Monday, 1 February 2010

Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl

I have a prickly relationship with Dahl. Once a childhood favourite (I devoured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach et al back in the day) I found myself reappraising him unfavourably in later years, particularly after reading his Uncle Oswald stories, which I thought repellent. While mulling over titles for the blog, I recalled that one of his Tales of the Unexpected centres on a bottle of wine, so I decided to give him another go.

Opening story Taste sees wealthy stock-broker Mike Schofield inviting professional gourmet Richard Pratt to a swanky dinner party where the host does his best to impress his guests with fine wine and choice cuts of meat. Pratt has been a couple of times before and has used his expertise to win a couple of cases of claret off Schofield by being able to give the name and vintage of the wine without seeing the label on the bottle. Schofield, convinced that he has found a claret so obscure that Pratt won’t ever be able to guess the vineyard where it comes from, foolishly allows himself to bet the hand of his daughter in marriage if his guest gives him the correct name.

From the off, it’s clear that Pratt is a ghastly human being:

...when discussing wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. ‘A prudent wine,’ he would say, ‘rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.’ Or, ‘A good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful – slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humoured.’

Schofield has produced a fine Moselle to start the meal, and gives a long explanation as to why this is the perfect aperitif to claret. Pratt isn’t listening; he’s too busy eyeing up his host’s daughter, but when the time comes to clear the plates away, he turns his attention to his entrée:

...he reached for his glass, and in two short swallows he tipped the wine down his throat and turned immediately to resume conversation with Louise Schofield.

Put out, but not put off, Schofield goes on to produce the wine of the evening, and makes his rather extravagant wager, much to the horror of his daughter and his wife. Pratt makes a real song and dance about the tasting, a process that lasts for several pages:

Slowly he lifted the glass to his nose. The point of the nose entered the glass and moved over the surface of the wine, delicately sniffing. He swirled the wine gently around in the glass to receive the bouquet... For at least a minute, the smelling process continued; then, without opening his eyes or moving his head, Pratt lowered the glass to his mouth and tipped in almost half the contents. He paused, his mouth full of wine, getting the first taste; then, he permitted some of it to trickle down his throat and I saw his Adam’s apple move as it passed by. But most of it he retained in his mouth. And now, without swallowing again, he drew in through his lips a thin breath of air which mingled with the fumes of the wine in the mouth and passed on down into his lungs. He held the breath, blew it out through the nose, and finally began to roll the wine around under the tongue, and chewed it, actually chewed it with his teeth as though it were bread. It was a solemn, impassive performance, and I must say he did it well. ‘Um,’ he said, putting down the glass, running a pink tongue over his lips. ‘Um – yes. A very interesting little wine – gentle and gracious, almost feminine in the aftertaste.’

He has Schofield’s full attention after this little piece of am-dram. Then he starts homing in on the vintners:

‘There it is again,’ he cried. ‘Tannin in the middle taste, and the quick astringent squeeze upon the tongue. Yes, yes, of course! Now I have it! The wine comes from one of those small vineyards around Beychevelle...’

Of course, in the end he guesses correctly! Surely he hasn’t done something dastardly like cheat? Now that would be unexpected...

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