Damian Barr Revisits a Christmas Classic
Great books deserve great wine. And what’s a book club without a bottle or three? Every month Damian Barr, author and Sunday Times Drinks Critic, suggests surprising and delicious #NovelPairings: Would Bridget Jones choose Chardonnay now? How tipsy is Ulysses? It’s Christmas so this month we had to choose Dickens’s classic festive ghost story, A Christmas Carol, which is well worth re-reading to experience the truly scary hauntings and to understand Scrooge’s sad back-story. Helping me choose our #NovelPairings were Rebecca Palmer from Corney & Barrow and Simon Heafield from Foyles.
A Christmas Carol essentially is Christmas: the turkey, the tree, all the trimmings. Except maybe the ghosts.
'Few novels have had a bigger or more enduring cultural impact,' says Simon from Foyles. 'So many traditions stem from it. We never really doubt Scrooge will change but we forget how scary his journey is.'
The ghosts aren’t all that terrifying — particularly the Ghost of Christmas Present: 'a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge.'
I’d forgotten that the Ghost of Christmas Past takes us back to Scrooge’s utterly miserable childhood where he’s bullied at school and home. His pathetic little sister, Fan, says: 'Father is so much kinder than he used to be.' Maybe this cruel treatment is the root of Scrooge’s meanness?
Then there are the twin horrors of Ignorance and Want, apparitions revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present: 'They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds… No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.'
Ever alert to the injustice of poverty, Dickens does not (at least here) moralise about the dangers of drink. Our bibulous-o-graphy is lengthy and may lead to gout. Punch features often and was Dickens’s favourite. There is also something called Negus and another curiosity called Smoking Bishop. He criticized tee-totalism as 'an attempt by the weak-willed to make the temperate suffer for their inability to drink moderately'.
In her brilliant biography Clare Tomalin claims that on his final American tour in 1868 Dickens drank all the time: cream and two tablespoons of rum before breakfast; a Sherry Cobbler at noon; a PINT of Champagne at three; and an egg beaten into a glass of sherry as a primer for his evening lecture.
'Port is very Victorian,' says Rebecca from Corney & Barrow. 'Our Ten-Year-Old Tawny is basically Christmas in a glass. The lovely warm colour comes from wooden barrels.' It bursts with pudding mixture — dried fruit and toasted nuts. Like the book, it’s not too sweet.
'I think of Port as a deeper red,' says Simon. And with that Rebecca pours a glass of Corney & Barrow Ruby Port. It’s all summer fruit pudding and vibrant berries and plums. Perhaps a bit too cheerful.
Like most Victorians, Dickens also loved Gin and our final option is Corney & Barrow Sloe Gin. I make my own so I am wary of commercial offerings. 'This is delicious,' says Simon. 'It’s really punchy but not overwhelming, pleasantly medicinal.'
Port, for all its charms, lacks the clout of the story – it doesn’t have enough kick. So the Sloe Gin is our #NovelPairing. Save a tot for Tiny Tim – God bless us, everyone!
Bibulous-o-graphy for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
B is for Beer
Which the Victorians drank like water because their water was so dangerously foul. It runs through the book.
G is for Grog
As drunk by the salty lighthouse keepers shown to Scrooge by the jovial-seeming Ghost of Christmas Present:
'But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.'
N is for Negus
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to witness the Fezziwig Christmas feast and they drink Negus:
'There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.'
Negus is a hot drink made of red or white wine, water, lemon juice, sugar, and nutmeg created by Colonel Francis Negus who died in 1737. Keeps wintry chills away!
P is for Punch
Dickens loved this quintessentially Victorian drink and it often appears in his books, most memorably Mr Micawber is fond of making it. It appears several times in The Christmas Carol but first when Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present:
'It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. …. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.'
S is for Smoking Bishop
Nothing to do with religious persecution or some kind of cheese, this concoction appears at the very end of the book when Scroooge has learned his lessons from the ghosts.
'"A merry Christmas, Bob," said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. "A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!"'
It's a gingery sort of Punch. Here’s a great recipe: http://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/2012/12/drinking-with-charles-dickens-the-smoking-bishop/