The Whisky: Amrut – Kadhambam
The Book: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
India consumes more whisky than any other country in the world (an astonishing 1.5 billion litres annually), most of it distilled in the country. The finest of its distillers, like the finest of its writers, have delightfully upended what people have come to expect of the country.
Light mahogany behind the glass. Firm and spicy on the nose, with lighter fruit and floral notes. Rises to the head of the class on the palate– an intriguing blend of warm peat, oak and honey. Fine creamy texture. Delicious. Yes, and it lingers. (50% abv)
India doesn’t flow easily off the tongue when speaking about single malts. Most jaws would drop at being told that Amrut Distilleries in Bangalore, India, bottle some of the most highly awarded whiskies in the world. And would probably be further agape on learning that when the first Amrut single malt was introduced in 2004, the owners had the audacity to launch it first in Scotland, whisky’s sacred homeland.
Scots take their dram very seriously. They sipped and were a bit stunned. India? It took several more years, and a Jim Murray score of 97 in the 2010, for the wider world to join the party. To date, Amrut single malt has produced 14 different bottlings and is now sold in 32 countries. Exemplary reviews continue to accumulate, including for Kadhambam.
Kadhambam is a Tamil word meaning ‘mixture.’ Amrut took a single batch of peated spirit with the aim of coming up with “a completely different whisky with multi-personality characteristics.” It was matured first in ex-Oloroso sherry butts, then Amrut’s own ex-Bangalore Blue brandy casks, then finally Amrut ex-rum casks. The result could have been an incoherent mash-up. But, perhaps not surprisingly for the Amrut’s master blender Surinder Kumar, it emerged complex and refreshingly distinct. (Jim Murray promptly chimed in with a 96.5.)
Amrut Distilleries was founded in 1948 by J.N. Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale, and is now run by his son, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, from premises located just outside Bangalore. Grandson Rakshit has also become an important element in the running of the company. Amrut produces a wide variety of spirits for the vast Indian market. In fact its single malt whisky accounts for only about 5% of business.
Single malt production in India comes with its own set of challenges. Equipment was not immediately available, leading to the manufacture of their own distinctive pot stills. The barley is transported all the way from the Punjab and Rajasthan, and, in the case of the peated barley, from Scotland. The annual evaporative loss of spirit (in a climate where temperatures range between 20˚- 40˚C throughout the year) can be upwards of 12% (vs 2% in Scotland). The whisky matures at three times the rate in northern climates. Monkeys have been known to be a nuisance in the still rooms!
Production at Amrut is labour intensive, a conscious decision by the owners in a country with a huge labour force. There are 450 employees, many of them women. Much of the bottling and packaging is done by hand, no mean work load considering 4 million cases of liquor go out the door each year.
It has now been 25 years since the publication of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie‘s masterful second novel. It is unlike any novel of India to be published before or since. It was as if a post-colonial train packed with every character Rushdie could imagine came hurtling into Bombay station, where everyone dispersed onto several platforms, about to inhabit an immensely ambitious novel, one that would tell not only their own individual stories, but the coming-of-age story of their newly independent country.
It is midnight, August 15, 1947. In the first hour of this first day of independence from Britain, 1001 children are born. They come to be known as Midnight’s Children. One of them is the novel’s narrator, Saleem. Born in the same nursing home, and also at the stroke of midnight is Shiva, the kid who will grow into his arch rival. The “cucumber-nosed” Saleem is born to great attention, Shiva to disinterest. The first to prestige and wealth, the other to the back alleys of Bombay.
A devious nursemaid, however, has switched the infants, setting much of the book’s complex, whirlwind plots in motion, taking the reader on a wild, earthy ride through the first thirty years of India’s independence. It is a novel bent by magic realism that has been very favourably compared to Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Grass’s “The Tin Drum.”
The novel took shape following Rushdie’s extensive ramble through India in 1975, undertaken on a shoestring budget (the £700 advance on his first novel). He had grown up in Bombay, but purposely set out to immerse himself in the country as a whole. Not only was he soaking in the sensual overload which is everyday life in India, but he was grappling with the tumultuous path down which the then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was taking the country. Back in London, there grew in Rushdie’s mind the notion of a central character whose life runs in parallel to India’s own. Not only that, but someone who sees himself as the very one responsible for the twists and turns of the country’s fortunes. It would be a bizarre, frightfully energetic novel.
What saves it of course is Rushdie’s resourcefulness as a writer, especially his choice of narrative voice, one he calls, “comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous, and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator’s increasingly tragic over-claiming. . .’ A voice that constantly embraces risk, it pulls the reader along with a nonchalance infused with biting satire.
Saleem is by turns crude, insightful, poetic, infuriating, provocative. Always engaging. That voice of his might well change within a single sentence. It is often in the first person, but could just as easily be in the third.
“. . .He also developed a penchant for lapsing into long broody silences, which he interrupted by bursting out suddenly with a meaningless word: ‘No!’ or, ‘But!’ or even more arcane exclamations, such as ‘Bang!’ or ‘Whaam!’ Nonsense words amidst clouded silences: as if Saleem were conducting some inner dialogue of such intensity that fragments of it, or its pain, boiled up from time to time past the surface of his lips.”
The novel, like the whisky, never fears surprising those who share in it.
The Whisky: P&M Single Malt – 7 years
The Book: The Sermon on the Fall of Rome by Jérôme Ferrari
Islands seem to have a way with whisky — Islay, Jura, Japan. . .Corsica. Maybe being surrounded by water forces distillers to focus, knowing a whole island’s pride is at stake.
P&M Single Malt stands bright mahogany in the glass. Sophisticated aromas of citrus and vanilla. In the mouth, tannic measures of caramel and chocolate. Smooth but not sweet, a mouth-rich heat that enlivens the herbal notes. (42% abv)
P&M — sounds rather like a business blend.
In 1996 the Pietra craft brewery opened in Furiani in northeastern Corsica, the creation of Armelle and Dominique Sialelli. Using a unique combination of malt and chestnut flour, the amber Pietra beer proved a big hit. With each of four subsequent releases the brewery went from success to success.
About the same time, Jean-Claude Venturini founded Mavela, located not far from Aléria, and began distilling fruit-based spirits and liqueurs. It, too, quickly developed a winning reputation. In time Jean-Claude passed the running of the distillery to his eldest son Stefanu.
In 2001 came an inspired partnership between P (Pietra) & M (Mavela). A new entrepreneurial enthusiasm about what could be accomplished in Corsica, followed by several trips to distilleries in Scotland and the U.S., led to the creation of the island’s first and (as yet) only whisky. P&M had been born, and so had a distinctive whisky, one that captured the aromas and flavours of the island’s terroir, what is locally referred to as les herbes du maquis.
At Pietra malt is carefully selected and crushed, before brewing begins using naturally-filtered mountain spring water. This is followed by fermentation with a yeast culture unique to the brewery. The tanks are then transported to Mavela, for distillation in a Holstein still. The concentrated heart of the distillate is separated out from the head and tail, and stored for maturation in select French oak casks that previously held muscat wine from Domaine Gentile. Two blends and this seven-year aged malt have been the result.
The single malt in particular has gained a great deal of attention, including 95 big ones from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible of 2014, just ten years after its first production. A jubilant Stefanu Venturini sees it as “the culmination of years of hard work” and confirmation of the choice “to make small batches with unmatched taste.” It has put P&M and Corsica on the whisky map in short order.
Born in Paris in 1968, Jérôme Ferrari is a writer, translator, and professor of philosophy. After graduating from the Sorbonne, he headed to Corsica, the birthplace of his parents. He taught in the town of Porto-Vecchio for several years before heading off for teaching stints in Algiers and then Abu Dhabi. In 2015 he returned to Corsica, to teach at Lycée Giocante Casabianca in Bastia. He has referred to Corsica as his “natural literary milieu.”
Ferrari is the author of seven novels, two of which have been translated into English (both by Geoffrey Strachan). “Where I Left My Soul” is about the French war in Algeria, the second is set in Corsica. It won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2012, and bears the somewhat peculiar title “The Sermon on the Fall of Rome.”
Anyone versed in the early history of Christianity would recall that the original Sermon on the Fall of Rome was preached by St. Augustine in 410 following the sacking of the city by the Alaric and the Goths. It is a reference point for Ferrari and the author uses quotes from Augustine to frame the novel.
The book follows the downfall of another empire of quite a different sort: a long-lived, grimy small-town bar whose manager suddenly quits and disappears without a trace. The owner hires one replacement, then another, both of whom fail miserably. It’s feeling rather like “the plagues of Egypt.” Finally she lands Matthieu and Libero, a pair of childhood friends ready and eager to abandon their studies of philosophy in Paris for a chance to return home to Corsica. And to find life’s calling in the revival of the struggling watering hole. What defeats some is a godsend for others, and so the bar, with a string of attractive young female employees and a smooth-tongued musician, quickly turns into a bustling social hot spot.
Running parallel to the bar scene is the story of Matthieu’s grandfather, Marcel Antonneti, once an administrator in French West Africa. It is Marcel who sets the story in a broader, multi-generational context, while at the same time delving into Corsica’s past and that of France, in particular the collapse of the country’s colonial empire. It is in the contrast of Ferrari’s storytelling that his writing truly shines.
In the end, like the French empire, the bar self-destructs. As Ferrari puts it, “the same mechanism can apply to empires, a village bar or to the hearts of men.” St. Augustine, French West Africa, a bar in Corsica, saints and sinners, no matter when or where, they have their common ground. Only an exceptional writer could make perfect sense of bringing them together.
The Rum: The Arcane – 12 years old Extraroma
The Books: The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clézio
and The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The tropical islands of Mauritius and Martinique are oceans apart, but one thing they have in common is an abundance of rum distilleries. I’m in Martinique, but feeling at home with Mauritian rum.
Eye-catching amber gold. On the nose a wealth of tropical fruit and spice — honeyed banana and apricot among them, with the spicy notes keeping the sweetness in check. On the palate, add to that coconut and wood, again tempered by peppery spice. Surprisingly fresh. You know you’re in the tropics! (40% abv)
Arcane Rum grew out of the collective ambitions of four friends — Thibault de la Fournière, Christian Vergier, Stéphane Aussel, and Laurent Berriat — all professionals in the world of spirits. The career of the first had taken him to the prestigious “rhum agricole” distilleries of Martinique. From there came the inspiration for a new and different rum, made also from fresh sugarcane juice but distilled in another part of the world.
The year was 2007, the location chosen the small volcanic island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. The island is multiethnic and multicultural, with French and British heritage predominating. It has just over a million people. Its climate and soil are considered some of the best in the world for sugarcane production.
From it has come a distinctive rum, not a duplicate of what’s to be found in the Caribbean. “We wanted to create a decidedly different product and not yet another old classic rum. . . We wanted a rum from pure cane juice to express this particular terroir giving naturally spiced, peppery rum.” The team chose Grays distillery in the north of the island as the one most in keeping with the product they had in mind.
The 12-year-old Extraroma uses the solera aging process, in which rums of different ages are mixed sequentially over a number of years, with product from the barrels containing the oldest rum eventually bottled off. In this case it makes for a fresher rum with less influence from the American oak barrels. It is indeed something different, immediately apparent when the extra aromas hit as you draw out the cork top for that first pour.
I knew nothing of the literature of Mauritius. In which case a good starting point would seem to be a work by a recent Nobel Prize winner with roots on the Island.
J.M.G. Le Clézio was born in 1940 in France, the homeland of his mother. His father, who had grown up on Mauritius (then under British rule), was away at the time, serving in the British Army as a doctor. Following the war the family settled in Nigeria. Le Clézio’s university years were spent in England and France, and subsequently he lived in the U.S., Thailand, Mexico, and South Korea. Through it all he retained an affinity for Mauritius. He holds dual French-Mauritian citizenship and has a home on the island.
Little wonder then that Clézio considers himself a man of mixed cultures. The Nobel committee called his work a “critique of civilizations.” His shifting focus often holds to account the contradictions of colonization, which on the one hand created sophisticated, cultivated societies, while on the other treated native people and their customs with blatant intolerance.
Alexis L’Etang, the young man at the centre of The Prospector (originally published in French as Le chercheur d’or, translated by Carol Marks) has grown up in the idyllic back country of Mauritius, though never far from the oppression of the sugarcane plantations. His uncle is a wealthy plantation owner, while his idealist father scrapes money together with the dream of bringing electricity to the remote region. A massive hurricane strikes, forcing the family to move and into further poverty. The father dies with another dream unfulfilled, that of following the maps and clues to buried treasure that came into his possession, left by a “Unknown Corsair.”
Alexis sets out to complete his father’s dream, sailing to the nearby island of Rodrigues, and undertaking what ends up being years of a painstaking search. For a time Alexis finds consolation in his relationship with a young native girl, Ouma, until an even greater circumstance changes the direction of his life – the First World War.
An adventure story of a sort, the novel reaches the level of myth at times, without sacrificing the immediacy of character and place. There is a sensual bittersweetness through much of the novel, a melancholy borne of the past, of the frustrations inherent in attempting to come to terms with scars of Imperialist history.
Mauritian history is also at the core of The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). During the Second World War hundreds of European Jews crammed themselves aboard ships to escape the Nazis, only to be turned away from British-held Palestine and redirected to a detainment camp on Mauritius, then also in British hands. It is a little known story of the war, here seen through the eyes of Raj, a 70 year-old Indian Mauritian looking back to the event he had experienced as a young boy.
Young Raj, his mother and two brothers are victims, not of war, but of a brutal, alcoholic father. When both of Raj’s brothers are drowned in a flash flood, the boy struggles to grasp the slimmest thread of hope that his life can ever get better. It arrives in the person of David, a blond-haired Czech orphan boy looking out from behind the wire fence of the Beau-Bassin camp where Raj’s father works as a guard. Another beating sends Raj to the prison hospital, to a ward he shares with David. Despite the fact neither speaks the other’s language, the friendship is solidified. Their runaway journey is the crux of the novel.
Nathacha Appanah grew up in Mauritius, where she worked as a journalist before moving to Paris in 1998. The Last Brother is her award-winning fourth book. She has written a lyrical novel of two young innocents who find fleeting peace even as their childhoods are torn from them. Occasionally the symbolism of their journey seems imposed, but the story is never less than touching, memorable for its deeply-felt portrayal of boyhood betrayed by war.
The two books, taken together, offer the reader an intriguing view of Mauritian history, which, like the past of so many tropical islands, was far from that of a guiltless paradise.
The Whisky: The English Whisky Co. – Chapter 7
The Book: The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
To a Scotch drinker a whisky made in England is nothing if not intriguing. As intriguing as a Victorian woman dressed all in white dashing along a moonlit path.
The decanter holds pale citrus gold, no added colour and non chill-filtered, both welcome attributes. A rum-sweetened nose, showing fruit & nuts and traces of marzipan. Malt and spicy citrus on the palate, with a hint of salt. Bears a subtle, earthy elegance. (46% abv)
The English Whisky Co. built the St. George’s Distillery in Roudham, Norfolk in 2006, the first English distillery for the production of single malt in over a hundred years! Scottish eyes rolled.
Founders James Nelstrop and son Andrew (with a 600-year family history of growing grain behind them) were unrelenting in their determination to get it right. They deliberately chose Norfolk for the ready access to local, top-quality barley. The chosen site also offered an excellent underground supply of clean, pure water. The Nelstrops commissioned Forsyths of Rothes to build their copper stills. They imported first-rate ex-bourbon casks from the U.S., together with a prime range of other casks that once held sherry, port, and rum. The highly respected Iain Henderson (recently retired from Laphroaig) came onboard to set it all in motion. David Fitt, after working under the guidance of Henderson for several months, followed him as head distiller.
The results (sequentially numbered bottlings they call “Chapters”, some unpeated, some peated) garnered impressive reviews. Our Chapter 7, first released in 2010, is one of the most lauded. The whisky was matured for two years in ex-Jim Beam bourbon casks, then transferred to two refill rum casks, one from Jamaica, another from Guyana. There the spirit spent a year, before being vatted together, and bottled by hand several months later.
Since opening its doors the distillery hasn’t looked back. It has already expanded its warehouse capabilities, with output approaching 200,000 bottles annually.
A new age of English whisky has arrived. Five more distilleries are now producing whisky across the country. And there have been more than a few words swallowed north of the border.
The first instalment of The Woman in White appeared in November of 1859 in All the Year Round, a weekly magazine started by the author’s friend Charles Dickens. No one would have predicted that, by the time the final sentences appeared nine months later, practically the whole of London had become mesmerized by the superbly plotted, lurid tale of deceit, adultery, and criminal intrigue among the upper echelon of English society. And perhaps no one more so than the author himself, Wilkie Collins. When the first printing of the whole novel appeared a short time later, it sold out on its day of publication. And when an eager publisher proposed an advance for his next book, Collins dashed a letter off to his mother. “Five Thousand Pounds!!!!!! . . .Nobody but Dickens has made as much.”
Indeed so. For a time Collins outpaced Dickens in popularity. Woman in White perfume was soon for sale, as were Woman in White cloaks and bonnets. Society couples danced to The Woman in White Waltz. But of all his books that followed, only Moonstone would generate as much interest and have lasting impact on English literature. Dickens had no true rival.
The Woman in White has come to be seen as the first “sensation” novel, paralleling as it did the societal scandals of the day, just as Moonstone would be seen as introducing the genre of detective fiction to English literature. In the years that followed both books would have a host of imitators, but none as good as what came from the pen of Collins.
The qualities of The Woman in White that so captivated Victorian England are as seductive today as a century and a half ago. The book is a true page-turner, despite our literary distance from the mannered, convoluted way the characters sometimes express themselves. “If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry . . .” begins the opening narrative. One gets used to it quickly.
It is the intricate plot, and its wealth of well-drawn characters — from the rich, demure Laura Fairlie, and her look-alike, the much-harried Anne Catherick, to the scheming Sir Percival and his corpulent, equally fraudulent partner, Count Fosco — that snags the modern reader. Collins gives each a portion of the narrative, and through them allows the pieces of the puzzle to tumble about, falling into place in the author’s good time. It is no wonder the serialized version had readers craving the next issue of the magazine. Master storyteller Wilkie Collins knew what he was about.
As a point of interest, Collins had a great fondness for Norfolk. It was there, in the village of Winterton-on-Sea (fifty miles from Roudham), where he had gone in search of background material for a new novel, that he found the second great love of his life, and in time the mother of his three children. It is not known if he drank much whisky while in Norfolk, but the spirit does make several appearances in the very well-researched book that followed.
The Whisky: Highland Park – Dark Origins
The Book: Winter Tales – George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown’s bleak mid-Winter Tales, set in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, many touching on the Yuletide season, has me wishing for a warming dram of Orkney spirit.
All-natural, dark amber, not-quite mahogany in colour. (Christmas) sherry on the nose, with smoke and spice and nuts. Lovely sweetish, smokey burn on the palate. The taste of sherried spice, with earthy tones of nuts and chocolate. All in fine balance. Lingering mellow, sweet peat. (46.8% abv, non-chillfiltered, no added colour)
Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland and a landmark of the Orkney Islands where the ancestry is more Norse than Scot and a distinct, independent character prevails.
Founded in 1798, Highland Park has followed a colourful path to its present status as producer of some of the most highly regarded whisky anywhere. The distillery was founded on property formerly owned by Magnus Eunson, said to be a preacher and butcher during the daylight hours, illicit distiller and smuggler when the sun went down, which it does quite early during much of the year on Orkney. Dark Origins is homage to the man, his ominously hooded, shadowy image covering much of the whisky’s presentation box.
Here Highland Park has gone to the darker side. Inside the black matte bottle is a no-age-statement spirit, 80% matured in first-fill sherry casks (twice as many as its standard 12-year-old). It is a denser, peatier HP whisky, strongly influenced by the sherried European oak.
Yet it is Highland Park still. No ex-bourbon casks. Warehouses that use the traditional, labour-intensive dunnage method of maturation. And peat gathered from Hobbister Moor — a sweeter peat, distinctive to treeless Orkney, derived from heather and other low vegetation, rather than from trees as in Islay.
It is an experimental, range-extending, market-savvy Highland Park, but still one where quality itself is never in the dark.
George Mackay Brown is Orkney’s most famous literary figure. He was born in the town of Stromness and, except for a brief period at college on mainland Scotland, lived there until his death in 1996. He was never a well man, physically constrained by tuberculosis during much of his life. Yet, working within the solitude forced on him, he produced some of the most admired Scottish literature of the 20th century.
The collection of short stories, Winter Tales, published the year before his death, brings together some of his best short fiction. As an admiring Seamus Heaney wrote, his poetry and prose passed “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” In these stories, some drawing on the history of the place, more confronting the impact of modern life on its traditional ways, we are immersed in the scent, the moodiness, the aura of the Islands. Hardly surprising, the stories have a folkloric, mystical, ageless quality. It is as if an Orcadian stone mason had crafted the prose, surrounded as he would be by ancient standing stones, Norse ruins, and the great fortress of the North Atlantic.
Light and darkness are major elements of the stories, as are the reoccurring rituals of the calendar year. Several of them draw to an end at Yuletide, referencing the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, to which the author converted during the second half of his life. A favourite story is Ikey, with its 12 monthly segments that follow a tinker lad and his various encounters as he tramps about Orkney, culminating in the discovery among alehouse ruins of a shed, and from it a mother’s song and “the hidden sweet cry of the child.”
Through the 18 stories the reader turns from a recruiting visit to Orkney by Captain Bligh, to shipwrecked Scandinavians, to a wood carver escaping a nagging wife only to become a celebrated folk artist. Mackay Brown captures the timeless rhythms of human tenure on the islands, entwining his intimate knowledge of its past and present.
They are the stuff of hearthside tales, ones for which a dram of fine island spirit would only add to their telling.
The Whisky: Destilleriet Braunstein – Library Collection 12:2
The Play/Book: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare
Hold Benedict Cumberbatch to account for this one. His brilliant portrayal of Hamlet in this fall’s National Theatre production got me thinking what a modern day Danish prince might have in his glass.
Dark caramel/light mahogany in colour. Herbal sweet peat on the nose. Youthful in the mouth, with smoke and sherry-tinged fruit coming through. Leaves a lively and lasting impression. (46% abv)
Only 1000 bottles of this peated single malt were produced, released in 2012 as another in Braunstein’s Library Collection, innovatively packaged in the shape of a tall, thick book. I you are willing to be impressed by Danish whisky, this is a very good place to start.
The Braunstein distillery in Køge, just south of Copenhagen, was founded in 2005, following two years of brewing beer, a licensing requirement of Danish authorities, likely wary of young men who come back from fly fishing trips in Scotland with pipe dreams of distilling whisky, without any experience to back them up.
The two young men in question were brothers Michael and Klaus Braunstein Poulsen and by 2010 they were distilling and selling Denmark’s first single malt. Production remains relatively small, as does distribution outside their home country. This bottle was purchased in England, however, and China now imports Braunstein whisky.
Both peated and unpeated whisky are distilled. The peated malt is brought from Port Ellen in Scotland but Braunstein also uses organically-grown Danish barley. While the yeast is a byproduct of their own brewery, the water is sourced from Greenland icebergs! Distillation is in a Holstein still. In the case of our peated 12:2, maturing takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks.
The Braunstein brothers proved the skeptics wrong. Careful planning and persistence eventually brought forth a world-class whisky. Something’s very right in the state of Denmark!
Is there a better known piece of literature? It’s very doubtful. Written about 1600, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a magnetism that draws audiences today as strongly as it has ever done. Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent 12-week London run in the title role sold out in a few hours, more quickly than any other show in the history of the British Theatre. The live-to-cinema performance, broadcast to movie theatres around the world, draw an audience of 225,000.
Playing Hamlet is a rite of passage for many serious actors. The list of others who have taken to it is diverse, sometimes surprising: Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Christopher Plummer, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, David Tennant, to name a few. Of the recent versions, I find Tennant’s take on the role, produced for BBC in 2009 and now available on YouTube, particularly fresh and compelling. (Dr) Who knew?
Every director and actor brings something unique; no two productions are alike. Again on the internet, you’ll find a compilation (by John Kenneth Fisher) of 17 different versions of the “fishmonger scene” in Act 2, Scene 2. Fascinating to see just how varied have been the interpretations of the same scene.
Hamlet’s motivations and the seeming contradictions in character continue to be the cause of endless debate. His wit plays against his profound melancholy and the stage reverberates with the Bard’s mastery of language. ‘To be or not to be,’ ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be,’ ‘what a piece of work is a man!’ They are all there, and so many more. Hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t ring with a famous line, accentuated for many of us by the decades of life experience that have passed since university English classes.
This is the Royal Shakespeare Company edition of the play, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, enlivened by a fresh introduction, scene-by-scene analysis, an essay on landmark performances, etc, etc, together making for an all-round richer experience of the play.
I wonder what Shakespeare would have come up with had he turned his hand at whisky tasting notes? Without doubt something endlessly quoted by lovers of the dram.
The Cachaça: Porto Morretes – Cachaça Aged
The Books: Budapest and Split Milk by Chico Buarque
Cachaça is Brazil’s most popular distilled spirit, by far. About two billion litres are produced annually. I’d say a fair portion of that is drunk while listening and dancing to the music of the legendary Chico Buarque. And while reading his books.
Porto Morretes aged cachaça lights up the glass with an orange-gold glow. Oak vanilla and caramel round out a spicy aromatic nose. These notes deliver warmly but with considerable force, making for a rich, medium-complex taste experience. There’s flavourful, honeyed fire that eases off nicely. Robust and rewarding. Very danceable. (39.6% abv)
You might consider Brazilian cachaça a cousin to rhum agricole of the West Indies. Both are distilled, not from molasses as is most rum, but from the raw juice of the sugar cane. Premium cachaça is aged in oak. In the case of Porto Morretes, that’s for three years (bearing in mind that the influence of oak is speeded up by the heat of the tropics).
In Brazil the making of cachaça dates from the 1500s. Today there are some 40,000 producers throughout the country. Agroecologica Marumbi Ltda., the distiller behind Porto Morretes, was founded in 2004 and is located in southern Brazil, in quiet, historic Morretes, a town long known for its distillation of cachaça. It lies at the foot of the beautiful Pico Morumbi, within the protected area of the Atlantic Forest. It prides itself on it artisanal, organic production.
The climate is hot and humid, the soil fertile, allowing the pesticide-free terroir to produce a top-grade, unique sugarcane. The cane is harvested and selected by hand, its juice extracted and fed into temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. Fermentation follows, using only natural yeast.
Distillation is in copper stills, where the head and tail of the run are diverted and only the centre portion, the “heart”, ends up in oak barrels for aging. The result — an award-winning cachaça, much of which is exported to countries where it is still little known, finding its way to spirit drinkers looking for a new and exceptional product, running one step ahead of the crowd.
Very rare is the musician who can stand equally tall as a novelist. But Brazil’s Chico Buarque is just such a guy. For fifty years he has been one of the country’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. In the early 1990s, drawing on a life-long passion for literature, he took a side road into writing novels. There have been four to date, best sellers in Brazil, some award winning, all critically acclaimed. All have been translated into English — Turbulence, Benjamin, Budapest, and Spilt Milk.
They would seem to take little if anything from the author’s life as a musician. What they do share with his songwriting is commentary on Brazil’s political and social landscape. Yet, they are far from forays into realism. Budapest especially leans towards the work of Kafka and his successors.
At the centre of the story is a ghostwriter, José Costa. His office overlooks Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but his heart is in far-off Budapest. Having been stranded there for a night on a return flight from Istanbul, he is smitten by the city. And, as a man of words, just as smitten by the Hungarian language — “the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”
He is soon plotting a return to Budapest, leaving his television journalist wife and overweight, aloof young son, in favour of language classes with the intriguing Krista. He works a path through the entanglements of love, language, pumpkin rolls and Tokaji wine. All is not as it appears and when the life of the renamed Zsoze Kósta takes yet another absurdist turn we very willingly give ourselves over to the surreal games that an exceptional writer might play.
The protagonist of the even more accomplished Split Milk lived part of his life in a chalet that also overlooked Copacabana Beach. Eulálio d’Assumpção, a centenarian confined to the ward of a decrepit public hospital, began life in a mansion built on the profits of the slave trade. Through the decades his family fortune waned to such a point that in his old age Eulálio was forced into a hovel on the grimy fringes of the city. The generational descent — from his aristocratic great-great grandfather to a great-grandson who deals drugs — mirrors the changes which overtook modern Brazil.
But if Spilt Milk is a lesson in history it is a subtle one, fed through the highly personal voice of its aged narrator, a man who is by turns charming, irritating, tender, racist, amusing, unforgivable. In his decline he talks on and on to his nurse, his daughter, himself, anyone else who will listen, recounting episodes from his long life, without the filter that failed to follow him into old age and dementia. With their repeated telling, the line between what truly happened and what he imagined becomes increasingly blurred.
Buarque never loses sight of the man whose story he has chosen to tell. A man whose one profound, enduring loss was the sudden departure of his young wife, Matilde, who left him so long ago and without his ever understanding why. The novel is at its core a love story.
One begins to think what a solo career as Chico Buarque the writer might have produced. But then there would not have been his music, a thought which I sense in Brazil would be outright unpatriotic.