Tom Cunliffe: In the festive season, careful thought needs to be given to your drinks locker, whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on
I don’t know about you, but as Christmas looms on the horizon, I heave Old Man Thrift out the porthole and invest in some quality beverages. There’s the ritual vintage port, perhaps backed up with Madeira, the malt whiskies and, of course, the serious claret for Christmas dinner.
Away in the tropics, some of this indulgence has to be modified. The malt’s OK, so long as you can get it, but the port is generally a washout except in Portuguese waters. Then it’s a winner, given that you steer clear of anything that must be decanted. The motion of a boat at sea will ruin it. On the other hand, Madeira’s fine. It was designed to be at sea and much loved by British naval officers in the glory days of Nelson and Rodney. If you happen to be in the West Indies, there’s always rum, but advice presented to me by a qualified physician in Nevis is that we should be drinking that every day anyway to maintain a healthy appetite and a strong libido. If we follow this sound counsel with due diligence, rum isn’t much of a treat.
So, what about the claret? In addition to the usual caches behind bunks, the ready-use option for the thirsty aboard my yacht is the wine rack beside the galley. This unlikely luxury must have been added by one of my better-off predecessors because the slots fit expensive Burgundy bottles perfectly. The slimmer versions from Bordeaux need careful stacking to survive in a seaway. This discourages me from loading up when I should and can leave me coming ashore for more at short notice.
One Christmas in St Kitts I had shipped a full cargo of excellent Cruzan rum – for health, you understand – in St Martin at the popular price of, ‘one US dollar per litre, so long as you buy by the case’. Confronted with this no-brainer, we hadn’t troubled the liquor stores a lot that winter, but as December rolled on, all hands decided that a change on the 25th would be as good as a rest. I’d spotted some alluring-looking offerings on the wine shelves of the supermarket in town. They were far from cheap and covered in dust, but the year was promising so a whipround among the crew was organised.
On Christmas Eve I rowed off into the rising trade wind with my pockets full of cash. Since we numbered five on board, I cleaned the trader out of his stock of four bottles. After dragging the punt back down to the water, I didn’t have to row much on the way home because the breeze was kicking up some more.
Christmas morning dawned with the usual sunshine and cocks crowing, but by now it was blowing a full gale. The palms fringing our anchorage were waving like kids on a school outing and it was raining coconuts. This sort of thing is common in the Eastern Caribbean where the Trade Winds often blast up into the so-called ‘Christmas Winds’ around the solstice. Getting to the beach with no outboard was out of the question, but we didn’t mind. We had stockfish starters, dressed chicken with stuffing and roasted bluggoes for mains, fresh grapefruit and cheese for afters and, of course, the claret.
Reverently, I pulled the first cork. It disintegrated. I tried again. The remains withdrew, but the smell that followed it spoke for itself. Straight over the side it went. Number two was as bad. The third cork looked healthier, but the wine had that dead, brown taste and a suspicious fizz on it. The fourth was worse than the first, but there was no chance taking them back. If we’d cast off the dinghy in that wind, the next stop would have been Panama.
‘Ah well,’ observed the mate laconically as he poured himself another tumbler of rum. ‘It isn’t a dead loss. As the doctor said, if we keep taking our medicine and the wind ever drops, you won’t be off your food and the island girls better watch out when me and the boys get ashore.’
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