Earlier this year, on an episode of the ITV quiz show “The Chase”, Bradley Walsh told a brief anecdote about Winston Churchill and the orange-based liqueur Cointreau. The story, as I recall it, was that when Churchill was in his 70s his doctor told him that he wasn’t eating enough fruit and vegetables and needed to change his diet. So Churchill cut down on the brandy, started drinking Cointreau, and lived into this 90s. I am happy to record this story as it is and have not tried to verify the source and details of it.
Cointreau is the strong drink that I am most partial to. I can happily avoid whiskey, brandy and vodka. Tequila and grappa will probably never pass my lips again. There are bottles of spirits in the house that were opened over 10 years ago and will probably only be finished if consumed by guests: dark rum, white rum, Glenfiddich. But we do get through Cointreau. I say “we” because my wife has had the tiniest taste of it this year but 99% of it has been downed by me, including all of a 50cl bottle that my wife bought me for my birthday back in September. It lasted maybe six weeks. We also had a 50cl bottle of Blood Orange Cointreau, an interesting take on the classic flavour. That was finished a couple of weeks ago and has not been replaced. If you’re thinking of buying me a Christmas present another one of those will do just fine.
The taste of classic Cointreau always takes me back to the early 1980s, when I first tried it. It was mid-December and many of us had returned to school for an extra term after taking our A-Levels. We had sat entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge and were waiting for the results. A crowd of us went out for a meal in an Italian restaurant in Hammersmith with a few of our teachers. At the back of our school, overlooking the river, there was a house shared by many of the unmarried teachers. As I recall, the house was owned by the school, and we all met up there for a pre-dinner drink. I had a small glass of Cointreau. I remind my children often that when I was growing up we ate out at restaurants no more than twice a year, typically after a trip to the cinema. Usually it was the Chiswick Grill. That was where I first had Vienna Schnitzel and thin chips. We made more frequent trips to places like the Wimpy and the Golden Egg on the High Road but this was all so much more sophisticated. My dad always had the same thing: mixed grill with boiled potatoes. I dream of mixed grills from the 1970s. The first time I sat in an Italian restaurant was for that meal in Hammersmith with my classmates (or rather former classmates; we had now officially finished school), after that glass of Cointreau. I think I had gnocchi, also a first, recommended by one of my old teachers. It all seemed rather grown-up.
On my return home my mum asked me about the evening: who was there, where did we go, what did we eat? I told her, and told her about the Cointreau. Before Christmas she bought some, a 1-litre bottle of classic Cointreau, the square design that doesn’t seem to have changed in 40 years or more. It sat in a cupboard in our living room with two companions (lone bottles of sherry and Courvoisier brandy). They lasted for years.
All of these things pass through my mind when I taste Cointreau, which will probably happen a few times in the upcoming festive season. This year I will tell the Winston Churchill story too, whether it’s true or not, and for anyone who likes playing with words I will point out that the name contains each of the five vowels, just once. Can you think of any other drinks that do this?