24April2014

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Drink and Diplomacy

Diplomats don’t think twice about mixing drink and diplomacy, but nevertheless, as Pamela Vandyke-Price writes here, the protocol of what one drinks and how one drinks can have diplomatic consequences.

If you are given Champagne at lunch, there’s a catch somewhere,’ commented Lord Lyons, British Ambassador to Paris from 1867-1887. But it was up to him to discern what was afoot. In former times both what you drank and how you drank it might be clear indication as to the side you were taking about the issues of the day – or simply the sort of person you were.

Would the British have become the leading export market for Champagne, had the Marquis de Saint-Evremond not wanted to continue drinking his favourite fizzy wine after the etiquette-obsessed Sun King (Louis XIV) exiled him? Saint-Evremond went to London and, at the court of the ‘Merry Monarch’ (Charles II) ordered vast quantities of Champagne to be sent over from his friend, Marquis de Sillery. The easy-going courtiers took to bubbly in the seventeenth century and the ladies who frivolled in the masques and smart parties – including pretty, witty Nell Gwyn of Drury Lane – anticipated Madame de Pompadour’s verdict that Champagne is ‘the only wine that leaves a woman more beautiful after drinking it.’ Indeed, Nell Gwyn, former seller of oranges, may actually have made the first ‘Buck’s Fizz’ – Champagne and orange juice!

After the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, Whigs and Tories were distinguished by their drinks. Claret, being a French wine, was associated with the cause of the Tories, otherwise Jacobites, supporters of the Stuarts who had fled to France. Tories would pass their glasses over the water jug or the bowl that, in those days, stood on the table to act as a cooler for the glasses, so as to wish health to the ‘King – over the water’, in other words, across the Channel.

Whigs, on the other hand, supported the rulers William and Mary, Anne and, subsequently, the Hanoverians. They were not going to drink French wines and as at this time the rather coarse wine coming from the Douro region of North Portugal was beginning to be laced with brandy, it became patriotic and a sign of support to the ruling house to drink port. This is why the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign is, to this day, drunk in port – Portugal is Britain’s ‘oldest ally’ and, from 1703, the Methuen Treaty accorded preferential treatment to Portuguese wines coming into Britain.

The Loyal Toast itself is traditionally drunk with the company standing. But one of the Georges, dining aboard ship, hit his head on a beam as he rose with the company honouring this and, as a result decreed that henceforth the Royal Navy should be allowed to toast the sovereign sitting down. For years I had repeated this, but was recently corrected by a member of Lincoln’s Inn, where a similar privilege was accorded years earlier, when Charles II and his court dined at the Inn and, it is said, were quite incapable of getting to their feet for the toast by the end of the meal. Protocol was briskly altered – and the benchers still toast the monarch while seated.

A ‘Madeira wine party’ preceded the more famous Boston Tea Party when the sloop ‘Liberty’, landing at Boston in 1768, was told that the cargo of Madeira could no longer enjoy the duty-free allowance previously accorded by the British to their ‘American colonies’. The captain, however, locked up the ‘tide waiter’ or customs officer who tried to stop the unloading and, when the authorities tried to enforce the new regulations, the Bostonians rioted. Madeira became a very chic and patriotic tipple in the colonies among those seeking independence.

In the nineteenth century, diplomats attending the 1815 Congress of Vienna took along their chefs and, doubtless, many treasures from their cellars. But sobriety, certainly during Queen Victoria’s reign, was shortly to become fashionable. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII – an unofficial but famous diplomat in establishing the ‘entente cordiale’ – curtailed the long after-dinner drinking sessions over the port; he preferred brandy, a large cigar and to ‘join the ladies’ early in the evening. Doubtless many diplomats of the old school shook their heads at the loss of a chance to ‘say a few words’ in the appropriate ear among convivial surroundings, but the office or a man’s club tended to be the setting for negotiations, rather than the salons of the political hostesses.

Today, Britain is able to share with many other countries the practise of offering its own wine on official occasions - although, as yet, it is only English wine that is available. There are stories of visiting Frenchmen being subjected to ‘blind tastings’ in the past and discovering that some of the well liked drinks were actually quality cider. Today, at least one English wine has been served at Number 10 and when Her Majesty Elizabeth II (‘Your Queen, our Duke’ as Jersey people still say) visited St Helier, she was given the wine made at the La Mare vineyards in the north of the island. As this is a delicate lightweight wine, it was probably sincerely enjoyed, because both the Queen and the Queen Mother are said to prefer this type of wine. 

No official guest in the UK need complain of lack of anything to drink – although the tale is told of one elegant but somewhat ungastronomically minded lady, wife of the British Ambassador in Paris in the 1950’s, who, at the moment towards the end of dinner in the superb dining-room when a rare Champagne was poured into the finest crystal glasses, rose to her feet and swept the ladies from the table before anyone could take even a single sip! My informant, who especially loved Champagne, told me that he finished the wine in the untouched glasses of both his neighbours on that occasion.

The present Lord Mayor of London is a wine merchant, so many Mansion House and Guildhall functions in the past year have been accompanied by bottles from Russell & McIver, his own very traditional City firm. Sir Christopher Leaver has probably acquired his ‘carriage legs’ during his term of office, but many of those who ride in the Lord Mayor’s show find the swaying of the coaches most unsettling and some take a flask to counteract queasiness.

Even the parties given by those whose countries are not wine-producers and who themselves do not touch alcohol are usually able to provide a wide range of drinks for guests, except on the most formal occasions. But I think that the most tactful solution to this problem was found by a famous man who is head of a world-wide organisation vowed to total abstention from alcohol; he was guest speaker at the dinner of an equally well-known organisation whose members are certainly not abstainers. In advance, the guest asked if it might somehow be arranged for him not to appear to parade his principles by obviously drinking the Loyal Toast in orange juice – which some might have considered a slight. The wine merchant doing the catering sent in grape juice – the colour of Burgundy. That was a nice example of diplomacy on both sides.

 

 

In former times both what you drank and how you drank it might be clear indication as to the side you were taking about the issues of the day - or simply the sort of person you were

 

Many of those who ride in the Lord Mayor’s show find the swaying of the coaches most unsettling and some take a flask to counteract queasiness.

 

When Charles II and his court dined at [Lincoln’s] Inn...it is said [they] were quite incapable of getting to their feet for the toast by the end of the meal. Protocol was briskly altered – and the benchers still toast the monarch while seated.

 

 

Nell Gwyn of Drury Lane - anticipated Madame de Pompadour’s verdict that

Champagne is ‘the only wine that leaves a woman more beautiful after drinking it.’

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