Eating In

The spirit of Lent

If you must forego wine, try cocktails instead

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The British taxed wine. The Spanish taxed medicine. In boyhood I understood perfectly: each nation encumbered its luxuries and exempted its necessities. Now, when British friends give up wine for Lent, I have to suppress my distress. One might as well give up food — which without a healthful glass to help it down is at best indigestible, and at worst unpalatable. Ill-informed health faddists, misers and recovering alcoholics claim to prefer water. We all know where we don’t mind where it goes.

Long residence in the United States has taught me that these apparently barbarous concoctions can do service at table

For those determined to sacrifice table wine in penance, I have the answer. Somewhat in the spirit of Marie Antoinette recommending cake, let them accompany their meals with cocktails or highballs. Long residence in the United States has taught me that these apparently barbarous concoctions can do service at table.

A vodka martini, strewn with lemon, is insuperable with shellfish, especially if the molluscs are marinaded in vodka before being cooked or consumed. A version with gin suits smoked salmon or other preserved fish pefectly. With green olives instead of lemons, and (in the style favoured by Franklin D. Roosevelt) a dash of the preservative brine, the same drink honours fresh salmon or any white fish.

With a meaty-fleshed specimen, however, such as monkfish or sturgeon, Campari or another bitter apéritif, stirred with grapefruit juice and plenty of ice, is worth trying.

The sweetness of cocktails made with vermouth, red or bianco, complements most charcuterie. If Spanish vermouth is available, I mix it with vodka in what I call a dry Martínez, or with rye whiskey — or bourbon if the wormwood isn’t too sweet — for a Mañanahattan.

Soup is harder to match with a cocktail. But many xenophobic members of bygone British élites used to drink scotch throughout a meal so bourbon, which tends to be more full-bodied, should be acceptable. Try it with soda for consommés, or as an Old Fashioned with a dash of bitters for cream soups or thick potages made from sweet root vegetables. One can follow Ethel Merman’s advice and “leave out the cherry”.

Most main courses are easy to pair. I presume Champagne cocktails are forbidden to those renouncing wine — which is a pity since a Normandy, made with calvados and a dash of pommeau topped with Champagne, is perfect with fat pork or boiled or roasted ham or a lean pig’s loin anointed with cream.

For anything for which a penitent might choose red Burgundy, maraschino cherries are picked

An alternative is to use white rum as a base: it echoes the sweetness of the fruity compotes that traditionally accompany such dishes in England, and combines well with pommeau for a tang of apple. For duck or goose only a White Lady does justice; but this mixture of gin, triple sec and a little fresh lemon juice is deadly to the weak-headed. Orange-flower water can be amenable to the addition of Champagne to Guinness; but the Queen Mother’s old tipple of gin and Dubonnet is good with liver cooked in the same blackcurranty tonic.

For anything for which a penitent might choose red Burgundy, maraschino cherries are picked. The Dexter is named after a famous benefactor’s horse, which the university stabled for him free of charge when he was an impoverished student in 1902: in prosperity he rewarded us with the millions that fund the guest house on campus. Rye and bitters, as for an Old Fashioned, is the base, whereas for a Father Hesburgh — the impeccable favourite tipple of the university’s most renowned priest-president, who turned Notre Dame from a modest college into an indecently rich place of research — one starts with a Manhattan mixture, of bourbon and red vermouth.

A Brandy Alexander or affogato or espresso martini will round off the meal, with the added benefit of offering up the sacrifice of a solid pudding. If the succession of cocktails sounds a little heady, the fearful can fend off drunkenness by using plenty of ice.

Will my guardian angel reproach me for recommending the use of such wine-based apéritifs as vermouth and Dubonnet to penitents who have abjured wine? Surely gall and wormwood are ideal for a season of spiritual sackcloth. And a pounding or splitting head may deserve, in heaven, the reward due to unostentatious pain.

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