Evelyn Waugh’s travel writing as selected in When the Going was Good is exceptionally enjoyable. Rather than generally review its considerable merits however I wanted to look briefly at a single incident when he was on a Mediterranean cruise. In Athens after a late night out, Waugh visits a friend –
I told him that I had had a late night, drinking after the ball with some charming Norwegians, and felt a little shaken. He then made me this drink, which I commend to anyone in need of a wholesome and easily accessibly pick-me-up. he took a large tablet of beet sugar (an equivalent quantity of ordinary lump sugar does equally well) and soaked it in Angostura Bitters and then rolled it in Cayenne pepper. This he put into a large glass which he filled up with champagne. The excellences of this drink defy description. The sugar and Angostura enrich the wine and take away that slight acidity which renders even the best champagne slightly repugnant in the early morning. Each bubble as it rises to the surface carries with it a red grain of pepper, so that as one drinks one’s appetite is at once stimulated and gratified, heat and cold, fire and liquid, contending on one’s palate and alternating in the mastery of one’s sensations. I sipped this almost unendurably desirable drink and played with the artificial birds and musical boxes until Alastair was ready to come out.
When I read this I was very struck; it sounded perhaps the closest any mortal would ever come, in effect at least, to Jeeves’s legendary hangover cure, with which he makes his first entrance into the life of Bertie Wooster –
I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.
“If you would drink this, sir,” he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper give it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”
I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; the birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.
“You’re engaged! I said, as soon as I could say anything.
I wanted to make it, if at all possible. The difficulty was that, not being uncontrollably rich, I never really had any champagne in the house or if I did, I would probably have been reluctant to start dumping sugar and cayenne in it. Unlike Waugh, I have no particular problem with the taste of champagne at breakfast, it being a rare enough treat to resist close analysis. Waugh probably put the stuff on his cornflakes.
Anyway, eventually a suitable occasion arose, and I put together the rather cut price champagne and a couple of sugar cubes, soaked in bitters and rolled in Cayenne. On pouring the champagne over the cubes the whole fizzed up alarmingly and on tasting proved to be more or less entirely foul. Much of the sugar remained undissolved and lay in a small unappetising looking heap at the bottom of the glass, while the champagne tasted very nasty indeed, far nastier surely than was possible in its natural state, even taking into consideration its cheapness. The dregs at the bottom, when swilled, tasted gritty and cloyed at the back of the throat, where they burned.
I’m pretty certain the fault lies with me rather than the recipe; as with all of the arts, the rules of proportion govern the perception of beauty: cocktail making cannot be excepted. Even so I find it hard to believe that what would surely need to be a significant quantity of sugar more could turn my sour and unpleasant concoction into something ‘almost unendurably desirable’. Faust and Paracelsus combined might just about make a decent fist of it.
Still, there’s another lesson in aesthetics here – to read about Waugh’s friend’s cocktail was more pleasurable than to drink it, even though the printed cocktail itself is clearly more pleasurable than the reading about it. Got me? No, I’m not sure I have either.
Here then is Kingsley Amis’s description of Waugh’s Noonday Reviver which will help you, if not understand, at least nod and smile as if you do –
1 hefty shot of gin
1 (1/2 pint) bottle of Guinness
Put the gin and Guinness into a pint sliver tankard and fill to the brim with ginger beer. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution, which I heard in talk, but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something. I should think two doses is the limit.
From his marvellous On Drink – a book NO PERSON SHOULD BE WITHOUT.
Oh, incidentally, here’s a really good blog – a sensible and well-judged look at language, which unusually for blogs on such matters made me nod owlishly in an approving manner.