Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Month: April 2017

English Portocole

Yet one more example of those countless, irreconcilable differences separating English and French is provided by their diametrically-opposed attitudes to port. For the French le porto is usually consumed as just one more apéritif. It tends to be drunk chilled in its lighter, white variations and, along with other fortified wines, is more a preference of the female sex. The English, on the other hand, prefer their port velvet red, served at room temperature, and in full-bodied, vintage form – while drinking it is traditionally an almost exclusively male, after-dinner practice.

     Historically, port-drinking in England goes back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when conflict with the hereditary enemy obliged the English to turn to their Portuguese allies to provision them in wine. The long sea journey to England proving detrimental to quality, the wine began to be ‘fortified’ – stabilized by the addition of distilled grape alcohol which stopped the fermentation process, thereby retaining a high sugar content while increasing alcoholic strength.

     Port is generally regarded by the English as providing the ideal complement, both in texture and flavour, not only to indigenous cheeses such as Stilton, Cheddar or Gloucester, but also as a dessert wine to accompany, in particular, full-flavoured, fruit–based sweets as well as nuts. It must be savoured in slow, contemplative sips, and is reputed both for the warm, calming effects it has on imbibers, and the philosophical orientations it is apt to impart. Perhaps it was this latter propensity which, in higher social circles, went towards creating that after-dinner custom which required ladies to retire to the drawing room for tea and gossip, leaving the men to discuss politics and life’s vicissitudes over a cigar, and a glass or two of mellow vintage port.

     And what is more natural with these lovers of ritualized tradition that port-drinking should have generated a number of odd ceremonial procedures? For serving and passing the port are subject to rules of etiquette as minutely detailed as those set out in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ Book of Regulations. At formal dinners, a custom, apparently originating in the British Navy, requires the wine to be passed from port to port (the port side of a ship is the left-hand side): the host first serves the person seated on his right before passing the bottle clockwise to his neighbour on the left; the latter then proceeds to serve the passer on his right, and then hands it on to the next person on his left who does the same. In this way the bottle is sent round the table until it comes full circle back to the host. If a person should, for some reason, fail to pass the bottle on (another rule states that it must never be allowed to touch the table on the way round), it is considered discourteous to bring this to his attention directly (we are, of course, among gentlemen). The only acceptable procedure consists in asking him the question: ‘Don’t you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ This is intended more as a reminder than a reproach. If, however, the miscreant is unacquainted enough with port etiquette to answer in the negative, the correct response is: ‘He’s an awfully nice fellow … but he never remembers to pass the port!’ *

     And what more can you expect from a nation of incorrigible boozers that another long-established tradition requires that a bottle in the process of being drunk should never be re-corked? The injunction ‘No heel-taps!’ requires that the last drops of the bottle be drunk off so that another may be swiftly opened. At formal military dinners, moreover, no other wine but port is considered noble enough to be raised in toast to the King or Queen.

 

*Legend has it that the ecclesiastic in question was the long-lived Henry Bathurst (1744-1837), Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, who in his later years was in the understandable habit of nodding off over his port, thus failing to pass it on. So seriously was the problem taken that elaborate lengths were gone to in order to find a remedy. A solution was finally provided by the Hoggett Decanter, the rounded base of which made it impossible to stand, thereby making sure it inscribed a full aerial circle before landing back on a special stand (itself called the Hoggett) positioned in front of the host.

 

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

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La Perfide Albion or Hypocrisy – English Style

Though anecdotes abound concerning the Englishman’s legendary ability to preserve his sense of humour and sang-froid in moments of crisis, the Frenchman in us has just pointed out that fewer exist regarding another of his specialities: hypocrisy. You know, we’re sure he’d be ready to bet our bottom euro that there isn’t another country in the world where direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction is perceived as being tantamount to a declaration of war. And it can only be you English who, when you find yourselves in the embarrassing situation of having to correct a mistake, will go to such extraordinarily apologetic lengths to point out that what you are about to say is in no way a criticism, but stems merely from a wish to explain. Though our Froggie would be the first to admit that the rules of politeness oblige us all to conceal our true feelings and opinions so as to minimize the risk of conflict with others, you take this to ridiculous extremes. He really doesn’t know of any other people in the world who, instead of declaring, ‘No, I disagree with you entirely!’ go to such extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point, but, on the other hand, don’t you think …?’ when they are intimately convinced you’re talking unmitigated rubbish. Now, let’s be honest. How can you possibly trust someone who systematically professes to agree with everything you say?

     And some years ago during an IRA terrorist bombing campaign in London, we were enjoying a quiet evening drink with an English friend in a pub near Piccadilly Circus, when suddenly in the distance we heard a violent detonation. The window panes rattled slightly, glasses on shelves behind the bar chinked together, and a few particles of dust floated down from the ceiling. To our utter amazement, everybody except us threw themselves to the floor, and remained there for several moments in deathly silence. Finally, on realizing there was no danger, our friend raised himself to his feet, casually dusted his jacket sleeves and trouser legs, looked us knowingly in the eye, and then remarked with a smug-looking smile, ‘Oh! You were so scared you couldn’t move!’

     What’s more, in the field of sport our Frenchman is convinced that you English are much less stars of fair play than champions at making people think you are and, if there was a gold medal to be won in the field of perfidious hypocrisy, you would be world-beaters. On this score, the experience our neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had in his youth can be taken as just one example.

     In his younger days, Monsieur Martin played rugby for our local fifteen. Now such is the aggressive nature of this sport, ‘a game of thugs played by gentlemen’, that certain situations could provide the opportunity for violent, below-the-belt tactics, worthy of the most unsavoury street-fighter which, admittedly, the referee is not always in a position to witness and punish. The game relies, therefore, on the rules of fair sporting conduct being responsibly applied by all players. In this respect, Monsieur Martin often tells the story of the ‘friendly’ match he once played against a touring English club team.

     A match between England and France can never, of course, be amicable in the true sense of the word, and this one was no exception. In an enthusiastically-disputed ruck Monsieur Martin received a kick in the head from an English forward (out of sight, of course, of the referee), vigorous enough for him to be obliged to play the rest of the match with blood streaming from a gash in his forehead (this was before the days of the blood substitute). At the end of the game (narrowly lost by the French), the English consolidated their triumph, as is their custom, by lining up in a guard of honour and ‘sportingly’ shaking hands with their adversaries.

     ‘Oh dear! Did you bump your head?’ enquired the English forward, seizing Monsieur Martin warmly by the hand.

    

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

Get started here :   http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

 

 

 

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