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What is the miraculous drink that will age without changing?

The most valuable cognacs are stored in a cellar called a Paradis.

A cynic I know once described marriage as a state that women enter into hoping men will change, while men hope women will not. Both, he added (he was, of course, a he), are disappointed.

There are many ways to read this adage, none liable to inspire joy unless you’re a sexist pig or a divorce lawyer. In any case, I disagree. Most of us want our partners to change and stay the same simultaneously. We want this from ourselves, too. When I get the chance for a little childish behaviour, I cross my fingers and wish for unlined skin and wisdom, career advancement and endless leisure, the ability to stay up drinking all night – and the sense not to. Perhaps the most eternally unchanging aspect of the human personality, to say nothing of the most infantile, is this wish to have it all, right now.

The 17th-century Dutch who came to Cognac to trade in salt, the ultimate preservative, had practical reasons for fighting change: food or wine that spoiled during shipping would be impossible to sell at the journey’s end. Transporting products whose nature was to rot, they sought to ensure they survived unaltered – in itself an alteration.

To this end, they began to distil the local wine. This brandewijn or “burned wine” differed radically from the more fragile wine that was its base, but the superiority of cognac over other brandies came from its capacity to retain the flavours of the original fruit: that is, to stay in some way the same.

Frapin is the company with the largest vineyard holdings in Grande Champagne (the finest area of cognac production, so named because its chalky soils resemble those further north). Beneath roofs blackened not by time but by a distinctive fungus that lives by inhaling the evaporating alcohol fumes, the twice-distilled cognac ages in a two-tier system. In damper ground-floor cellars, alcohol evaporates from the dusty oak barrels faster than water; above, in hotter, drier rooms, the reverse occurs. You can smell, and later taste, the difference. Most cognac is blended, the system of letters (VS, VSOP, XO, in ascending order of age and expense) indicating the youngest wine included, but barrels of vintage cognacs are sealed in wax that can only be broken and resealed by an external official, presumably to prevent adulteration. I’m sure there’s a marriage parallel here, too.

Changing without changing is a centuries-old issue for the Frapin family, now on their 23rd generation, as they try to move with the times without losing a drop of ancient prestige. After all, if an ancestor had not tried the new-fangled distillation process, the Frapins would still be producing wine – which, from these Ugni Blanc grapes (better known as Trebbiano), would likely mean they were no longer here at all. They have lately taken to cocktail-making with their cheaper cognacs, and at the other end of the scale they craft beautiful limited editions of venerable cognacs in elegant packaging, which sell for thousands.

So beloved of mixologists is this spirit that one famous cocktail maestro, Salvatore Calabrese, wrote a book about it while another, Tony Conigliaro, has opened a bar in Cognac itself. Those blackening fungi can now vary their diet with Sidecars, Smugglers and Cognac Gimlets. They’ll be in heaven, although arguably, they already are: the most valuable cognacs are stored in a cellar called a Paradis. There, they age without changing, and evolve without degrading – a vision of paradise indeed.  

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist