i have been muddling about for a few days over a review of Gereon Wetzel’s El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, about which i have quite distinct opinions that nonetheless maddeningly resist being articulated in print. i’d like to think i will work it out, but if in the meantime you are curious, do not hesitate to ask and i shall provide you with probably the most measured example of a glowing review you have yet encountered.
happily, the past couple of days spent futzing about with the letters of Evelyn Waugh have set me on a different track. one thing that i appreciate about Waugh is that his incurable, almost ridiculous snobbishness does not in any way conflict with his predilection to drunkenness. there is none of Brillat-Savarin’s (quite reasonable) insistence that a true appreciator (gourmande) of the pleasures of the table does not take them in excessive measure; Waugh appreciates with gusto a fine meal and writes regularly if not volubly about his food and drink in these letters. i recognize that as one ensconced in the British tradition of luncheoning and dining, and the attendant custom of judging one’s host(s) by the board they provide, for Waugh such description makes up an integral part of the evaluative social discourse and thereby functions as a sort of gossip, and maybe i shouldn’t be so charmed, but i remain so.
during the course of this reading i realized, however, that for all its ubiquity in Waugh’s deipnographic reports, i had no idea what “a good claret” was. i mean, i knew it was a wine, but had i ever had one? i didn’t think so. there was something about it that made it shimmer a little in my mind – not as if it was imbued with some special aura, but rather that the mental image i had was indistinct, like images perceived by two eyes that refused to be resolved into the intelligibility of binocular vision.
as it turns out, claret has been historically a bit of a moving target, although a much vaunted one. as far back as the 14th c. the term applied to a ‘third way’ of wine-making, that produced (according to the OED) light-red to deep-yellow wines that were considered a thing apart from either red or white wines. this use evolved to describe the light red wines (arguably dark rosé) of Bordeaux, which may have been varietal or now-verboten blends of red & white wine. in any case, for some time these made up the primary export of French wines to the United Kingdom, and this is how, shockingly to a historical nitwit such as myself, claret became the semi-official drink of the Scottish Enlightenment and Jacobites. a fine example of how readily we accept the dehistoricizing machinery of modern nationalisms; it seems so strange that the Scots would so lustily embrace a French drink, but it so happens that claret predates whisky in this very important capacity.
its popularity in England has to do in part with Bordeaux at one time being English territory, and nobility being nobility, lords and ladies getting way up in it (how’s that for a non-explanation). Iain Gately, to whom i turn always for my amusing tidbits of alcoholic trivia, notes that King Edward II ordered approximately 1,152,000 bottles of the stuff for his wedding celebrations (which would have amounted to about 14 bottles for every denizen of London at the time, had they all been included in the festivities. they were not.). in modern day it remains a distinctly British generic name for red Bordeaux, more specifically darker, drier wines, and persists much to the disgruntlement of French winerers.
i am curious what manifestation of claret was being appreciated by Waugh in the early ’40s, and if only i could get my hands on his Wine in Peace & War, i might have some indication, but the motherfucker seems to be a bit on the rare side. oh well.
of more interest to me is the lexicographic effect that the popularity of claret had over the years, managing to become both a verb: “clareting”/”claretteer” (to drink claret/a drinker of claret) and “pugilistic slang” for blood. i don’t know whether this use persists in contemporary Br. English vernacular, but i really enjoy the subtle compound meaning in passages like “This should be a Coronation day; for my head runs claret lustily.” (Dekker, 1604)
in other news, Work Suspended has turned out to be brilliantly intriguing (and less scandalous than its cover copy suggests), and i only wish it were a little longer, so that it could stand on firmer feet with Fitzgeral’s The Last Tycoon and Capote’s Answered Prayers as one of the Great Unfinished Works of the 20th c.