‘Harvested to the sound of gunfire, but drunk to the sound of trumpets’: tasting Champagne Pol Roger

1914 was one of the finest of all champagne vintages. Harvested by women, children and old men in the absence of the men of fighting age, it became Winston Churchill’s favourite wine (and favourite vintage).

Cassidy Dart, of Pol Roger UK, who presented the company’s range of 7 wines at the Bridge Street Wine Bar in Cambridge last week, has tasted this wine twice (lucky man). He describes it as still having a few bubbles, though the colour is slowly shifting towards orange / brown (as happens with almost all old white wines).


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‘On the scale from riches to ruin’: the cargo of champagne in R.L.Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide

One of Robert Louis Stevenson’s very last books was Ebb-Tide. His step-son Lloyd Osbourne shared the credit for this 1894 work but it seems clear that Stevenson wrote all the second part (‘The Quartette’) and heavily revised the first part (‘The Trio’)[1].


Briefly, the story is of a trio of ‘on the beach’ bums; each a failure in his own way, each hiding his real identity, each close to the point of death or despair on the wind and rain swept beach of Samoa. Continue reading

‘Archer Up’ | celebrating the great Victorian jockey

Fred Archer committed suicide on 8 November 1886. Delirious with wasting and purging to make the 8 stone 7lb weight for the Cambridgeshire Cup (the only classic race he had never won) and suffering the effects of typhoid fever he shot himself. The gun is still in the National Horse-Racing Museum.Fred Archer_200913

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Miracle at Marino | wine on tap, in your house

Every October, there’s a Sagra dell’Uva festival held in Marino (15 miles or so the south east of Rome). The festival has its origins in 1571 when, on 17th October, the same day as the traditional processions of the Madonna del Rosario, the Christian fleet defeated the Turks at Lepanto.

The lord of Marino, Marcantonio Colonna, had taken part in the battle and in 1925 the Marinesi decided to link Colonna’s victory with a festival to celebrate and publicise their own famous white wine. Their link was that one of the group that went into battle with Colonna was a vine-grower who reputedly brought back to Marino a Malvasia vine from the island of Candia… . With me so far?

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Into the lions’ cage | adman wins a champagne bet

On 11th October 1890, The Oxford Journal reported that Mr James Dillon, an Irish ‘advertising agent’ had wagered £100 that he could enter the lions’ cage and “drink his share of a bottle of champagne before leaving.”

Thanks to the assistance of Muccomo (described as the ‘coloured lion tamer’) with both the lions and the champagne he succeeded.

Champagne was often part of 19th century wagers. If it wasn’t the ‘fumes’ of the drink that provoked some extravagant or intemperate behaviour, it was often the prize at stake. In February 1880, the South Shields Gazette featured a bet (for a sum unrecorded) that turned on the ability to drink a glass of champagne from an unopened bottle without piercing the cork or breaking the glass. It was won by the simple expedient of turning the bottle upside down and drinking from the punt (described here as “the hollow at the bottom”).

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the 'punt'

19th century French champagne bottles showing the depth of the ‘punt’. Thanks to the Naked Winery for this image

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Sherry cobbler comes to Cambridge | Drinking the 1840s with Charles Astor Bristed

Just over 150 years ago, Charles Astor Bristed was doubtless contemplating the start of term at Cambridge University. I’m doing the same, which is a reason for this blog, on the day the Freshers’ Week appears to begin for Graduates.

 There are differences, though. Charles Astor Bristed was a very wealthy American (the clue is in that middle name). His grandfather was THE Astor, the one who put ‘Astor’ into the Waldorf Astoria. That meant that, at Cambridge, he could be a ‘Fellow Commoner’. This were the aristos who shared the considerable privileges of the College Fellows (and were, usually, a good deal wealthier than the academics).

Waldorf Astoria

 Charles Astor Bristed was at Trinity College where, after a first degree at Yale, he had hopes of the highest academic honours. He didn’t quite make that grade but he did write a richly detailed book about the life of Cambridge students at that time. His book ‘Five Years in an English University’ covers the period from 1840-1845.

C A Bristed_160913

 As usual it’s the drink bits that interest me. His general take on Cambridge drinking habits was that the wine was, mostly, “villainously doctored”; that the students tended to over-indulge (though he does qualify this by noting how intellectually and physically fit they mostly were); and that it was the punches and mixes of various kinds that did the damage – along with ‘strong wines’.

 He recalls drinking bishop (at its most innocuous a spiced red wine), ‘silky’, “the component parts of which … appeared to be made of rum and madeira” and, of course, sherry cobbler. His claim to fame, indeed, was that he introduced it to Cambridge (and perhaps to England).

 Sherry cobbler, basically a mix of sherry, fresh fruit and ice drunk through a reed (straws as we know them weren’t invented until the 1890s) was almost certainly created in America. There’s a reference in Washington Irving’s 1809 ‘Knickerbocker’s History of New York’ which credits it to the Marylanders. But it didn’t get much other notice until it took England by storm in the 1840s.

 Charles Dickens gave the sherry cobbler a big endorsement in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (serialised in the mid-1840s). Here’s his description of the American reviver prescribed for Martin by his friend Mark Tapley – one of the rather few aspects of American life that appealed to Dickens:

“He produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr. Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture — which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice — and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.

By the 1860s, cobblers were hugely popular. The Lake Wenham Ice company (“a party of speculating gentlemen”), which first shipped to England in 1844, promoted the drink. According to the 1871 edition of Oxford Night Caps, their ‘vertigo’ inducing recipe was as follows:

Pound a small quantity of ice quite fine by wrapping it in a coarse cloth and beating it with a mallet or rolling pin. Half fill a large tumbler with this powdered ice, add a teaspoon and a half of pounded sugar, two or three pieces of the outer rind of a lemon, and a wine glass and a half of sherry. (Throw in half a dozen strawberries, if in season.) Fill up with pounded ice. Mix by pouring rapidly from one tumbler to another several times. Drink through a straw.

Sherry cobbler

Charles Astor Bristed did not give a recipe in his original book (though there is a version in his 1852 ‘The Upper Ten Thousand; sketches of American Society, by a New Yorker’.  He too stressed the importance of lemon peel (than slices of lemon, “nothing could be more destructive”, so perhaps Dickens got it wrong).

 Cocktail experts credit the cobbler as “the force that propelled cocktail shakers into every bar of any size” and the three piece shaker is still known as the ‘cobbler shaker’.

 I followed the ‘Esquire’ recipe which sticks to slices of orange and a raspberry or two on top. It was delicious, though with a Fino sherry more sugar was needed. It would have been even better if the temperature outside was not rather below the seasonal average. Oh well, something for next summer.

One last Bristed observation which I find very encouraging (even empowering):

 “Young ladies sometimes picture to themselves students as delicate pale youths who live on toast and tea. Never was there a great mistake, Men who study in earnest eat in earnest.” What more justification is required…

Graham’s 1948 Vintage Port | Would that it were mine…

As a post this is almost a week behind the time. The excuse is that firstly I’ve just found the reference (in an old copy of Decanter) and secondly, it’s just too good a coincidence.

Graham’s 1948 Vintage Port shares my name and my birth year – and now I find that on my birthday John D Symington whose family still own this legendary port house, reporting on the harvest prospects for 1948, wrote “Grapes looking healthy and nice and very sweet.”

Graham's 1948 label

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Bubbles over the Loire | Mon Ange, Fillibulle and La Tour Grise

We ate with good friends the other night at ‘La Part des Anges’ in Chinon. Given the name of the restaurant there was only one choice to start the evening: Domaine de la Noblaie’s sparkling rose, Mon Ange. And  very good choice it was. Apricot rather than pink in colour, very fresh on the nose with peach and white fruit aromas. The mousse was gentle rather than aggressive but there was a real liveliness in the mouth and lots of red fruit in the flavour – hardly surprising since this is a 100% Cabernet Franc wine.


We paid 22€; the cellar door price is around 10€ – and at that price it’s excellent value. There’s no UK stockist that I can trace.

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Who buried my cheese? | Samuel Pepys and the Great Fire of London, 1666

In early September 1666 the Great Fire of London swept through the medieval City, destroying more than 13,000 houses as well as 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. It had started shortly after midnight on 2 September in Thomas Faryner’s Pudding Lane bakery. Samuel Pepys’s house in Seething Lane, just half a mile to the east, was in the line of the fire which was driven westward by strong winds and Pepys was worried. What concerned him was not so much for his personal safety as for his gold, his wine – and his cheese.

Faryner plaque

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Ratafia and Cuvée de l’Ecusson | a German-Luxembourg aperitif that hits the spot

Kay brought back for me  from Berlin a bottle of ratafia. What’s that you may say? Well, ratafia is a generic name for grape brandy mixed with grape (or apple) juice and flavoured with spices, fruits or herbs. There are versions in Burgundy, Armagnac, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. Not excepting Germany. This particular ratafia is infused with flowers (dahlias in fact) grown in the garden of Expressionist painter Emil Nolde’s garden and transformed into an aromatic liqueur by Martina Kabitzsc of Manufaktur von Blythen in Berlin.


Possibly the right colour…


Emil Nolde Stiftung, Berlin

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