We were celebrating the end of lockdown by talking about war and deer stalking — over a business lunch, naturally. My friend David Mathew, from a distinguished legal, military and political family, told a story about Churchill’s arrival in Athens at Christmas in 1944. David’s father, Robert, then a young officer, was sent to meet the great man, who was grumpy and preoccupied, with good reason. He had come to save Greece from communism, with little guarantee of help from the Americans, let alone left-wing opinion in Britain. The sucking-up to ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin may have been necessary to win the war. It would not be helpful for winning the peace.
Robert and Churchill’s arrival at the embassy was heralded by sniper fire, and young Mathew shoved the PM through the door. They landed in a heap. Churchill: ‘Do you normally push prime ministers around?’ Mathew: ‘Sir, I’d rather have an angry prime minister than a dead one.’ Churchill: ‘What did you say your name was?’ ‘Mathew, sir’. ‘Any relation of General Charles?’ ‘My father, sir.’ Churchill’s mood instantly softened. ‘We charged together at Omdurman.’ Soon afterwards, Robert was a Tory candidate.
Rory, a younger friend, had been shooting hinds in Perthshire. Deer stalking, the greatest of sports, is about as much fun as you can have wearing clothes. In my case, the pleasures may be past, for I have done too much stalking with knife, fork and glass. But it is good to listen to stalking talk. Although the Highlands are festooned in winter, the only snowflakes there are ones that cover hills.
Friends had stories about coping with the recent nonsense. One group found a restaurant which entertained them in an underground room. A man with a special forces background caught the mood. ‘Must have been a bit like this in occupied France: having your dinner in a cellar, while someone cocks an ear for the Gestapo.’
During the month of deprivation, I discovered another hazard, which threatens to endure into normal times. You cannot trust supermarketcheese. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have been deceiving their customers. You see a rustic-looking Camembert, but when you scrutinise the small print you find it is made from pasteurised milk. This is presumably some dastardly French plot to exploit British ignorance. Our supermarkets compound the outrage by claiming that the cheese is adulterated for safety’s sake. Rubbish. I did discover an alternative, from Brittany. I am surprised it is allowed to call itself Camembert, but it is indistinguishable from the proper Norman stuff. It should not be so hard to find proper cheese, rather than ersatz made from chalk to suit the palates of snowflakes.
That said, toasts were raised to the French at another post–lockdown business luncheon. We drank three magnificent bottles. The first was a Chablis Grand Cru Blanchot 2016 from the house of Droin, which has been in business for 400 years. In those centuries, I wonder if they have ever eaten pasteurised cheese. No, that is an insulting suggestion. The wine had everything, and in harmony. Fruit, acid, honey, flint: some of us thought that we had never tasted a better Chablis. Even so, it will evolve further over the coming years.
The second white was an Hospice de Beaune Meursault Genevrières 2002. Straight from the pouring, it seemed to be showing its age. There was plenty of structure; was there enough fruit? But it opened out. We decided it should have been decanted and given a little more time. Still, it was delicious. We finished with a Cos d’Estournel 2005: a really serious claret. Mature now, it will last for decades.
Good fellowship, outstanding wine: the lockdown receded into the distance. That is the place for it.
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