Thursday, 18 September 2008

De Factoid the Seventh: Plonk-ers and Porters...

In this De Factoid one goes a bit upper-class in search of the origins of two drinks close to the landed-gentry’s hearts and livers: Port – the thick, ruby-red gout-inducer; and Champagne – the pale, bubble-filled Frenchy-corker. While to look at in the glass these two may seem as different as chalk and cheese (though in some parts of France the difference between chalk and cheese is debatable) their histories are more intermixed than one might first be inclined to believe...

Port’s country of origin is (quite obviously when one is told) Portugal. The bottle’s contents can only come from here, specifically the region of Oporto (of which the drink ‘port’ is an abbreviation: from O Porto, meaning ‘the port/harbour’). If they don’t, then it isn’t port! Portugal takes its modern name from its Latin map-tag: Portus Cale – with Cale naming an early settlement on the mouth of the Douro River, and Portus – meaning ‘landing-point’, ‘door’, ‘gateway’, ‘entrance’, ‘opening’ etc: think port-hole (the round windows on ships), portcullis (‘sliding-door’: the latticed fence-like defence door at the front of a castle/the back of a penny-piece – cullis from Old French for ‘sliding’), portal (science-fiction/internet gateway) – indicating where those first Italian tourists parked their boats. Latin, Portus, gave us the Old English word port (meaning the boat-mooring area) when those same Roman tourists fancied somewhere with a bit more rain and headed north for the weekend. Portus, as a word, is closely linked to another Old English word, ford (meaning ‘a point of easy crossing’ – see De Factoid the First) and the word fare, meaning ‘travel’. Now used almost exclusively in departing calls of “fare-well”, fare was once also used to describe the transport of food. The word still occasionally appears in mock-Old English bar-signs offering “traditional pub fayre” to the hungry drunkard. The idea of the travelling of goods in fare was also (and still is) prevalent in French conduit: think ‘conduct’, ‘water conduit’, ‘conductor’ – and even more so in portus. Words like import and export; portmanteau (a type of suitcase for carrying clothes); portfolio (originally a case for keeping shipping-documents including passports: a document to allow travel); porter (the poor soul forced to carry them all); the medical name for the vein he might rupture in the attempt (vena portæ); and deportment (the gentlemanly way to act after such an incident – or how to ‘carry oneself’) all come from the idea of the traffic of goods. Port was destined to be portable, even if only in name. But it was precisely the portable nature of the drink that bore its success with the Brits.

The English aristocracy (ironically from Old French aristocratie, through Medieval Latin translations of Aristotle’s – an important Ancient-Greek thinker – opinions on who was deemed worthy to rule) i.e. toffs (a word originating in the ‘tuft’ or tassel on an Oxford University undergraduate’s hat!) have always been big drinkers: predominantly of wine (fermented, i.e. brewed, from grape-juice) and brandy (same idea x2 = stronger result), which was transported (another port word) from our nearest medieval equivalent of an off-licence: France. This was all well and good when on good terms, but the English medieval tendency to have a peck at the French over land-rights (I say ‘medieval’ tendency as today we use words rather than pieces of sharpened metal – excluding, of course, the antics of any and every European cup match) soon meant that drinking French wine was not only unpatriotic (i.e. against the father-land: Latin pater, ‘father’ – think Catholic Lord’s Prayer paternoster: ‘Our father...’), but also fairly impossible. But the rich must have their after-dinner tipple so a new off-licence had to be found. Not bothering with Germany’s godforsaken sugar-water excuses for vino, we tried Spain: but this proved to be too far away. Anyone who leaves a bottle of wine open overnight (i.e. falls asleep glass-in-hand) will notice that it has gone-off. The wine oxidises (gets exposed to air – namely oxygen) turning to ethanoic acid i.e. vinegar. This also happened on the trip over from Spain as air seeped through the ‘breathable’ oak barrels the wine was shipped in. The toffs ended up with several-hundred bottles of stuff that would taste great on chips, but was rubbish to drink. The solution came in a process called ‘fortification’. Just as one might fortify (from Latin, fortis, ‘strenght’) a building from being attacked, so too could wine be fortified from attack on the long, hot journey, with a shot of brandy added to the mix (Madeira wine – another type of fortified wine introduced by the Portuguese to the island that gives it its name – is indeed supposed to taste better after a stint on a radiator). The fortifying method so popular in Oporto meant that the region’s wine could make the long trip, unspoilt, to English ports: and the association of port-drinking with the upper classes was born! The Portuguese aren’t all toff-orientated with their exports, though, with one of England’s favourite spicy dishes taking its name from a corruption of Portuguese ‘garlic vinegar’ – vin de alho – the World Cup song-inspiring, vindaloo...

But just as port gained fame for being particularly hardy en route; champagne – the other bottle of our discussion – became famous for, or because of, the opposite.

Champagne, the drink, comes (in a similar naming trend to Port) from the region Champagne in France. Grapes have been grown there to make wine for two millennia (one millennia = one-thousand years, hence ‘millennium’) and grew natively before cultivation (i.e. purposeful growing). Even in 92 A.D (short for Christian-Latin phrase, anno domini: ‘In the year of our Lord’ i.e. years after Christ’s birth – think ‘annual’) when the Roman Emperor Domitian had most of the vineyards in France destroyed (to encourage the drinking of Italian wine), grapes were still grown in the region (albeit in secret) until a later Emperor (called Probus) lifted the ban two-hundred years later (!). Wine from the region was happily drank in England after that, novel in its unusually light colour (called vin gris – grey wine), but not yet bubbly. This oddity occured thanks to a particularly cold winter...

To go sciency for a moment: alcohol is made in wine as a by-product of brewing when yeast (a team of little living microbes added to the barrel) feed on the sugar in (in this instance) grape juice. An unfortunate side-effect of producing the toxic alcohol (so far as the yeast is concerned) results in their poisoning (cf. particularly heavy nights in college bars), but only if a certain amount is produced. But thanks to a cold winter in Champagne this did not happen, and the yeast in a batch of vin gris instead became inactive (hibernated/fell asleep, if you will) before it brewed itself to death. Bottled, transported and warmed in transit, the yeast started working again producing more alcohol and another by-product (the same that makes bread rise) – carbon dioxide (the stuff added to drinks today to make them fizz). In a barrel this could escape, but in a sealed bottle it could not and instead resulted in a surprise for the first Englishman to pop the cork upon arrival. This is still replicated in modern champagne production by super-chilling bottles in liquid nitrogen! So there we have it: on the one hand a drink whose rugged ability to survive the long boat trip to Blighty won a place in the English Lord’s hearts; on the other the result of a French marketing genius who flogged us a load of soured white-wine. Cheers!

De Factoid the Eighth: coming soon

12 comments:

Freelance said...

LOL!

I was salivating by the time I got to the port (oporto). A friend was given a bottle of port that she had no idea what to do with. I resolved that problem by doing her the "favor" of taking it off her hands.

I grew up in Spain and this lovely factoid tale of yours took me back thousands of miles away to a simpler time of good food and good wines.

Freelance
Portugal is one of my favorite countries.

Champagne I can do with out, regardless of who makes it.

Thanks for visiting my site. I enjoy yours.

PEACE

Adam James Nall said...

Thanks again, friend. How could she not know what to do with it?! Drink! Still, a possitve gain on your part. My particular love of the drink came with drinking (far too much of) it at University. Good times!

Glad you enjoy the site: I post as regularly as time permits, so do check back.

Yours, AJN

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Adam, you never fail to surprise me, each of you factoids surpases the previous. Enjoyed this immensely being a fan of Port (being ex-air force, this is of course the official tipple in toasts). I did notice, however, in your lengthy resume of the origins of port you failed ( I assume) to mention portly as a description of one who is rather rotund. As I myself am of ample girth, the inclusion of this word (indeed if it from the same origins) would have rounded the subject off nicely.

The champagne section interested me, as I have never (not being a fan of "fizzy wines") sought to understand them.

Thank you for yet another well spent interlude before I reach the classroom.

AV

Adam James Nall said...

Well said, AV. 'Portly' is indeed from 'port' and was in my notes though forgetfully omitted. I've amended it accordingly. Thanks for spotting that one! Always good to see another port-lover.

I shall post again in the near future (about a week and a half - as I'm off to the south of England for a bit of sun). Might try as pass it off as 'pasty' research.

Yours, as ever.

AJN

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Research is essential, whether in the south of Blighty or more exotic climes. BTW a good old Artillery Tawny does wonders for the disposition. Unfortunately not enjoyed for many years. Imported drinks like port are hellish pricey here.

AV

Adam James Nall said...

One of many reasons I miss the country if I'm not in it! Tawny is lovely, though I'm just as much a gin man when occasion calls (maybe I should go for the navy, eh? In drinking at least).

Yours,

AJN

al hayball said...

HI ADAM,
Glad to see you are still appreciating my cow art. I am very flattered!... but don't forget you have to place a caption underneath the pics to refer that the cows are done by myself.
I notice you have used my 'cocktail cow' as your logo on your'DIG' site also. Again, please place a reference there to myself if you wish to continue using it. Please let me know if you would like to use any other references.
Thank you in advance.
Al
ahayball.co.uk

Adam James Nall said...

Hello Alan, thanks for taking another look. The titles pop up when scrolled over (both painting title and artist) with a link to the website. This should happen on Dig as well.

Do check back soon.

A

al hayball said...

I'm sorry but on this site the titles pop up only when you scroll over, and only on PCs not MACs which I use. I'd prefer a caption showing all the time.
On the Dig site, there is no mention of al hayball, artist or site and if you roll over or bring up properties on my computer, your name comes up! I'd appreciate it if you would caption each photo James. 'Credit where credit's due'. Keep up the good work.
al hayball

Adam James Nall said...

Oh, apologies. Thought that would have worked. There's a permenant caption on the picture now (not that blogger makes doing such things particularly easy!) and they are still linked to your webpages for added traffic. I couldn't figure out how to resolve the captioning on Digg, so I've replaced it with another image.

Best,

AJN

p.s. I like the 'surf' and turf' cow very much! And 'turf' is an interesting word... A

al hayball said...

Thanks adam, that looks better!
Turf is an interesting word, and so is the word 'Turd-Hopper' the rare south american tree frog (now almost exstinckt).
Working on the next cow painting at the moment ('american blues cow' ), keep your eye out for it. Remember a ltd edition cow print would make a great xmas present for your most keen Blog fans!
cheers al
ahayball.co.uk

Adam James Nall said...

Good plug there, Al. I'll make sure to have a look at the new ones.

Best,

AJN