Old Codgers Of The Week – Part Twelve

I’m old enough to remember when buying a condom, euphemistically known as something for the weekend, was a bit of a trial for a bashful young man. It is a sign of the times that they are now widely available and on open display. No bad thing, for sure, but therein lies a trap for the unwary. Take the case of 76-year-old Rosemarie Riley from Skelmersdale.

Rosemarie popped down to her local Asda store to pick up a few bits and pieces, including a box of teabags. She took her basket to the checkout, duly paid her bill of £26.75, which on reflection she might have thought a bit steep and took her goodies home.

On unpacking her bag, to the consternation of her husband, Rosemarie found that what she thought was a box of Tetley teabags was in fact a jumbo box of Durex Thin Feel condoms. Mortified, she realised that she had gone shopping without her spectacles and had picked up the red box by mistake.

Too embarrassed to own up to her error, she sent her granddaughter back to the store to return the goods and reclaim her £17. The moral of the story is always take your spectacles with you when you go shopping.

Still, like teabags, you can always hang them up to dry and use them again.

What Is The Origin Of (270)?…

Return to our muttons

According to the inestimable Yogi Berra, “it was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much”. A good conversation is a joy but often someone strays off the subject to the despair of the others. It is time to remind them to return to our muttons, the subject in hand. At first blush it is a strange phrase and one, frankly, that is rarely heard these days but it has a long pedigree.

The Roman epigrammatist, Martial, was a pithy and often scurrilous commentator on Roman society and mores. We owe almost as much to him as the Roman graffiti writers for our knowledge of Latin slang and obscenities. This side of the classical world which he and Aristophanes illuminated for schoolboys like me was almost worth the hard slog of learning Latin and Ancient Greek.

In Epigram 6.19 Martial is engaged in a legal case concerning three goats. He writes in despair at the rhetorical grandiloquence of his lawyer, Postumus, and begs him to get back to the matter in hand; “Iam dic, Postume, de tribus capellis”, translated as “it is time, Postumus, to say something about my goats”. You can feel his sense of frustration.

Martial was an influential role model in the French and Italian renaissance and it is tempting to think that he may have been instrumental in inspiring the anonymous writer of the popular farce, La Farce de Maistre Pierre Pathelin from around 1457, to put the following words into the mouth of a frustrated judge, anxious to get a litigant back to the matter in hand; “sus! Revenons ā ces moutons”. As the subject matter of the case was sheep, it is easy to explain why Martial’s goats were transformed.

Whether the anonymous farceur coined the phrase or used something that was already established in the common vernacular is unclear but, suffice it to say, the phrase crops up in Guillaume Coquillart’s Monologue of the bundle of straw from around 1480 and moving into the 16th century Rabelais used it on several occasions.  

Interestingly, when the phrase crossed the channel to Blighty, it was used in its French format. John Chamberlain, a prolific correspondent, writing to Sir Dudley Carleton, a Secretary of State and diplomat, on February 22, 1617 used the phrase pour retourner ā nos moutons to get back to the matter in hand. The novelist, William Makepeace Thackery used the phrase in History of Pendennis, published in 1850; “His brougham – O ay, yes! – and that brings me back to my point – revenons ā nos moutons. Yes, begad! Revenons ā nos moutons”.

Some English writers, though, could not abide the prospect of tainting their delicately wrought prose with a dash of the French language and so faithfully translated the phrase into English. The novelist, Maria Edgeworth, was one such. In a letter dated November 5, 1820 she wrote, “But to come back to our muttons – the wind not being fair we did not sail to Dover but we are in hopes it will change before tomorrow”.     

The phrase never seemed to gain much favour amongst native English-speaking writers, perhaps because it is somewhat quaint and it is not immediately obvious what it refers to or we prefer to stop someone beating about the bush. Still, it does crop up from time to time. In one of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn mysteries, Black As He’s Painted from 1974, we read, “But I digress, he said accurately. Shall we return to our muttons? Yes, Alleyn agreed with heartfelt relief. Yes. Let’s”.  

I shall make it my business to use it from time to time. All I need is a conversationalist who digresses. How hard will that be to find?!

Gin O’Clock – Part Ninety Three

The ginaissance has spawned so many types and styles of gin that it is easy to forget that there was a time, not too long ago, that a gin and tonic, for most of us, was a Gordon’s with lashings of sweet Schweppes tonic. For me the first drink that woke me up to the realisation that this was not the be-all and end-all of the gin world was Bombay Sapphire from the Bacardi stable.

Distilled at the Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire, it had a very distinctive look and taste. The bottle eschewed the traditional dark green colour for a pale blue, reminiscent of a sapphire, and was tall and slim. It was what was inside it that was the revelation, a taste so different that it prompted one to question whether it was really gin. The ten botanicals – juniper, coriander seeds, angelica root, liquorice, Italian orris, cassia bark, Spanish almonds, cubeb berries, lemon peel, and grains of Paradise – distilled using a vapour infusion method, made for a heady mix.

To the nose the aroma was an inviting mix of juniper, pepper and slight floral tones. In the mouth, what initially started off as a sweet drink soon developed a bit of a kick with the juniper and spices coming to the fore before leaving a long-lasting aftertaste. As I became more experienced with gins, I realised that the juniper was a little too subdued for my taste, the peppers and spices ruling the roost, but at the time it was a truly gobsmacking taste.

Owned by Bacardi, Bombay Sapphire could never claim the moral high ground of a small independent distiller battling against the odds to establish their product, tax changes to encourage small producers and the initial success of Sipsmith paved the way, but it is undeniable that it did much of the heavy lifting to convince the drinking public that there was something beyond the gin they had been drinking for decades.

One of the recent additions to the Bombay Sapphire stable is their Limited Edition No 1 English Estate London Dry Gin, launched in March 2019. Judging by its name, a bit of a mouthful, there are more to come. It also poses the question: Just what is limited about it, as I have seen it all over the place? It comes in a nice presentation box, shades of blue with a floral, botanical design and with the trademark picture of Queen Victoria. According to the blurb, it “has been designed to capture the essence of the English Garden. A refreshingly unique gin of true English provenance”. The only way to test the claim is to open the bottle.

The bottle has the thirteen botanicals that go into the mix pictured on the side of the bottle, which, apart from a change of labelling, is not dissimilar from the original. As, indeed, are the botanicals save for the addition of an additional three – Pennyroyal mint, rosehip, and hazelnut. It is these three which make the crucial difference and give, at least in theory, the English garden feel.

With an ABV of 41% it is slightly stronger than the original (40%), its aroma has an added sensation, a slight nuttiness pervading the smell. In the mouth the crystal-clear spirit has that Juniper and spicy feel you would associate with Bombay Sapphire but there are also some floral elements in evidence, a faint nuttiness and mint. Rather than overpowering the drink, the mint is subtly integrated. It is there but not dominant. The aftertaste is dry and peppery with floral elements in attendance.

As a gin it does not deviate too much from the expectation of a Bombay Sapphire, that distinctly mix of juniper and spice, but the new botanicals have toned it down a bit. A summer drink, for sure, and perfectly acceptable but are the new botanicals little more than a marketing gimmick? I’m not sure and I was left with the feeling that there are some things left well alone.

Until the next time, cheers!

Book Corner – February 2020 (3)

The Terracotta Dog – Andrea Camilleri

Published in 1996, this is the second of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books. The edition I read had been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and it read well. I’m always skeptical as to how faithful translators are to the original but this has enough stylistic quirks and pace to suggest that it is close enough.

The most irksome thing about the book is that every now and again we are told precisely what it is that Montalbano is having to eat. I suppose in a way it gives local Sicilian colour, assuming what he is eating is a speciality of the island or, perhaps it is to give the impression that he is a northern boor, not from those parts, as they are not Sicilian dishes. Who knows and who cares? When I’m reading a detective novel, I want to be entertained, not fight my way through a restaurant menu.

What intrigues me about Montalbano is that he is another detective, Holmes and Maigret are to the forefront, who place their trust in natural rather than legal justice. It is enough for them to unmask the culprit and let the malefactor’s guilty conscience plague them to the end of their days. It is an interesting approach and would certainly reduce the prison population, if adopted in earnest, although there may be a corresponding increase in depressives. It is the route to which they get to the truth rather than the judicial consequences of the crime which are of interest to both the writer and the reader.

Montalbano’s methods are unorthodox. He keeps close contact with the criminal fraternity and often his breaks come from tip-offs from them. But what he is able to do is make sense of what seem at first sight to be random, disparate events. If nothing else the Terracotta Dog is a case in point. It starts off with a Mr Big in the Mafia world, high up on the most wanted list, Tano the Greek, sends word to Montalbano that he wants to give himself up but only to Montalbano. A dramatic raid is staged and Tano’s arrest is a major feather in Montalbano’s cap, so much so that he is threatened with promotion, something the Inspector is keen to avoid at all costs.

During the raid they find a hiding place in a cave with a large cache of armaments. Around the same time a local supermarket is robbed in circumstances which make no sense. Montalbano won’t let it go and his investigations lead him back to the cave again, where there is a second chamber which contains the bodies of a young couple and various artefacts, including a terracotta dog.

Perhaps the highlight of the book is the Inspector’s encounter with an eccentric, reclusive former priest, Alcide Maraventano. It is through him that Montalbano realizes that the murderer of the young couple really wanted to be discovered and to atone for his misdeeds. In a convoluted and, it has to be said, slightly strained way there is a link between all these disparate parts.

Although the plotting is not convincing enough to make this a classic, there is enough to keep the reader interested. The characteristics of Montalbano’s colleagues become clearer, they are generally incompetent and liable to give the game way, the knowledge of which suits the Inspector as he prefers to operate on his own. His relationship with Livia, his on-off girlfriend living in the north, is as strained as ever and the Swedish woman, Ingrid, whom we met in the Shape of Water crops up again to lend a hand.

Camilleri’s style is light and he writes with wit, some of the scenes in danger of descending into farce. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I just wish he would tone down the food.

Salami Of The Week

The 37th Sierra culinary festival was treated to the sight and taste of the world’s longest salami sausage. At 99.5 metres long and weighing 278 kilos, it took some 100 people over 36 days to make it in the Argentinian town of Tandil.

By all accounts it tasted good as well.

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Three

Tower Court, WC2

It’s hard to credit now but what is one of London’s most important tourist centres, Covent Garden, was once open field land, owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

The area which is now occupied by Tower Court, a pedestrianised alley linking Earlham Street and Tower Street and running parallel with Monmouth Street, was part of a patch of land known as Cock and Pye Fields. It took its name from a local pub whose pièce de resistance was a peacock pie. I’ve never had peacock so I have no idea what it would have tasted like, but it was certainly a pie to tickle the eye if not the palate. The head and the tail of the unfortunate bird were displayed on the outside, above the pastry crust, at either end of the pie.

The pressure for living accommodation was such in the late 17th century that the Mercers saw that they could make more money from selling or leasing the freehold of the land to builders and developers than from allowing cattle to munch their way through the grass. There were two factors, however, that meant that the area now occupied by Tower Court was slower to be developed than other parts of Covent Garden. Firstly, it was a notoriously wet and boggy piece of land. A deep ditch, known as Cock and Pye ditch, ran down what is now Monmouth Street and St Martin’s Lane before hanging a left and emptying its contents in the Thames around where Embankment station stands.

The ditch was covered over in the 1670s as part of the construction of the Southampton Sewer. There was a bit of a stink shortly after the sewer was opened when a local builder, Richard Frith, after whom Frith Street was named, was discovered to have connected illegally the sewer from his development in the Soho area to the Cock and Pye ditch, causing an overload of effluent. Frith was forced to disconnect his pipes and start again.

The second problem was that the area was used as a laystall, an area where cattle were held prior to going to market and, by extension, and area where the dung from cattle, horses, and humans was collected. It is salutary to think that some of the elegant houses built during Thomas Neale’s development of the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden stood on what was once a dung heap.

Tower Court was built during the 1690s as part of Neale’s development of the area. It originally consisted of two streets, Lumber Court to the east and Lumber Street to the west. At some point it was renamed as Tower Court, although quite when I have been unable to determine. The buildings in the Court date from the late 18th century and today serve as housing. If you look carefully at Nos. 5 and 7 you will see the original wooden shop fronts, although, according to English Heritage, they have been altered for domestic use. Still, you can get a sense of what the area would have looked like a couple of centuries ago.

What was originally a Victorian school became the headquarters of The Really Useful Group, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production company, although the building has now been converted into flats.

If nothing else, this little alley shows that you never quite know what you are walking on as you explore London’s warren of streets.

Surprise Of The Week (2)

Kerala is a beautiful place to visit but one thing the intrepid visitor should know is that alcoholic drinks are difficult to find outside of 4 and 5-star hotels.

Imagine the surprise, then, of the residents of a block of flats in the Thrissur district of Chalakudy one morning on finding that when they turned on their taps, out flowed a smelly liquid, reeking of beer, brandy, and rum.

It emerged that a local bar had been raided and their hooch confiscated. Officials buried some 6,000 litres of the confiscated alcohol in a pit. Unfortunately, the alcohol had seeped through the soil into a well, the one that supplied the residents with their drinking water. The smell, fortunately, had put them off using the tainted water.

This Keralan version of Adam’s Ale did mean, though, that water supplies were suspended for a while.