A county, a house, a dog — and a bottle. Somerset: men have delved and farmed and built here for millennia, reshaping the landscape but never losing harmony with nature. There lies the dearest freshness pretty near the surface of things. My friends live in the Vale of Blackmore, good hunting country, in a prosperous farmhouse. Over the centuries, it has been added to and bashed about. The exterior isVictorian-esque, but I bet that there is medieval masonry at the core of the stouter walls.
In the kitchen, there are oak beams, perfect for hanging hams and flitches of bacon. Indeed, they could be needed for a similar purpose now, because of the dog. El Awrence, a lurcher, is a splendid example of the breed, in his charm, character and relentless criminality. Now that no one in polite society would dream of referring to gypsies as pikeys, the word is left vacant. Perhaps it should be applied to lurchers: pikey-dogs. In El Awrence’s case, there is an alternative. He has not yet learned how to co-exist with sheep, to the extent that he almost qualifies as a sheep-hound.
What a monster. But sin does not necessarily mean soullessness. These days, no one seems interested in debating whether animals have souls. If they did, lurchers would provide powerful evidence for the ‘yes’ camp. For a start, and however mired in evil, they generally manage to look soulful. There is also a clinching theological point. If you do not have a soul, how can you have original sin? Could anyone deny that the lurcher/pikey has a treble dose of ancestral depravity? Ergo, it must have a soul.
El Awrence would look superb if taken hunting in the desert. Even so, I am not sure that it was wise to give him a name which is an incitement to brigandage. I know a girl who used to have a magnificent lurcher called Bandit. That was asking for trouble, and he provided it. Once, staying with her, I carefully left a piece of black pudding to be the final morsel at breakfast. Then I was called away to the phone. Came back: empty plate; innocent-looking Bandit. Although there was murder in my heart, I contented myself with cutting a toast soldier, buttering it thickly with mustard, and leaving it on the plate while I left the room. To begin with, the dog must have thought that I was a real softie, but by the time I returned, he was struggling. In a remarkable feat of canine bravery, he had scoffed half the soldier. The experience neither impaired his digestion nor improved his morals.
At least lurchers do not steal claret. A splendid setting, a house ready to bask in its inmates’ enjoyment, dear friends both of whom love cooking; there had to be a worthy bottle. Lunch was spring lamb: dinner, a capon. Why do we not eat much more capon much more often? The French understand its merits. As Christmas approaches, the menus are full of chapon fermier. Partly because of turkey’s self-evident deficiencies, British foodies have talked up goose: in my heretical view, the praise for that bird is excessive. It would be interesting to know why Falstaff’s capon gave way to Bob Cratchit’s goose. Give me capon, any time. All you need is a cock-chicken and a sharp pair of nail scissors. If you regard nail scissors as effeminate and your lady refuses to allow hers to be used for that, a cigar-cutter would do the trick, or perhaps the local rabbi could lend a hand.
The merit of a magnum among three is that with superhuman self-restraint, there could be some left for dinner. We had a 1990 Lynch-Bages, en magnum, at the peak of its powers. I think that it was the best claret I have ever drunk which was not a first growth. As we gave the decanter a final despairing squeeze, a fine red sunset was fading through the woodlands. Perfection is rarely so perfect.