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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Passing the Port, Devon

Though it may sound contrary, Port is a very British wine. At one time it was effectively made for the English market, the Portuguese drinking little of it themselves – wines with such body and 20 per cent alcohol perhaps better suited to northerly climes rather than sweltering evenings in Iberia. It also had the merit of not being French, given we were so often at war with our neighbours; and our oldest alliance is with Portugal.
Around the drinking of port several traditions have evolved, and as folk customs are not the sole prerogative of the poor and downtrodden passing the port merits inclusion here.
At formal dinners whether civilian or military (the Navy is very keen on this, new officers training at Dartmouth are sure to have it drummed into them) a certain etiquette surrounds the serving and drinking of port. The decanter – vintage port needs decanting and even if the port is not vintage there is no need to advertise the fact – is placed before the head of the table or the mess president. He or she pours a glass for the guest of honour seated to his or her right, then passes the decanter to the guest on the left, who serves himself and moves the thing leftwards again – port moves to the port side. Traditions vary about whether the decanter should remain in continuous contact with the table, or never touch it until it has gone full circle.
If someone fails to fill their glass and move the decanter along he will be asked: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich ?” a hint to pass the crystal along; anyone (foolishly) replying “No” will be told: “An awfully nice man, but never passes the port.” (Supposedly a reference to the actual Bishop of that fine city from 1805 to 1837, the aged Henry Bathurst, prone to napping at table and blocking the passage of the port).
It is good form for the head of the table to replace the stopper once served with his port, before the royal toast is made (in times past the good stuff was used for the royal toast then replaced with lesser fare for subsequent imbibing).

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