In the tiny Cheshire hamlet of Lower Peover (pronounced “peever”) is the delightfully rustic country pub “The Bells”, so-called because one has to literally walk around it to get to the parish church. In fact, so aligned are church and boozer that the two are separated by only fifty feet of graveyard, a low gate and a tall hedge, with the path from the church door leading directly into the pub — demonstrating the weighty tithe rural folk feel to both institutions.
I worked there as a barman in my youth, and over the course of my employment became, as barmen often do, intimate with many of the regulars, who, for the most part, were local farmers and laborers. Every day, at no later than 11.30 a.m., these ruddy-faced gents would pause outside and wash their heavily-calloused hands in the moss-rimmed trough, before propping themselves up at the bar and grunting hellos to each other. Whether their usual was a simple pint of “best”, a black n’tan, a “brown over bitter”, or a pint of “Chinese”, I’d spy them washing-up, and have it ready for them when they walked in. And, though I learned a great deal about their home-lives from their daily grousings — the damp weather affecting their strawberries, the disappointment over their older son’s desire to become a club-singer instead of a pig farmer — I never met or even saw their wives, about whom they grumbled most often. Probably because these tyrannical-sounding women were at home cooking the stout lunch their husbands’ would need if they were to remain erect at the wheel of their tractors after several noontime ales.
Europhile Pretensions Beyond My Station
In fact, the realm of the rural pub, during the daytime at least, was almost an entirely male domain. With the occasional exception of the vicar’s wife popping in mid-afternoon to admonish the regulars about their poor Sunday attendance over “half” a lager and lime, it was only in the evening that the women-folk from thereabouts came in to whet their whistles. And their whistles were whet on a peculiarly vocational basis, with the village shop-workers, almost exclusively, drinking shandies or halves of lager (with or without lime), and the professional and retired classes opting for gin and tonic, or Dubonnet and bitter lemon. The general sense — daytime or evening — seemed to be that real country people drank only beer, whereas effete, French cordials were either for “nancy boys” or the haughty, upper classes with pretensions of continental sophistication.
Being “in” with the regulars, I managed to convince myself that I, quite contrary to my middle-class upbringing, was a stalwart of the working class — even punctuating my, hitherto, mostly uncorrupted English with all kinds of full-bodied rural idioms like, “down at Jim’s mother’s” (somewhere a long way away), “coming down like cow’s piss” (heavy rain), and “‘e couldn’t stop a pig in an entry!” (describing a bow-legged person, of whom there are plenty in rural Cheshire) — and so developed an accompanying disdain for Dubonnet, without ever even having tasted it.
Made Famous by Legionnaires, Royalty
In fact, I shouldn’t have been concerned that enjoying an occasional chilled Dubonnet before dinner would impinge upon my undoubtedly macho self-image, for the drink was introduced in 1846 as the winner of a competition seeking to find effective ways of getting the famously tough soldiers of France’s Foreign Legion to take their quinine. As with several other notable aperitifs, including Kina Lillet and Fernet-Branca, Dubonnet began life as a medicinal beverage that, using fortified wine as its base, combined herbs, berries, spices and peels into a palatable mixture.
For evidence of it credentials as a nostrum, one has to look no further than the British royal family, the Windsors, whose longevity, at least on the maternal side, can be credited to regular libations of Dubonnet. It’s well-known that Her Majesty the late Queen Mother was a devotee of gin — famously having badly scalded her lower half in the bathtub after one too many — but she was also a regular on the Dubonnet, which she liked to drink in a 30/70 ratio with gin and a slice of lemon under the ice. So committed to this was Her Majesty, that she once noted before leaving the UK on a trip abroad, “…I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed…” Similarly, her daughter, the reigning Queen, Elizabeth II, is rumored to take a daily Dubonnet and gin before lunch. Royalty, you see, doesn’t have to work in the afternoons.
The Multi-Colored Belle of the Bar
As we have seen, preparations for Dubonnet abound, including with bitter lemon and with gin, but there are a myriad others, and Dubonnet features in literally hundreds of cocktails the world over. Perhaps this is because it, like Lillet, comes in more than one color — three, in fact — though, in the United States, only two are generally available — white and red, with the latter being by far the most common and widely used. The gold variety can occasionally be found behind cocktail bars of quality.
Now, because it’s red, Dubonnet Rouge adds a certain drama to any cocktail, and can therefore be used in place of Cointreau and cranberry juice in a Cosmopolitan, instead of the sweet Vermouth in a Manhattan, or in place of Campari in an Americano. However, that shouldn’t suggest it is nothing more than a colorant. Dubonnet Rouge can quite easily be the prinicipal in many cocktails, including the fabulously-named Smoking Cat, amongst others. The similarly aromatic Blanc is often used as a substitute for dry Vermouth, in famous cocktails like the Martini, Rob Roy, and the superbly-titled Creole Scream.
Marxist vs. Gastronomic Class-Struggle
If the regulars at the Bells were right, and you are what you drink, then I am, in all honesty, an arriviste, petit-bourgeois Englishman from the provinces with pretensions of epicurean sophistication. I am, I realize, far more closely aligned with the mixed-drink sippers than the hearty beer-drinking peasants of my former place of work. I hereby confess that I enjoy nothing more than an aperitif of Dubonnet rouge over ice and garnished with a slice of orange, as I contemplate the arrival of a savory bistrot luncheon. Similarly, my predilections are more inclined towards a glass of Dubonnet blanc with ice and a slice of lemon ahead of a sole meuniere than two or three pints of best bitter and a plate of Irish stew. Does the fact that my tastebuds contradict my ancestry and upbringing make me a traitor to my class and a bad person? Okay, don’t answer that. Instead, you should give either color of Dubonnet a try in whichever preparation you find most suitable to your sense of self and class identity.