16 December 2015
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!
(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.
During the season of Advent this year, I am working my way through my own Advent Calendar. Each morning, I am inviting you to join me for a few, brief moments in reflecting on the meaning of Advent through the words and meditations of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).
In his Advent sermon in Barcelona in 1928, Bonhoeffer said:
“A groan wrests itself from our breast, ‘Come, God, Lord Jesus Christ, come into our world, into our homelessness, into our sin, into our death, come you yourself, and share with us, be a human being as we are and conquer for us….Come along into my death, into my sufferings and struggles, and make me holy and pure despite this evil, despite death’.” (DBW 10: 543)
Readings (Church of Ireland lectionary): Psalm 40; Zechariah 8: 9-17; Revelation 6: 1-17.
The Collect of the Day:
O Lord Jesus Christ,
who at your first coming sent your messenger
to prepare your way before you:
Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries
may likewise so prepare and make ready your way
by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
that at your second coming to judge the world
we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end.
The Advent Collect:
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.