Spirit levels


"Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup or stew as a reckless foreign extravagance," opines Elizabeth David in French Country Cooking (Penguin). To me it seems perfectly clear.

We English, dipsomaniacs as we are, can scarcely break the seal of the most vinegary vintage without gulping it down to the dregs. If opening a bottle of wine to cook with means finishing it too, that makes it an expensive glassful. Though the French and Italians drink more often - a meal without wine is unthinkable - they drink significantly less. And they don't drink, as we frequently do, with the specific aim of making their vision blurry and losing control of all bodily functions.

Still, there are two kinds of alcohol a kitchen should never be without. First, a good alcohol. This is very important because if you are cooking dinner then this will be your first drink of the day. It must not, however, be so good as to make you lachrymose at the thought of pouring it into a dish only to see half of it evaporate and the subtleties and finesse of the vintage disappear in a haze of goulash.

Second, I find it vital to have a good stock of bad alcohol on hand. By this I mean a variety of paint-strippingly cheap sherries (which always seem to do the trick, no matter how pungent, in my favourite mushrooms, cream and tarragon sauce, not to mention in Chinese food), but which you will only drink for pleasure at the end of a long night when there's a brilliant film on Channel 4 and no time to go to the off-licence. This ensures that the kitchen is rarely without a plentiful supply of alcohol. When very desperate, put paint- stripper sherry in the freezer for an hour and drink with ice. You can barely taste it. It's wonderful.

My cousin and I have got as far as not making the coffee (we are still in dressing gowns) on Saturday morning when we start tasting port. Our excuse is that we want to see which might be best for the Cumberland sauce I need to make: it will go with a juicy gammon joint we'll eat later. It is winter. If a girl can't spend the day in the kitchen eating and drinking until lunch becomes dinner and the hollowed out afternoon descends into twilight, what can she do?

My cousin has a bottle of port she brought back from Portugal. It was cheap, she claims, but is too good to use for cooking. We are obliged to taste it to verify her assertion. She is absolutely right. The ten-year-old Ca'lem lacks the cloying sweetness characteristic of cheap ports. It is heaven - so rich, dry and fruity that we hold it in our mouths and lapse into silence. Too good for sauce.

(Having said that, my friend Sarah's mother, whom I call mid-port-tasting in search of Sarah, very properly points out that one always profits by using the very best port in Cumberland sauce. I must assume here that she isn't suggesting throwing a 1963 Quinta do Noval Nacional into a saucepan. If she is, then the decadence of the Manning family knows no bounds.)

"Shall we have another glass?" suggests my cousin. It is imperative to do so. I have often spurned ruby port, preferring (like Elizabeth David) to cook with a medium tawny. But if one abides (and I think one ought) by my under-a- tenner rule for kitchen port, you'd be surprised how good Warre's Warrior is, even though it is indeed a ruby. Furthermore, Dow's does a fantastic ruby, retailing at £7.99, that professional tasters have been known to muddle with tawnies that cost three times the price. Another couple of pounds buys you Dow's Trademark. All of these are better than supermarket brands, though M & S's Vintage Character Port, which is about to be reduced to £4.99, is wonderfully gluggable, like Ribena with a kick.

As far as wine goes, an English cook has no hope of keeping a bottle always to hand unless they follow the simple practice of chain-bottle-opening. It's not too difficult and with a bit of effort anyone can do it. A half-bottle of wine transforms supper into dinner. Once, I poured most of a bottle of ropy red wine into a bolognese pan and the result was tremendous - the finest bolognese I have ever tasted. Yet I do demur at the use of vinegary reds in certain dishes - boeuf bourguignon, for example. Sometimes it is worth paying more.

Just now, though, what seems important is getting dressed and stumbling through darkness and rain to the supermarket before the port gets the better of us and we never begin to cook at all.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians