I was recently prompted to remind myself of a splendid and famous piece of food and wine snobbery. It occurs in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, when the narrator, Charles Ryder (a true gentleman), dines with the nouveau riche Rex Mottram at a grand restaurant. By the bye, I can’t pass over the account by the narrator of the red burgundy they drank: it “seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his”.
But it was what happened at the end of the meal that I was thinking of:
The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.
“Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”
They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp.
Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home.
So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.
“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”
“I’m quite happy with this.”
“Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.” He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We both were happy.
This scene came to my mind when I was considering a new, possibly eccentric, possibility for my glass of brandy. But of late I’ve also been pushed into thinking about glasses generally. I’ve never been all that fussy about glasses – I can’t really afford to be, especially as I’m a clumsy oaf and break quite a number of them.
To a dinner not long ago, however, (I spoke of the wines, mostly Chateauneuf-du-Papes, here) winemaker Eben Sadie had brought along his set of favourite glasses, made by the Austrian producer Zalto. I’d never seen these very expensive glasses before, and don’t think they’re available in South Africa (here’s an American supplier’s website). But never – not by Riedel or anyone else – have I been so seduced by what the Americans often call “stemware”.
The Zalto glass is incredibly thin, the stems more slender than seems possible, and there is a feeling of weightlessness – and also, somehow, of elasticity, of liveliness. We alternated that evening with some large Riedel glasses, which seemed almost clumsy alongside the Zaltos. Eben has the Burgundy glass, I’d go for the Universal one, if I had just one. Both pictured here. Ah well, dream on.
More to the point are some interesting options I have for brandy. I’ve never much cared for balloon glasses (let alone the head-sized ones that Rex Mottram approves of), but much prefer using tulip-shaped ones (as approved by Charles Ryder and the sommelier at the restaurant).
What I’ve found suits me (and I think the brandy) very well are, oddly enough, some specifically champagne glasses. Both a bit smaller than most champagne glasses. The one on the left in the picture is a Riedel. The rather beautifully shaped one, a little smaller, bears a Pol Roger crest and came in a “gift-pack”, along with a half-bottle, from the Pol Roger tasting and lunch I reported on here.
Both work very well, it seems to me. I enjoy the Pol Roger one a bit more because it is so pretty and has a slightly more slender stem. I can’t see that Zalto does an equivalent, otherwise I think I’d prefer that – so easily are prejudices formed. Probably poor old vulgar Rex Mottram wouldn’t have approved of either, not being expensive enough.