The Honourable Society of Odd Bottles has been mentioned in this column before. I can report that the membership is growing. We are now comfortably into low single figures. The other night, the Bottles assembled. At present, we have no lady members, although there is no rule to prevent it. That is hardly surprising. At present, there are no rules. Nor do we usually have a Toast to the Lassies. But despite their absence, we began by discussing women.
We decided that for certain purposes, females could be divided into two groups. There is the voice of duty, and of diet, constantly monitoring their menfolk’s intake. Many years ago, when I was a skinny research student, one of my chums had a wife who was a seriously good cook. She also believed in watching his weight. I forget the menu one evening at their place, except the gratin dauphinoise. It was delicious. But the poor husband got a miserable helping of everything else and no dauphinoise. I tied to defend him: ‘Come on Liz, Hugh’s a big chap. He’s not really overweight.’ Hope briefly flickered across his features, but was crushed by a low and unwifely blow: ‘You haven’t seen him in the nude.’
Then there are the girls who believe, despite every evidence to the contrary, that all men are on the point of expiring from hunger. This includes the members of three female clubs who probably do not realise that they are clubs, which is a pity. Otherwise, they could affiliate to the Bottles.
The first are the lady shoppers who assemble daily at Charley Barley’s in Stornoway. It purveys the best black pudding in the world and the most salacious gossip in the Western Isles. The first time you arrive, on your way to the airport intending to pick up 20 lb or so of black pud, you will be worried. There are at least 20 females in the shop, too long a queue if you are to make your flight. Your fears are unnecessary. You will be ushered straight to the counter while they nod in approval at your order and continue their salty dissection of the neighbours’ doings.
The second is a butcher’s shop on Smedenstraat, in Bruges. Again, every-one else on the premises is female, and they are talking as vigorously as a club members’ table during a good dinner. Once again, you will be beckoned forward, with all the mevrouwen listening intently. If you order, say, a Christmas goose, the shop will turn into a seminar, advising you how to cook it. I would always try to take a note, because when it comes to cooking, I am a château general. Obviously, one takes the strategic decisions, but the campaign in the kitchen should be left to junior commanders, with plenty of opportunities for female troops.
Third are the girls who run Ai Cugnai, a Venetian restaurant just round the corner from the Accademia. They are tiny creatures with arms the size of chicken bones, but as soon as a man arrives, even one twice their size, there will be a plate of risotto nero, a bicchiere of wine and a debate about which of their dishes is really good today.
One Bottle is fortunate enough to have a French wife. Catherine is altogether a wonderful girl, and a superb cook. She delights in male guests who appreciate what they are eating — hardly an onerous task — especially if they can be relied on to polish off the last confit of duck leg.
At our latest session, we Bottles turned to claret. Are the 2000s justifying their reputation (and price)? The answer is an emphatic yes. We started with a Lanessan: soft, fruity but balanced. No need to keep it: no hurry to finish it off. Then came an Ormes de Pez, which had more power, as one would expect, and was maturing deliciously. It would be a shame to drink it too quickly, for it is not yet quite at its peak. The same is true of the Gloria, which won the prize on the night and had us searching for superlatives. If it is that good, those fortunate enough to possess the greatest names from 2000 have lots of delights in their cellars.