“It is well to remember that there are five reasons for drinking: the arrival of a friend, one’s present or future thirst, the excellence of the wine, or any other reason.”Latin proverb
Rumbling, shuddering, banshee-wailing down the Rhône, stripping leaves from the chestnuts, scouring dust from the hills, the Mistral brings clear skies and madness, glass-toothed cold, and a drying, dying thirst. And it blows, it blows for days on end.
It starts innocently enough, “Do you hear that wind?” And then the shutters creak and bang, a chill filters under doors, and the idea of popping down to the épicerie for whatever is needed for tonight’s dinner seems a Herculean task. And so what to do, what to do to keep the cold at bay? These days we invariably end up tossing together a pot of vin chaud.
It’s not the exclusive province of Provence – Glühwein in Germany and Alsace; Glögg up Nordic way; Candola down in Chile; Grzane wino in Poland; Glintvein in Russia; and a hundred other names in a hundred other cold and blustery corners. In Paris we would pick up a paper cup à emporter for two euros at a place just off the Contrescarpe and carry it in coddling hands to the Pantheon to watch the tower sparkle over the Jardin de Luxembourg. Occasionally you’ll stumble across a street vendor with a Jules Verne/Steampunk fantasy of a samovar, vapor whistling out of copper dragons’ mouths.
Come November, café ardoises (chalkboards) sprout like mushrooms promising steamy, spicy respite from the encroaching chill and damp. “Vin Chaud!” they chorus, and suddenly it seems like an excellent idea. Even if it’s not advertised, I’ve had the barman whip up a quick one by throwing a cube of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon (or a splash of cinnamon schnapps and an orange slice) in a wine filled coffee cup and heating it with the cappuccino frothing wand.
And it can be almost magical, warm and piquant, cutting down your throat and blossoming outwards. There’s even some evidence (anecdotal to be sure, but…) that it might actually be magic, good for you. A cup of hot and spiced wine has been used as folk remedy for countless ailments in cultures around the world.
Hippocras (named after Hippocrates), a concoction of wine, sugar and spices, was considered a tonic for a host of maladies in the 1500’s, everything from cleaning wounds to curing colds and infertility; going back further, it’s mentioned in the Song of Songs (900 BCE) as an aphrodisiac. It certainly makes one feel better on a night of banging shutters.
In composition, it’s as varied as the names it’s called by. Basically, it’s some proportion of wine, spices, sweetener, and fruit, heated and steeped. In some instances, other alcohols – brandy, bourbon, cognac, vodka, akavit, rum – are added to bring another kind of heat.
For wine, you can use anything on hand, dry red seems to hold favor, although it can be made with white as well. Some people claim you can use less than good wine on account of what you’ll be adding, but I think that’s a mistake. If a wine’s not good enough to drink I wouldn’t cook with it, so no amount of spices will make it palatable. I wouldn’t doctor up an extraordinary bottle, but a good bottle, treated with respect, can make an evening. Life is too short to drink bad wine in any instance.
Traditional mulling spices include cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and mace; slightly more exotic mixes might embrace star anise, cardamom, grains of paradise, fennel, bay, rosemary; downright daring (but quite tasty) blends could also risk Ancho and Sichuan chillies, black pepper, fenugreek, coffee beans, and…whatever. Seriously, go crazy. I wouldn’t try oregano. It makes life easier if you use whole spices (cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, whole cloves, etc.) as they’re simpler to strain out at the end.
Fruit – again, the field is wide open, but traditional choices are slices of orange, lemons, a handful of dried grapes, but I’ve also seen apples, pears, and almonds swirling about.
For sweetener it’s most often white sugar, but brown can add a nice seasonal depth. You could also use honey or maple syrup. Never tried molasses, but now that I’ve thought of it I’m going to.
And basically, mix it all together in a large saucepan. You’ll have to experiment to find what works for you, but a couple of cinnamon sticks, a small handful of cloves and/or cardamom, a few slices of fresh ginger, a whole orange (or lemon) sliced, a jigger or two of whisky…a jumping off point. Again, experiment, but for each 750 ml bottle of wine in your pot, somewhere between 2 and 4 Tablespoons of sweetener (if you like more, you do you). Stir it all up and heat until just barely simmering – don’t go crazy here, you DO want to keep the alcohol from boiling away – then reduce heat to low and cover. Leave it be while you go about your day, the house will smell awesome, and any time after about 30 minutes feel free to dip in and ladle out. It can heat covered for hours, just getting more and more intense. You can strain out the spicy bits if that’s your preference, or let ‘em tickle your nose. If there’s any leftover (doubtful in our house), strain, pour it into a bottle and refrigerate for later, heating it up in the microwave or saucepan.
There’s a version described by Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol that goes by the name of ‘Smoking Bishop’. It involves red wine and port, and roasted/caramelised oranges, and sounds glorious (apparently if made with burgundy it’s a ‘Smoking Pope’, with claret a ‘Smoking Archbishop’, and with champagne, a ‘Smoking Cardinal’). It’s on my to-do list if the current Mistral lasts longer than a week. I might work my way through the entire church hierarchy…
“A Merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”