In the midst of Brexit agony, one thing remains certain: disputation needs drink

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

It is enough to drive a fellow to the bottle. I am not given to agnosticism. My view is that if the evidence seems to sustain a conclusion, weigh it and arrive at one. On Brexit, I find that impossible. Most of my friends have no problem. From Remoaners to rejoicers, they all deal in certainties. I cannot emulate them. My intellect seems to have turned into a cushion, bearing the imprint of the last person I spoke to. I refuse to believe that the Bank of England has turned into the equivalent of an M.R. James ghost story, a delightful way of giving everyone a good scare on a wintry evening. But friends of mine argue equally forcefully to the contrary. Roger Bootle, David Howell, Nigel Lawson, Peter Lilley, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Matt Ridley: these are serious men, making a cogent case.

Whom to believe? I am drawn to two cautious judgments. First, that there are too many variables and uncertainties for a firm assessment to be possible. That might appear to vindicate agnosticism: not so. The government must still do something. Second, that the consequences of Brexit/Fudge-it may not be as serious as is widely assumed. It could be that the difference will be as little as 1 per cent of GDP. Is that a commonsense assessment — or an idle and complacent muddle? Time alone will tell.

In the midst of all this agonising, there is one consolation. Disputation needs drink. As an Russian grand duke once said: ‘Between the revolution and the firing squad, there is always time for a bottle of champagne.’ Brexit is more of a red wine conflict, and claret works better than burgundy; left-bank claret best of all. Gravel and cabernet sauvignon are better at sharpening the wits than the gentler, sweeter grape varietals.

Over recent days, I have cracked lances over Léoville-Poyferre ’01, Bahans Haut-Brion ’05, Beychevelle of the same vintage and an ’04 Batailley. I thought that the Léoville narrowly shaded the Bahans, but that led to a characteristic disagreement with a Frenchman. My friend Eric thought that the Léoville was fading. I insisted that it was still in its prime.

Similar disputes have been chronicled in this column over the years. The Grenouilles maintain that they make wonderful wine, which the Rosbifs abuse by allowing it to decompose. In some French wine-making circles, ‘le vice Anglais’ now refers to necrophilia. We believe that although the French produce the stuff, they need us Brits to tell them when to drink it. That disagreement will outlast Brexit. It probably began back in the era when the English ruled Gascony.

Although Brexit appears to have drawn all the oxygen out of Tory politics, life is more than politics. Other great issues are in play. The most important also requires an early decision. What should the pièce de resistance be on Christmas Day? To avoid the doom prophesied in the wisest of all military maxims, that no plan ever survives the initial conflict with the enemy, we decided to take heed of the second one: that time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. This meant an expedition to Dorset and long discussions in my friends’ kitchen, where the campaign will be planned, the battle joined, the triumph celebrated.

One radical conclusion won unanimous assent: no turkey. At best, it is a banal and disappointing bird, ideal for children, no doubt palatable for invalids, but not a serious repast. So; possible alternatives. Goose? It is a wonderful idea: the roast goose of Old England, the joy of the Cratchit family, the redemption of old Scrooge. But in my experience, although dried goose breast is delicious, the roast goose rarely tastes as good as it ought to. Moreover, you need a mighty quantity of bird, and of oven space, to produce enough flesh.

Our deliberations took us back to the greatest gourmand in British history, the hero who put the ‘trench’ into trencherman, Sir John Falstaff. Although he does not appear in As You Like It, ‘in fair round belly with good capon lined’ would have been as he liked it. So that is a possibility. It would also be a way of appeasing the French. Sometimes they do order things better, and here is one example. At this time of year, when French restaurants are advertising their Christmas menus with an enticement that can make you feel hungry straight after lunch, chapon fermier figures prominently. So it may in Dorset.

There is also the roast beef of Old England, either as a glorious, defiant joint, the sort of dish that might have graced Wellington’s table after a day spent crushing the French, or in a more placatory form, as if the great duke were entertaining Talleyrand: a boeuf Wellington, no less. Red wines were being assessed for the accompaniment, the choice seemingly falling between claret or Côte-Rôtie (plus the obvious compromise: both). If it were Côte-Rôtie, it would come from Saint Cosme, whose seriously eccentric proprietors make superb wines. Never miss an opportunity to try one.

The Barruol family have been making wine at Saint Cosme since the 16th century, which makes them newcomers. Archaeological remains of the Romano-Gallic era are still visible and vines have been grown there since at least the 2nd century AD, 100 years before Saint Cosmas was martyred. (The history of his relics and their wanderings will re-inspire the devotion of the believers and inspire the contempt of the rationalists, who will regard the whole story as a flummery of s-uperstition.) There is no flummery about the modern followers of Saint Cosme, the most important chateau in Gigondas, and as such, associated with that appellation’s rise to prestige and higher prices.

We will certainly be drinking some over the holiday. Then real radicalism supervened. My hostess comes from a family where the ladies exhibit every feminine grace known to man, plus the ones which they have invented. But they have a further remarkable characteristic. When it comes to eating sashimi or sushi, they could out-scoff a team of sumo wrestlers. So what about raw fish for Christmas day? If so, we will accompany it with Hunter Hill from the Kumeu River, a New Zealand chardonnay of grand cru quality. What an interesting idea. Even if the event is dislodged from the great day itself, my palate is already in gear.

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