One of the few things I enjoy about the Yuletide period is I’ll often indulge in one of Fuller’s vintage ales. Though not specifically released for Christmas, it’s become a bit of a trope – the beer equivalent of the cooking sherry.
This marks the abatement of winter – the rubber stamp to move on to spring.
This year, Fuller’s celebrates its twentieth aged vintage. Any remaining bottles of the original 1997 are now worth a fortune. On their website, that ale is now retailing for £515! (though examples in circulation don’t quite carry that tag).The 2017 Vintage is available for the more frugal price of six pounds in one of the U.K’s posher supermarkets.
Thank you Waitrose.
In what’s become a bit of a festive tradition, I’ve mounted the narrow ladder to fetch the Fuller’s balloon glass from suspended animation in the loft because I can’t serve it in anything else – that would be sacrilege. I carefully crack the crown off the bottle and decant the amber liquid into its hallowed vessel (most beers I pour, but with a vintage, I decant).
What follows is a review of self-indulgence; the pillaging of flickering synapses..
I saw my first ever microwave in a kitchen extension in an end-of-terrace house on the Dol Elidir estate in Llanberis, north Wales. I’d initially thought it was a television until I saw a jacket potato revolving behind the door under a spotlight. It was Guy Fawkes’ night. We kept a safe distance from the spitting of the bonfire in the back garden. Shadows distended and quivering, I held aloft the orb of a toffee apple and gazed at the glow of the flames reflected in its syrup glaze.
But now I sit in the Blacksmiths Arms in St Albans, shift work fatigued. I hear the hiss of tyres as they cleave through blistering puddles. I contemplate my pint as the red hazard warning lights of a car paused in traffic refract kaleidoscopically through raindrops on the window. The pulse lights up the table and irradiates the liquid in the glass.
I’m back in my classroom at primary school with my head flush to the exercise book. Despite holding the pencil at a back-hinged angle, almost drawing across my face, sketching goes awry and calls for the strawberry rubber. It ravages the page throwing up dark vulcanised dregs. The perfume is released.
In July, you can buy boxes of local cherries from the market. The stall holder pours the whole box into a plastic bag where the fruit starts to rub together, blet and ferment. I take this bag on a long hike into Hertfordshire’s tame wilderness – spitting pips into the hedgerows with all the pneumatic might my lungs can muster. Plunging my head into the bag where the cherries have started to generate their own climate, the fug is overwhelming.
Often, the most I’d see of my grandfather on Anglesey were his recumbent legs sticking out from under one of the family’s cars as he tinkered, tightened and drained. Workshops and industry accumulated around him. On my days left to explore the sheds like a soldier, I’d tread cautiously into his work spaces. They were dark, spartan, functional. They honked of oil and petroleum jelly.
In Oxford in the 1990s I’m sitting in a lounge scrutinising the brass ornamental labrys – the two-bitted axe – as it hangs above a lit hearth. Sipping from the first brandy glass I ever held, I’m nipping at heat itself. It unfurls inside, hot iodine melting my organs. The bowl enhances the bouquet of butterscotch. The older woman I’m with is used to the cognac feeling but I’m not. The room becomes a besmirched pastel portrait of itself. Points of light glinting from the labrys crystallise into stars. The pendant exhales from focus and doubles through the binary fission of booze.
The glimmer of nausea in the small hours. What starts as a thought that traipsed the wrong path gloams into doubt. Tenderly, you stroke the inside of the arm to summon a company of goosebumps to check its advance, yet it persists. Warmth – the taste of ethanol leaving the body through osmosis; gases escaping a bloated corpse. Eyes are opened enough to glimpse the night outlined through the blinds – a railing to steady yourself by. The poison seduction of alcohol is sweet – its intentions sickly. It even taints the salt in your tears.
At the old gasworks that became the playground, we inhale the sherbet from its paper packet – a small cloud puffs up like delinquent cocaine. The inside of my head tingles along with my teeth at the hit.
Chewed cola bottles and liquorice strings stick to the roof of my mouth as the cap of a shaken Lucozade is untwisted. The spray and the hiss scorch the ozone. The taste of the masticated gum sours the pop like I’ve bitten into orange rind; the layers of sweetness establish their hierarchy.
Standing on straining tip-toe, we pluck the darkest and most engorged brambles and dewberries from the higher reaches of the canopy – checking each one for money spiders first. My hands are grasping and dyed like henna – all the children’s are. Each drupe is dew-glistened which serves to refresh the gullet. Our crops champ as sheep leap through barbed wire, snagging clods of wet wool in their flight.