November 14, 2012

Mulled wine

a holiday tradition


In the Victorian era, every good British housekeeper relied on Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Following on that example, I turned to her book recently when I needed a basic recipe for mulled wine, a favourite beverage at holiday time.

Isabella Beeton, who was only 28 when she died in 1865, is said to be one of the most famous of English cookbook writers – on the strength of this book. It was a career she took up after marrying publisher Samuel Beeton, who encouraged her to write cooking and housekeeping articles in the magazines he owned. Her famous Book of Household Management, published in 1861, had 2,781 entries. One can only speculate about subsequent editions if she had not died of complications after giving birth to her fourth child.

Her recipe for mulled wine likely was sourced from common practice in English kitchens of the day. It reads today with quaint charm: “To every pint of wine allow 1 large cupful of water, sugar and spice to taste. “Mode – In making preparations like the above, it is very difficult to give the exact proportions of ingredients like sugar and spice, as what quantity might suit one person would be to another quite distasteful. Boil the spice in the water until the flavour is extracted, then add the wine and sugar, and bring the whole to the boiling-point, then serve with strips of crisp dry toast, or with biscuits.

My rule is never cook with a wine not good enough to drink.

“The spices usually used for mulled wine are cloves, grated nutmeg, and cinnamon or mace. Any kind of wine may be mulled, but port and claret are those usually selected for the purpose; and the latter requires a very large proportion of sugar. The vessel that the wine is boiled in must be delicately cleaned, and should be kept exclusively for the purpose.”

One might be tempted to start with an inexpensive bottle of red plonk since the wine ends up being flavoured. Don’t: My rule is never cook with a wine not good enough to drink. Start with a nice Zinfandel or a good Okanagan Merlot. Port is too heavy.

In addition to Mrs. Beeton’s spices, you might add orange slices, orange peel, even a bit of candied fruit. I have seen recipes using honey and black pepper; the variations are limitless. And you could add a quarter-cup of brandy for every bottle of wine. It adds flavour and compensates for the alcohol lost to evaporation. Never actually boil the mulled wine, because you lose too much alcohol and too much of the basic wine flavour.

Mulled wine is a holiday tradition throughout Europe. The Dutch have a version at Christmas called The Bishop’s Wine (because of the colour). The Germans and the Austrians call it glühwein and lace their recipes with shots of rum. Glühwein means glow wine, perhaps because it is guaranteed that your guests will be glowing after a warming glass or two.

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