My friends divide into three groups. There are those who are determined to anticipate Lent. There is a larger number whose January diet barely made it until Twelfth Night. There is a third group, whose dietary plans are indeed based on Twelfth Night: the characters of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. To which set do I belong? That depends whom I am talking to, and whether they will believe me.
Whether or not Christmas is the greatest Feast — the truth appears to be that there is no hierarchy in Feasts — we had a great feast down in Somerset. The centrepiece was goose. There is a family called Zebedee, famous for geese, whose headquarters is Lower Daggon farm. Shades of Tolkien’s Farmer Maggot: I bet they also harvest mushrooms. I would aver that in all England, no more succulent bird was eaten that day.
I always make myself useful in the kitchen. First, in a general supervisory role. Second, opening bottles and charging glasses. Third, tasting: I reckon that my tasting is worth a couple of rosettes. This time, I was also in charge of peeling and halving lime-green Brussels sprouts straight from the garden, before brief cookery to render them al dente. But I was quickly complained of. Accused of being as dilatory as Montgomery after D-Day, I was reminded that the vegetables were needed today, and reinforced by a retired officer of field rank. The task completed, we decided we had formed a new military unit: the Peelers.
The goose did not stand alone. It was preceded by caviar then smoked salmon. Although from an Italian river, the caviar could have come from the Volga or the Caspian. One of the best things to have emerged Italy since the Renaissance, it is imported by Robert Mackinnon who runs a fine-food business in Frome. Although despair would be blasphemous on Christmas Day, the threat to caviar has provided grounds for pessimism. With all the traditional waters menaced by war and pollution, supplies have been interrupted to conserve breeding stocks. Now the Italians have lightened our darkness. They also set a high standard for the smoked salmon. It passed, well. At Glenarm in Ulster, my friend Randal Dunluce produces as good a smoked non-wild salmon as there is. A final palate-cleansing glass of fizz, and it was time for goose and claret. We drank ’88 Gruaud-Larose in a double magnum. It was excellent, but full in years. At the top of a high hill, it is just beginning to look down. If you are lucky enough to have any, seek an occasion to drink it. It was supplemented by the same wine from ’02. Although we thought it was shaded by a Ducru-Beaucaillou of the same year, consumed on Christmas Eve, these are gradations among the subtleties of excellence, and no one was in prime tasting condition — except the wines.
The Set of Odd Bottles, whose transactions are chronicled here, has been inactive of late. One of our number has been hurrying to finish a book. Another should be hurrying to finish a book, while a third is busy upholding order (and, I suppose, law) in the criminal courts. But young Charlie, doyen of the junior Bottles, was busy over the holiday, though with -musket more than glass. He shot several woodcock. On his final outing before the new term, out rough shooting with his father, he saw a hare lying prone. The gun went straight to the shoulder, but the father said: ‘You can’t shoot that: wouldn’t be sporting.’ ‘Damn sport,’ Charlie replied, ‘what about our stomachs?’ Sensing danger, the hare moved; at a lollop not a sprint, though with dead-eye Charlie in command, that would probably have made no difference. Jugged, the hare was delicious. A couple of nights later, I had some Ch. Rayas ’01. I cannot decide whether its robustness would have been perfect with the hare, or whether such a serious wine deserves undivided attention.
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