Of snot and brandy (to put it crudely)

I’m seeing life through a veil of what in Afrikaans I could call “snot en trane”, if I were being excessive. In fact, speaking brutally plainly, it’s just snot. And perhaps if there’s a blur, it’s thanks to the kindly influence of brandy.

Isn’t it wonderful that brandy retains this vaguely medicinal image about? Some comfort, when I have a cold. (It’s odd: I always feel, morosely, at my most “masculine” when I am a bit sick. I was brought up in a house where a macho father suffered extremely whenever the slightest physical thing went wrong, while a complaisant mother always had a house to run and four children and a husband to look after more or less cheerfully, however ill she was!)

So the past few days have seen a dramatic turn from wine-tasting in my inordinate suffering from a cold. Not a drop of wine has been swirled or sniffed in this house for a few days now. But brandy – ah! At least it is noticeable, and one can vaguely hope that a bit of self-indulgence in the fiery stuff is actually doing one good.

Tokara-BrandyIn the enforced absence of wine news, it occurred to me that I could tell something of my recent visit to the wonderfully beautiful brandy-still at Tokara, from which Miles Mossop makes a rather nice brandy. Before then, but not long ago, I was trying to persuade a history-conscious winemaking friend that he should also make a brandy, because it was such an integral part of the Cape farming tradition (which means, of course, the Afrikaner farming tradition). I had to, in all honesty, point out that a strict observance of tradition would require him to make a very BAD brandy.

Miles and Tokara have broken from that aspect of tradition, of course. The other delightfully refreshing aspect of being shown around by Miles is that he was totally open about the whole process. Including the addition of caramel before bottling, to adjust colour and also of a little residual sugar – hardly any brandies, emphatically including Cognac, are bone-dry, but this is something that the custodians at the great brandy institutions of Distell and the KWV (which, on the whole, still make the greatest South African brandies) are loath to admit.

The big guys don’t even want to talk about how much new oak is involved in their regimes for their different brandies. And the idea that they might be willing to discuss the (perfectly legal) flavourants they add – called bonificateurs, which reminds you that the Frenchies might do it too – is out of the question.Whereas honest Miles admitted easily not only to the caramel but also to the bonificateurs made according to an old recipe given him by his first brandy advisor at Tokara. Miles even wrestled for five minutes with his little plastic barrel of bonificateur so that I could sniff it, but the the bung was inextricable, and would have to be cut out, so we gave up that struggle.

It was fascinating, though, tasting through the different ages and stages of brandy in the little Tokara brandy cellar, from new oak and old oak. (How extraordinary that wine matured in old oak is unaffected by anything other than the porosity of the wood, while potent brandy sucks deep into the most ancient of barrels to pull out colour and flavour extractives: the power of alcohol.) We’d forgotten to bring any water with us, so we sampled them at “cask strength” – generally approaching 70% alcohol. Which was interesting.

old still

That’s enough of that. Let me return to my suffering – and to those who have suffered before me. If brandy-making is an old Cape farming tradition, it’s partly because brandy as part of folk medicine is an equally vital part of the tradition.

There’s a whole chapter on brandy-as-medicine in Andre P Brink’s garrulous and lively “Brandy in South Africa” (Buren, Cape Town, 1973). He tell how “a barrel of brandy rode on virtually every oxwagon during the long journey to the Promised Land”, and feelingly conveys how the “Boer remedies” give a “vivid image of that life, of its unremitting struggle against the thousand natural shocks which could overcome the pioneers”.

Brink finds brandy as a central cure-all “in the long list of remedies for anything from Athsma to Zambezi-sores”. As he points out, however, these people were Calvinists, and there was usually something unpleasant to be mixed in with the brandy to diminish any comfort it might provide. True, dosing victims of poison with neat brandy was allowed – until either the poison or the victim was no more.

But what about a treatment for “Gravel” (something like kidney stones, I’d guess): “Peach leaves infused like tea, or else warm hare-pee directly from the bladder.” For colic, “Horse manure with brandy or vinegar is excellent”.

Etc. But I’m a firm believer in the curative properties of neat brandy, pot-stilled and 15 or 20 years in barrel, and I’m off for another dose. If it doesn’t fix my cold, at least it should help it have a good time.

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