Magazine article The Spectator

Way to Go, Cucumbers

Magazine article The Spectator

Way to Go, Cucumbers

Article excerpt

Pimm's

I'M not much of a drinks expert, probably because of an early decision to concentrate solely on fieldwork rather than research. So when I first arrived in Britain ten years ago I had little idea of what people would be drinking, other than what I had gathered from English novels and imported television. As far as I could work out, the British consumed tremendous amounts of sherry, port and claret, along with unsettling cocktail combinations such as gin and orange, brandy and soda, port and lemon, and whisky and ginger ale. Occasionally, they might enjoy a refreshing rum punch, hock cup or milk posset. In the winter they took to mulling things. I dimly recalled that for his troubles the English poet laureate received a `butt of sack' annually, but I had no idea what that meant - I wasn't even sure what `of meant in the context of that cryptic phrase. On dingy old British sitcoms people occasionally mentioned something called `baby-sham', which invariably caused the studio audience to titter. What was it? Could it possibly be made from baby shampoo? Were times that hard?

On my very first trip to the pub, however, I was relieved to discover that very little mead was being consumed. It was true that some of the beer was disturbingly warm, and the ice shortage I had heard so much about was obviously not improving, since rationing was still very much in operation. Alcohol was measured out in eighths of a gill, which I understood to be a quaint and old-fashioned way of saying `not nearly enough'. At the same time, bartenders filled a pint-glass to the rim, so that you couldn't carry it anywhere. How could such generosity and parsimony exist in the same hostelry? Giving up on spirits temporarily, I slowly learnt all of the 70 or so different ways to say `I'd like a beer, please', and returned to fieldwork. It seems like yesterday, only blurrier.

The cocktails that people made at home were not, by and large, the bizarre and wholly incompatible couplings of which I had read, but the very same drinks that I had known in America: the gin and tonic, the whisky and soda, the martini, the Bloody Mary, even the occasional margarita. On the whole, people were content to consume enormous amounts of red and white wine, which was fine with me. Claret, it transpired, was just a British way of saying Bordeaux without having to employ any silly Continental vowel sounds. Many traditional British tipples, I discovered, were actually foreign products rebranded for the home market: port from Portugal, gin from Geneva, and sherry from the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera. …

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