When my brother got married, in Spain in the 1980s, there were still substantial savings to be made at duty free stores when flying to Europe. A few of us travelled from Gatwick to Alicante and bought two bottles of duty-free Veuve Cliquot champagne in a rather attractive (and heavily discounted) gift set. It was, for us, a decidedly glamorous offering. You could count on one finger the number of times that we had drunk champagne as a family in all the years that my brother and I lived at home. We had a single bottle that we kept for years and opened one Christmas, to find that that it had gone flat. In my years at university I had plenty of “SWW” (sparkling white wine, the main ingredient in the punch served at countless drinks parties) and even the odd bottle of proper, fizzy champagne, but it was not a regular thing.
Both bottles from that Veuve Cliquot gift set went untouched in the days leading up to the wedding, and in the days afterwards, but on our last night in Spain my brother opened the first of them and we drank it while playing ludo. For my new in-laws a celebratory bottle of fizz was usually “sidra” (cider), which cost about 50p a bottle but, crucially, had a cork instead of a screw-cap, so it could go “pop” when you opened it. This bottle of Veuve Cliquot, even at duty-free prices, cost something like 14 times as much as cider. I had graduated a week before the wedding and in my time at Cambridge a famous historian had taught me how to open a bottle of champagne. I shared this knowledge so that we had as much bubbly as possible. It might be fun to shake the bottle and spray its contents all over your friends and family, but it’s not the best way, and it’s a waste of champagne. My brother’s father-in-law provided a memorable quote after taking his first sip of Veuve Cliquot: “Yo prefiero sidra,” which translates as “I prefer cider”. Nobody else felt the same way, and his preference meant that there was a little bit more for the rest of us.
A few weeks later my brother opened the second bottle, and the story of that evening has provided me with a catchphrase that I have used ever since. The wedding had been a double wedding: my brother and his wife tied the knot at the same time as his wife’s sister and her husband Paco. They did not have time to sit down as two couples and enjoy an evening together until some weeks afterwards. When they did, after a long, enjoyable meal, they opened that second bottle of Veuve Cliquot. They sat back, French champagne in hand, and Paco said something along the lines of, “Ah, this is the life, eh?” My brother decided to have a bit of fun with him. “You know, when my brother was at Cambridge he drank this,” he said, pointing to his glass of Veuve Cliquot, “every day. Every day. Imagine that.”
It’s quite possible that the brother-in-law (now more accurately described as the ex-brother-in-law, for obvious reasons) still believes it. There might have been students from my time at university who drank the stuff every day, but I wasn’t one of them, and I never met any of them. Even so, whenever I have a glass of champagne, I am inclined to tell this story and say, “You know, when I was at Cambridge, I used to drink this every day. Every day. Imagine that.”