I went to the memorial service of a dear friend who died suddenly aged just 54. After the church ceremony, which several of us blubbed through even though it was supposed to be a celebration (not a good look when you have been asked to do a reading and are wearing non-waterproof mascara), we piled into various Fleet Street watering holes as we had done in a previous life, and drank. Goodness, I had forgotten how out of practice I am with the liquid lunch, a concept that does not exist in France. Had anyone noticed me clinging to my half-full second glass of wine, refusing refills as if my ability to stand depended on it - as it did - they would have thought I had gone soft, which I clearly have as far as alcohol sloshing around an empty stomach is concerned. Thankfully nobody noticed. There were moments when I longed wimpishly for a sandwich, or even a bowl of peanuts, but none appeared.
Given the bottles of wine I consumed in this aformentioned previous life, I have nothing to say about Britain's so-called 'binge-drinking' culture, which seems to be causing great concern among the chattering classes. If inbibing so much alcohol that one is in danger of falling over or being sick is what 'binge-drinking' means, it is nothing new. Ask any journalist who worked on national newspapers 20 years ago. Today, everyone has a laugh over what they got up to; one dear friend and former colleague returning from a liquid lunch uprooted a temporary bus stop to the astonishment of those standing at it, hauled it into his newspaper building and up to the newsdesk. In the process he stoved in part of a spanking new car parked in the reception as a promotion. The first ever Ford Mondeo, I believe. We giggle now, and the best drunks were certainly imaginative in their naughtiness, but I bet our elders thought we were just as loutish as today's bingers.
Do the French drink as much? I suspect they do, but there are at least two major differences in their attitude towards alcohol: few French, even youngsters, would dream of going out with the express intention of getting drunk (neither did we; it was an unfortunate side-effect of being sociable) and, the French rarely drink alcohol without eating. They can, and will, consume litres, gallons, pints (measure it as you will) of wine in a single lunchtime or evening (it is usually wine but it can be beer or cider depending on the region). They may start with a whisky aperitif, follow with wine and finish with a calvados or vieille prune as a digestif; I have even seen hunters gather for a very well-oiled breakfast - the local firewater downed with huge chunks of bread, cold meats, cheeses - before setting off shamelessly with loaded guns to terrify some poor defenceless birds. I have been with plenty of French people who given the quantity of drink they have knocked back must certainly be 'drunk', but do not appear to be, though whether they are as capable of driving as they think is another matter. While drinking the French will nearly always be eating or have eaten; not necessarily a 15-course meal, sometimes just a baguette with a slice of brie or a tartine (open sandwich). In other words something we would consider 'solid' as opposed to 'liquid' (though ripe brie might stretch the definition). Even at home if we open a bottle of wine for as an 'aperitif' before going out for dinner, the Frenchman will be rummaging around in the cupboard for the bag of moth infested pistachios I chucked in the dustbin weeks ago.
I have no idea if this is better for the liver in the long run. Perhaps it just pickles it more gently.