Published on December 18th, 2013 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Biggs, beer and biryani
Alastair Gilmour looks at the latter part of Ronnie Biggs’ life when he gave himself up, having expressed a desire for the simple life at home
We were always led to believe that Ronnie Biggs was a loveable rogue-on-the-run whose intention was always to return home and spend his “retirement” days in peace. Apparently, what he missed most in self-imposed exile in Brazil was a decent pint of British beer and a curry.
Perhaps a knees-up with his old Cockney china plates round the old joanna would follow in the Margate pub of his dreams, with Ronnie telling yarns late into the night about life in Rio de Janeiro with his trouble and strife Raimunda.
What we witnessed heading for Belmarsh Prison in 2001 was a shambling old man, barely able to talk or stop the dribbles collecting on his chin, seeking medical help and seemingly on his way out. That he lasted for another 11 years is quite remarkable.
Did he simply want free healthcare? Pockets full of money for his story? A genuine wish “to die at home”? These were just some of the questions kicked around by people who remember where they were when they first heard of The Great Train Robbery on August 8 1963, or those too young to remember heists without guns.
The pint of beer and the late-night curry has changed quite a bit since Biggs fled these shores, first for Australia then to Brazil. Those were the days when deep red, flocked wallpaper was the mark of an Indian restaurant’s class; chicken tikka massala was “foreign”; we had to ask if vindaloo was the hot one, and balti hadn’t been invented.
Watney’s Red Barrel was omnipresent, a benchmark of how beer shouldn’t really taste; Double Diamond had a certain cachet; Long Life was aimed at thrusting young things and we were constantly invited to “try a taste of Martini, the most beautiful drink in the world”.
Quite why Biggs wished to turn the clock back to those days may remain a mystery, but his tastebuds have obviously never recovered from the excesses of the Swinging Sixties, when no dinner party was complete without a circle of boiled rice filled with a brown pool of monosodium glutamate-enhanced Vesta curry, washed down with a slug from a Party Seven. Did he really forsake Rio, the world’s carnival city, for that?
Back there he could have been tucking into feijoada completa – beef, smoked sausage, smoked tongue, salt pork, spices, herbs and vegetables cooked with wonderful Brazilian black beans. It’s traditionally eaten with kale and slices of orange and accompanied by glasses of aguardente – unmatured rum.
And Ronnie wanted to sit in a Margate pub watching the world go by when he could have still been strolling along the democratic forum that is Copacabana beach, where families, lovers, footballers, volleyballers and all levels of Rio society briefly become equal.
He could have been taking lessons at a samba school, doing the lambada, dancing the bossa nova, watching a street carnival, and humming The Girl From Ipanema before propping up a street-corner bar with a Xingu black beer or two to hand.
Margate is also known for its beaches, of course. The bracing North Sea breeze at this time of year, however, would cool the ardour of the most ardent of lovers and the likelihood of discovering tomorrow’s Pele on its sands is as remote as a Biggs knighthood.
However, Margate does have a few very nice boozers which the train robber may remember from his young days – The Spread Eagle is a cosy, back-street local serving up to six real ales and is a regular pub of the year winner from the local branch of the Campaign For Real Ale. The single-bar Orb on the edge of town serves a good selection from Kent brewer Shepherd Neame.
This is where Biggs could be reminded of how English ale should taste. Shepherd Neame is believed to be the oldest continuous brewer in the country (since 1698), but some records show production commenced on its Faversham site as far back as the 12th century. Its Master Brew Bitter is not too strong and is a nicely-aggressive, hoppy pint, building up to a sweetish finish. Spitfire Premium Ale is one of the country’s best-selling bottled beers – and arguably much better on draught.
Brazil, invaded by the Portuguese rather than the Spanish, owes its modern brewing tradition to the Germanic style. Brahma, brewed in Rio de Janeiro by Companhia Cervejaria, is a fine pilsner with a rich malt and vanilla aroma and a bitter-sweet finish. A surprising find from the same brewery is the 8% abv Porter, not unlike the dark beers Biggs would have recalled from his carefree London days. Other Brazilian brands are Antarctica, Bohemia, Cerpa and Skol and there are some fair local wines to be sniffed out.
Among the better ones are Chateau d’Argent, Chateau Duvalier, Almaden, Dreher, Preciosa and Bernard Taillan. The red Marjolet Cabernet Sauvignon and the Moselle-type white Zahringer are well regarded. Greville Brut is a champagne-style sparkling white which is inexpensive but very drinkable.
The afore-mentioned Xingu black beer – made in the remote Amazon region since the 15th century from roasted barley and dark brown grains – is flavoured with lupins.
It’s more than feasible that Biggs got his wish for a pint and a chicken biryani on his release from Belmarsh and Rio and Bohemia would then have become mere lupin-tinged memories.
But at least his prison curry would have brought back those heady days of monosodium glutamate.