I was reminded of the worst liquid that I have ever consumed. It was the last occasion on which I drank Coca-Cola, nearly 50 years ago. To be fair to Coke, this bottle was at room temperature, and the room was in the Anatolian peninsula, during the ferocity of high summer. A group of us were travelling in a battered old bus, still four hours by bad roads from Izmir, hot water and cold beer.
Having run out of bottled water, we needed something to stave off dehydration. The village offered a choice: well water or parboiled Coke. An aristocratic French leftie was moved to a declamation: ‘Moi, j’ai un horreur de Coca-Cola.’ I concurred. But as every mouthful of well water would have contained at least 20 organisms lethal to a delicately nurtured western European stomach, there was no choice. I suggested to the grenouille that when he got back to Paris, he should seek to make an addendum to the Declaration of the Rights of Man: that no Frenchman should ever have to drink Coca-Cola. Anyway, we survived, with no cases of dysentery.
Although it would be an overstatement to call that memory a madeleine de Proust, it was sparked off by an encounter with possibly the second worst beverage that I have ever come across. Earlier this week, I was at a conference. Among other excellent speakers, we listened to John Bew and Niall Ferguson, who are shaping up to be their generation’s equivalent of George Kennan and Henry Kissinger.
Lesser figures were in charge of the catering. At the lunch break, I felt like a beer. Peroni was available, perfect for a warm day. But it tasted disgusting. What the devil was the matter? Can bottles of beer go off like corked wine? I scrutinised the label and there was the answer. The beer was gluten free. Goats and monkeys.
The Italian attitude to food and drink is an endless harmony between joy and good sense. In the kitchen, the Italians may never reach the Himalayan peaks of French haute cuisine. But they know how to make delicious ingredients sing. You have to try hard to find a bad meal in Italy, which is no longer the case in France. When haute cuisine fails, there are no safety nets. The result is pretentiousness: expensive pretentiousness at that.
Italian wine is constantly improving, and there is nothing wrong with normal Peroni. But ‘gluten free’? Pah. I cannot believe that any Italian has ever polluted his palate with the stuff. Presumably it was designed for the British market. One would like to think that the Italians have underestimated the British palate. Then again, there was a time when many Brits thought that Italian food was spaghettibol washed down by ‘Chianti’ from bottles covered in wicker-work, abetted by a waiter poncing around with an eight-foot pepper-grinder while massacring ‘O sole mio’.
There is a better recent memory. It was a long time since I had tasted Clos de la Roche, a magnificent Burgundy, up there with Chambertin Clos de Beze and the glories of the DRC. I had heard tell of Domaine Ponsot, a major Clos de la Roche producer. Indeed, there are those who insist that he is a worthy rival to Armand Rousseau. His wines are highly prized and, alas, appropriately priced. A friend with a serious interest in Burgundy produced a bottle of the Ponsot 2016, which had been in the decanter for four hours. Everything that a magnificent Burgundy ought to be, it would be a worthy Proustian aide-mémoire.
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