I'm thinking 30 years or so. Rex declaring he knows about brandy demands a balloon glass warmed on a spirit burner, disparages the original cognac, and ends up with something dark and syrupy.

Whatever the reader knows about the respective merits of different cognacs the message is clear - Rex is an outsider who lacks class, Charles, the restaurant staff, and the rest of us are now judging him for not being able to recognise quality. I think it stuck because it feels like the distilled essence of Waugh to me, containing everything that I find both attractive and repellent about him. 

Brandy is the spirit you get when you distill wine and it can be made anywhere. Cognac and Armagnac are the most famous brandy producing regions in France, both are brandys but there are some key differences between them. Armagnac, which I believe is the first recorded distilled drink in France, is made in a sort of continuous still, Cognac is pot distilled. The way the two are regulated is slightly different too, and whilst Armagnac comes in vintages, generally speaking, cognac does not. 

The initial V.S, V.S.O.P, and X.O that appear on bottles stand for very special, very superior old pale, and extra old. With cheaper brandy the dark colour is more likely to come from caramel than from oak barrels. I'm not quite sure if Charles is drinking a particularly old V.S.O.P or what would have been the equivalent of an X.O, but either way we can be sure it was expensive. 

Again, very generally speaking, pot distilling gives more character to a spirit than continuous distilling, it's also a more expensive process which is one reason why the difference between an X.O Armagnac and an X.O cognac is upwards of £100 a bottle (though there are cheaper supermarket own label versions around). It's also worth noting that not everyone likes 'character' and that many prefer (for want of a better word) the smoothness of Armagnac against the 'bite' of cognac. 

With budgetary considerations to the fore, my Brideshead recommendation would be an X.O. Armagnac (Waugh might not entirely have approved - though then again, he might - if it seemed exclusive enough), sipped, of course, from a tulip shaped glass. 

1 comment:

  1. Call me cautious, but I approach the 'bite' of a decent cognac with the awe in which I would approach the Bight of Benin, made famous in John Masefield's rollicking novel Dead Ned.
    I mean I would sip this spiritous nectar very slowly indeed.
    Like navigating the Bight.
    Aged 18 I sat in the Ramblas of Barcelona in 1970, drinking cheap Fundador brandy.
    All because I read about Fundador in Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.
    Mr Waugh is more to my taste now.
    I have ancient Penguin editions of the Sword of Honour trilogy.
    Waugh's prose like cognac matures with age.
    Rather like RL Stevenson's Weir of Hermiston, which I am reading again.
    As an old altar boy who remembers the Latin rite, I can sympathise with his retro-Catholicism.
    Mr Waugh would not admire my later conversion to John Calvin and the Puritans.
    Nor would Stevenson for that matter.
    Let us raise a glass, alcoholic or not, to good writers who outlive their times.
    How about Sylvia Townsend Warner as your next rediscovery?
    I am reading her diaries, edited by Claire Harman, and they are excruciatingly entertaining, wise and hilarious.
    J Haggerty