SANTA ROSA — Wine at a formal American dinner usually follows a most traditional pattern: some sort of aperitif (often Champagne), a light wine (probably white with the first course), a robust red with the entree, and coffee.
The British, bless their creative souls, have never fallen into this humdrum routine, and many civilized customs from across the pond have been extracted from the vinous literature and adopted by Americans eager to try something new. And that was my experience at a "Port and savories" function staged by wine lover and Port devotee Bob Andrews.
I use the word function in the last sentence carefully because this was not a dinner. In fact, Andrews' invitation indicated we should eat a light dinner before arriving at 7 p.m. And the word savories may be new to you. It is a truly English term, usually spelt savouries in Great Britain.
It was an "evening of savories" to which I was invited.
At this point, it is only fair that I mention that "an evening of savories" can be a most unsettling experience for a liberal who believes in women's suffrage and equal pay for equal work and you've come a long way baby, etc.
That's because "an evening of savories" implies men only.
In fact, Andrews' invitation had the phrase: "Limited to 10 gentlemen." It was underlined.
Now, so we all won't sound excessively sexist, I must state that I had read many references to Port and savories being served in English homes and clubs, and all references have been to men only. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote of the Port ritual and spoke only of men. Gerald Asher once said of a Port experience " . . . as befits a gentleman's dining club, we talked into the new day with Port and nuts."
Andrews wrote in his invitation that savories is an English term "that describes non-sweet foods served in small quantities at the end of a meal, after the dessert. When the ladies had withdrawn from the table, leaving the gentlemen alone to enjoy manly talk and Port without inhibition."
Savories traditionally are cheese dishes, such as souffles and cheese toast usually made with fairly strongly scented cheeses. Sharp Cheddar is a must at these functions, whether served as is or prepared with other ingredients into a cheese dish.
George Saintsbury, the famed English wine lover, connoisseur and extravagant liver, in his famous work "Notes on a Cellar-Book," gave a number of menus of dinners he had staged that finished with Port and savories.
I have capitalized the word Port in this article to indicate the tradition of serving a classical Portuguese Port. Though with California producing some great ports of its own, any port is appropriate.
To make a Port and savories function truly authentic, however, the wine must be a vintage Port, from a good producer and from a great vintage. The best currently available older Port would be something from 1977, although they are not really ready to drink, needing another 10 years or more to smooth out. (But prices for these haven't really gone to the moon yet. Most average bottles of 1977 vintage Port would run about $40 these days.) You may also find some 1970 and 1975 Ports still on some store shelves at prices not appreciably higher than the '77s. These would be far more drinkable today.
Andrews, the Sonoma County Port fan, went overboard at his Port and savories function and served five Ports from the house of Fonseca, from the great vintages of 1934, 1948, 1958, 1963 and 1970.
Of course, because this whole idea is not yet ingrained in American tradition, I imagine it would offend no one if you chose to serve a California port. Among those you might serve are the two great standbys, J. W. Morris and Quady, or a newcomer, St. Amant. All make vintage ports, and all are excellent. Moreover, some of the great old Tawny Ports now coming in from Portugal make a grand offering, but some of the better ones are about as costly as vintage Port.
Darrell Corti, the estimable Sacramento wine merchant and Port lover, noted in a newsletter some time ago that "Port and Savory is a gastronomic success. Both the dish and the wine are enhanced."
But he quoted from the late Andre Simon, one of the greatest of France's gourmets and wine authors, as saying that savories need not always be with sweet wine such as Port, but that a savory always came after the main course "to enjoy a last or another glass of wine."
And Corti noted that: "At the height of savory's popularity, they were often served with heavier Bordeaux wines, usually called 'After Dinner Claret.' "
To make savories work, however, the wine in question should be fairly hearty to stand up to the cheeses.