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Perfect Presents

'Tis the season to be jolly, as I write. Being jolly seems to mean shopping. I don’t wish the traders ill – it is the season of goodwill too of course – but I would rather avoid the crowds. Speaking personally, I think the best presents to give are wine or books. Preferably the books should be about wine, or food.

It’s what I love to receive. Funnily enough, we really don’t need another corkscrew in this household, especially not one of those super-complicated bits of machinery that clutter the kitchen. A touch of Scrooge crept in there. Back to the festive spirit, and talking of spirits, I think some of my friends might like a bottle of absolutely excellent Henriques & Henriques 10 year Old Sercial I tasted recently. It was like drinking a rather rich, but not sweet, fruitcake. Or a bottle of Jean-Marc Roulot's fabulous Poire or Abricot. If you are feeling generous, give both!

The festive season is a good moment to pass the baton on.

With luck and a bit of foresight, mature wine lovers have maturing wines; surely this is the moment to raid our cellars for gifts to offer the young adults in our lives.

You might think that wine lovers would be, or could be, jolly at any season as long as they had a fine bottle from their favourite grower to hand, and good friends to share it with. Strangely, some wine writing is somewhat joyless. It is about scores and the value of an investment. Important to some, I know, but at this time of year, let’s reject materialism, and celebrate the kind of writing that fills us with enthusiasm for the subject.

Gerald Asher’s writing fits this bill. For 30 years he was the wine editor of Gourmet magazine in the USA. In a previous life he had been an English wine merchant, somewhat ahead of his time, searching out well–made, modestly priced “country wines” when the Brits were mostly interested in Bordeaux, or Burgundy, and Champagne. In a collection of his articles, published by the University of California Press in 2011 under the title of A Vineyard in My Glass, there is a sense that he is keen to pass on what he has learnt, as though speaking to a valued friend.

First he explains how he came to “associate any wine I met with a specific place and a particular slant of history. I learned to perceive more than could be deduced from an analysis of the physical elements in the glass. For me, an important part of the pleasure of wine is its reflection of the total environment that produced it. If I find in a wine no hint of where it was grown, no mark of the summer when the fruit ripened, and no indication of the usages common amongst those who made it, I am frustrated and disappointed. Because that is what a good, honest wine should offer. It is not just a commodity subjected to techniques to boost this or that element to meet the current concept of a marketable product”.

If you favour a more romantic approach to wine and food, I recommend The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot (first published 1973, republished 1992 by The Ecco Press). With a wonderful cast of local characters, it describes the spectacular scenery, changing seasons, and 22 breakfasts, lunch and dinner menus, with their accompanying wines, and recipes of the dishes, at an auberge in the valley of La Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps, a “High and Lovely Place”. That makes it sound a bit like a fairy story, and perhaps it is. Can such a perfect place ever have existed?

“Peppers and onions are sizzling gently in a big frying–pan, the goose dripping in which they are cooking gives off its unmistakable smell. A squat, round-bellied earthen pot, blackened with use, containing beans and salt pork and cabbage, seems to be for ever on the simmer. A string of wrinkled, dried, dark red peppers hangs from the ceiling alongside a piece of roughly cut ham; a bunch of little red sausages and a pitcher of yellow wine are on the table”.

Doesn’t this make you want to go, as soon as possible, and see for yourself, or at least cook the recipes that follow? It is from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (published Michael Joseph 1960, still in print) and is part of a description of the cooking of South-Western France.

Like all my favourite writers, she has a zest for life, and deep knowledge, which she communicates in limpid prose. If you don’t want to cook after reading her books, you never will.

The last word as we celebrate shall go to American writer MFK Fisher who spent 3 years in France at the University of Dijon. It is from her first book, Serve it Forth (published 1937).

“And above all, friends should possess the rare gift of sitting. They should be able, no, eager, to sit for hours – three, four, six – over a meal of soup and wine and cheese, as well as one of twenty fabulous courses.

Then, with good friends of such attributes, and good food on the board, and good wine in the pitcher, we may well ask, When shall we live if not now?”

Happy Christmas everyone!

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