16 December 2015

‘Even more sherry vicar?’ … or
a taste of Sicily after dinner?

A glass of Marsala … and a double espresso … after dinner in Dublin on Sunday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

One of the disadvantages of travelling by Ryanair to Stansted regularly and only taking hand luggage on trips to Cambridge during the year is not being able to bring back a nice bottle of port or sherry that Sidney Sussex College, like most other Cambridge colleges, sells from its own cellars.

Christmas is, perhaps, the only time of the year that I think of opening a bottle of port or sherry, and even talk of this draws the inevitable response: “More sherry, vicar?”

Sherry is sometimes referred to in England as the “vicar’s legacy.”

Even when the Cambridge News reported recently that ITV was making a second series based on James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries, the headline proclaimed: “Even more sherry vicar? ITV returns to Cambridgeshire for Grantchester’s second series.”

Yet there is not one mention of sherry in the news report itself.

The persistence of this phrase in English humour is probably due to a well-known Monty Python sketch that was first broadcast in 1972 and is still popular over 40 years later.

Christmas staff parties and dinners seem, in some seasonable way, to bring together sherry – at the dinners, and mock-ups of Monty Python sketches – at the parties.

In the Monty Python sketch, a sherry salesman named Husband interrupts a conversation in a vestry between a sherry-drinking vicar and a parishioner who seems to be an earnest, quiet, self-effacing man with a tortured conscience.

Husband: Well, Vicar, I’ve made inquiries with our shippers and the most sherry they can ship in any one load is 12,000 gallons.

Vicar: And how many glasses is that?

Husband: That’s roughly 540,000 glasses, Vicar.

Vicar: That’s excellent, Husband, excellent.

Husband: Yes, it means you can still keep your main sherry supply on the roof, but you can have an emergency supply underneath the vestry of 5,000 gallons.

Vicar: Yes, and I could have dry sherry on the roof and Amontillado in the underground tank!

Husband: Absolutely.

(The vicar signs a form that Husband hands to him.)

Vicar: Excellent work, Husband, excellent work.

Husband: Not at all, Vicar, you’re one of our best customers, you and the United States. Well goodbye.

I am expecting a few Monty Python sketches over the next few evenings. But after a recent dinner in Dublin, accompanied by a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, instead of a glass of port or a glass of sherry, I had a glass of Marsala.

It was interesting reminder of a week in Sicily earlier this year.

Marsala is a wine, dry or sweet, produced in the region surrounding Marsala, on the western edges of Sicily. Marsala was first given Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1969. Since then, EU regulations have helped ensure that most countries limit the use of the term Marsala to wines that come from the Marsala area.

The wine produced for export in Marsala is universally fortified similar to Port, Madeira and Sherry. Originally, this addition of alcohol was to ensure that it would last on long ocean voyages, but now it is made that way because of its popularity in foreign markets.

John Woodhouse, an English trader, landed in Marsala in 1773 and discovered the local wine, which was aged in wooden casks, tasted like Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines that were popular at the time in England.

Woodhouse realised that that way the wines were made in Marsala raised the alcohol level and alcoholic taste of this wine and preserved these characteristics during long distance sea travel. Woodhouse’s Marsala was such a success in England, he returned to Sicily and began mass production in 1796.

Of course, Marsala should not be confused with Masala. And if Marsala is a typically English taste, then so too is Chicken Tikka Masala, which was almost certainly invented in Britain. It is among the country’s most popular dishes, and in 2001 Robin Cook, who was then the Foreign Secretary, even claimed it was a British national dish. A recent survey found it is Britain’s second most popular foreign dish to cook, after Chinese stir fry.

As a vegetarian I am not going to confuse my Marsala and my Masala this season. But, having not brought any port back from Cambridge this year, I may expect a few more glasses of Marsala … and a few more Monty Python sketches.

‘More sherry vicar’ … a new series of ‘Grantchester’ was filmed in Cambridge earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

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