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The new Puritanism

By Tom Doorley - 06th Feb 2023


I didn’t do ‘Dry January’. Bleak mid-winter is no time for undertaking any form of penance and it’s the optimum time of year for slow-cooked casseroles with a glass of something rich and warming.

However, I have cut down on my alcohol consumption and, to my disappointment, I feel the better for it. We wine lovers like to think there are no consequences to our enthusiasm but, of course, that’s not entirely true.

But there are limits, so to speak. And I’m tempted to say that the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction have reached what people of my parents’ generation used to call the giddy limit. But that would be a little unfair.

In saying that the only safe level of alcohol is zero, the Centre is, of course, absolutely correct. Just as the only completely safe form of driving is not
to do it. And the best way to avoid fractures – although not entirely failsafe – is to stay in bed.

The giddy limit is reached, however, with its edict that you should have no more than two alcoholic drinks a week. Needless to say, there’s no objective scientific justification for this, just as our own guidelines – 11 ‘standard’ drinks for women, 17 for men – has no conclusive basis in evidence. Although, it’s probably good advice. 

Certainly, the more alcohol you consume, the greater the risk. But there doesn’t seem to be any completely dependable way of measuring that risk, not least because human beings vary.

I have often said that a big part of our dysfunctional relationship with alcohol is firmly rooted in the divorce between drink and food. Other European countries, even the beer-drinking ones, put eating and drinking together. Traditionally, the Irish pub served “rakes” (a technical phrase, I gather) of pints with, at best, a packet of dry roasted peanuts.

The trou Normand is generally thought – in polite society – to be a glass of spirits in the course of a long, rich meal, to restore the appetite. The other meaning, in days gone by, was the glass of Calvados enjoyed by French truck drivers after breakfast as they prepared to hit the road. But they would have been accommodating a lot of buttery croissant and jam and black coffee as ballast before they hit the nip of apple brandy.

I suppose it was the truckers’ equivalent to the fox hunters’ stirrup cup. I remember the late Bobby Mitchell telling me about riding to hounds with the Cruse family in Bordeaux in the 1960s. Cheval Blanc 1960 – product of a great domaine in a truly terrible vintage – was regarded as “a good breakfast claret”.

Anyway, I suppose the worst we can accuse the Canadians of is an abundance of caution.

Our nearest neighbour, however, has been excelling itself – and the bar is high – for daftness in recent weeks. Prof Susan Jebb, Chair of the Food Standards Agency and Professor of Diet and Population Health at Oxford, has said that people bringing cakes into the office is like secondary smoking. Prof Jebb’s willpower is modest, as befits a professor of diet, and she says: “I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them.”

I have often said that a big part of
our dysfunctional relationship with
alcohol is firmly rooted in the
divorce between drink and food

Something tells me that this is more about Prof Jebb than secondary smoking. Prue Leith, not surprisingly, has leapt to the defence of the cake-bringers, pointing out that secondary smoking was never voluntary and that bringing a cake into work can be rather a nice thing to do, and that nobody is forced to partake.

I wonder if Prof Jebb’s cakeist comment is part of the new Puritanism. Fingers are no longer generally wagged about sex, for example. It’s been decades since anyone has used the phrase “the permissive society”. So perhaps society has had to find new objects at which to wag. And it’s not food, as such; as always, it’s about how people behave.

For some on the right of politics, it’s poor people not eating ‘properly’. The ludicrous Lee Anderson, Tory MP for a ‘red wall’ seat, who claimed £220,000 in expenses in 2021, is known as 30p Lee. This is because he claims that 30p is all you have to spend for ingredients to make one portion of a nutritious meal and that “Brits can’t budget”.

Political commentator Isabel Oakeshott has said that “if a nurse is using foodbanks they should seriously consider having someone looking at their finances” as it is obvious they have more than enough to live on. Oakeshott is no doubt paid very handsomely as a columnist for The Evening Standard.

I’m sure we have our homegrown versions of these jeremiads, but I’d rather not dwell on such a manifest lack of empathy and generosity.

Instead, let us think about wine and, in keeping with responsible consumption, I want to suggest a beauty that weighs in at a mere 8.5 per cent. Robert Weil Rheingau Riesling Trocken 2020 (€28.95, O’Brien’s) is relatively dry, but retains a lovely honeyed note of slight sweetness allied to really fresh and zippy acidity, plus a kind of pebbly minerality. Elegant, poised, and perfect with milder Thai dishes or, as I had it, with confit duck legs and a fennel and orange salad. Delicious.

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