Bruce Anderson

Chinese spirit

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My recent drinking has been straight out of Hopkins: ‘All things original, counter, spare, strange.’ A dinner party in Chinatown ended with mao tai, the Chinese rice spirit. I have never been able to decide about mao tai. It has a nose like a school changing room: some would say, a taste to match. It packs a wallop. At around 86° proof, it can be heartburn in a glass. Girls rarely enjoy it. When mao tai is on offer, even the ones who delight in a Havana with some serious armagnac tend to dodge the column. But a ­digestif ought to pull the strings together: a final movement which makes sense of the symphony. After a Chinese meal accompanied by sake — apologies for the rape of Nanking, but sake is ideal with Chinese food — mao tai does the business, especially, as is increasingly the case in China, when followed by a cognac (not armagnac: mao tai needs a more austere brandy). I must confess to a post-judice. Chinese food has limitations. The French take gold, the Italians silver; the Japanese win a separate event for sashimi (they are sans pareil when they are slicing the fish, but fall back towards mediocrity if they start to cook it). The Chinese, Spanish and Indians can fight it out for bronze. As for the British, we could throw in odd dishes — pork sausages, haggis, black pudding, roast beef, smoked salmon — but not enough to qualify for cuisine status.

Any cuisine embodies a philosophy of the natural world. Though not excessively squeamish, I am overawed by the Chinaman’s robust approach to the potential cast list of his ­dinner plate. To paraphrase Hopkins as a children’s hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small… the Chinese eat them all.’ At a street market in Chongqing, I once saw a woman with a string-bag full of kittens. Poor litul kittens. Now that the Chinese are cornering the world’s supply of Lafite, one hopes that they will display a more sentimental attitude towards felines. After all, these days they can afford to eat animals with a bit of flesh on their bones.

During a banquet in Wuhan, where dog was served — gamey, but not a pleasant taste — I had a prolonged exposure to mao tai, and to thousand-year-old eggs. These are duck eggs, preserved until the white is the colour of beef consommé and the yolk an angry, volcanic greeny-orange. They are delicious: the best dish in the Chinese repertoire. We had been up country for a few days, with only warm weak lager to drink, and not much of that. At the end of the banquet, a small flagon of mao tai was served. Thirst is the best sauce: it made one’s palate feel that normal service had been restored. It was only small, so I asked if there was possibly another one. Before I finished the second, the third arrived, and so it continued. When in pursuit of mischief, normally inscrutable Orientals have a delightful twinkle. I could see their game. They were hoping that the round-eyed barbarian would fall over. I am glad to report that they were unlucky in their barbarian.

So: try mao tai after a proper Chinese meal. If your hosts are Chinese, they will be impressed, and it is unlikely that they will succeed in luring you beyond a safe tolerance. Unlike Pimm’s — it is wholly unlike Pimm’s — mao tai wears its strength on its sleeve.

Moving beyond Chinese victuals, I have been drinking a fair amount of Château Meaume ’07. Like most of the lesser ’07s, it is now at its best — and do not allow ‘lesser’ to put you off. This is a jolly good drop of stuff and at only 12 per cent, it is ideal at lunchtime. A Ducru-Beaucaillou ’96 was in a different category, commanding the enthralment of the entire table. When you taste a wine like that, although you know intellectually that there are greater clarets, that seems irrelevant. Drink it whenever you can, but — Chinese oenophiles please note — do not follow it with mao tai.