As wholesome as drinking water

There's nothing very shocking about the idea of giving children alcohol, says Reay Tannahill
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The Independent Online
"Brewers recommend tots for tots ..."; "Teach five-year-olds to drink, says alcohol group"; "Let children of nine try alcohol, say the brewers."

The headline writers, as always, had a field day in the matter of the Portman Group's suggestion that British children be introduced gradually to watered wine and the occasional sip of beer.

And yet, once upon a time, most of the Western world - children included - pottered amiably through life in a state of permanent intoxication.

Until tea, coffee and chocolate were introduced in the 17th century, the only widely available options were water, milk, ale and wine. Water, within range of human habitation, was, if not actually poisonous, not far from it. Most milk in towns came from diseased cows, and what was brought in from the countryside was curdled by the time it reached the customer. But fermented drinks were relatively safe - ale for the common people, wine for the well-off.

This applied equally to children, who throughout most of history have been regarded simply as undersized adults. Even the newest of new babies was fed a mixture of butter, honey and sugared wine for the day or two until its mother's milk began to come through.

It was weaned on alcohol, too, on a "pap" made from flour or bread cooked in water and topped up with beer or wine.

As late as the 1830s it was perfectly normal for an ailing infant to be given "steel wine" as a tonic - iron filings soaked in sherry for a month - while nursemaids were notorious for feeding their charges with sugar, water and gin to allow them (charges and nurses) to get some sleep.

It is, in fact, only in the last hundred years that drink for children has been taboo. In the second half of the 19th century, tea became affordable for everyone, the railways began bringing relatively fresh milk into the towns and water quality also improved. Around the same time the women's movement and the temperance movement were making their presence felt. Beer (hopped ale) stopped being an accompaniment to food and, for men, the pub became a drinking den, a refuge not only from the miseries of industrial labour but from high-Victorian morality, a place where they went to get drunk.

And that, of course, is the problem with the Portman Group's idea of introducing children gradually to alcohol. The key to sensible drinking is to drink with food, to regard it as part of the meal. In France, Italy, Greece and Spain, wines are seen as pleasurable partners to a great variety of foods and it is natural for children to learn about wine as they learn about food.

Beer is different. Especially in its milder form of small ale, it once partnered meals of bread and cheese or meat well enough. But in relation to the lighter and more varied diet of today, it is too strong-tasting and too filling. The concept in most northern countries of drinking for the purpose of getting drunk persists.

A couple of years ago an international study of 40 countries suggested that all beer-drinking nations had a bravado culture, where drinking lots of beer and getting into a fight were part of normal recreational patterns. Beer-drinking countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Canada and Australia were at one end of the violence scale and wine-drinking countries at the other. The study put the difference down to the fact that beer was usually drunk alone, without food to modify the effects.

To attempt to transplant the Mediterranean cultural pattern to the beer- drinking sections of society seems unlikely to work. Certainly if France is anything to go by (with its well-behaved children in restaurants), the increasingly numerous wine drinkers in this country would be well advised to introduce their children to watered wine. But the suggestion of introducing them to beer by way of the occasional sip begs the question. Beer drinking doesn't work that way when the lager lout is on the warpath.

A spokesman for Alcohol Concern made the most telling point in the course of his stern response to the whole idea: "Before we can educate our children, we have to educate their parents."

The writer is a food historian.