When Waitrose Cellar got in touch with me last month telling me about their promotion of ‘Mulled Wines Around the World’ and asking if I’d like to write something for it on my blog, my mind immediately turned to winter snow scenes and apres ski (apres ski because you would never catch me on a ski slope!). I think the first time I tasted mulled wine was in Austria, site of my first and disastrous attempts at skiing. I did, however, take well to the hot wine – gluhwein (literally, ‘glow wine’ from the hot irons once used for mulling) – and I think I even brought back some bags of spices with a view to making my own. So thinking of mulled wine around the world, Austria was an obvious place to begin. But that led to thoughts of Switzerland, where I’ve spent more time. In fact when I was last there, in January 2013, staying with my friends Annie and Jerry, vin chaud (hot wine) was available from stalls in the village’s main road at night.
They even had a fire to stand by and keep warm while you drank it! Thinking apres ski and winter alpine scenes led me to think that I’d never been to Italy in the winter – although I’ve travelled to Italy more than anywhere else. I think it would be great to be in the Dolomites in the winter, with its Germanic influence on their foods bringing pork dishes, breads and fabulous cakes. And schnapps and fruit grappas. Of course the Valle d’Aosta is more popular with skiers in the winter and for foodies its proximity to Piemonte, where some of Italy’s best food comes from, makes it an appealing destination. In Italy mulled wine is known either as vin brûlé or vino speziato (literally, spicy wine). And it was the Romans back in the 1st century from whom we have the first record of heating spiced wine, bringing their wine and viticulture right across Europe to the borders of Scotland.
Another popular thing to do at this time of year is take a trip to a Christmas market. I went to the Birmingham one with my daughter a couple of years ago; it’s now one of the biggest in Europe. But my first remembered experience of a Christmas market is when Nicola and I went to Prague in December 2005.
Prague was so beautiful; I loved it and have always meant to go back in summer time to see it in a different way. Another popular Christmas market destination is Lille, in northern France. I went there with Annie and Jerry about 4 years ago. We had a great day trip from London by car via the Channel tunnel and not only shopped in the market but indulged in a brilliant lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant.
But if someone were to say they’d send me to any Christmas market to try some local mulled wine, then it would have to be somewhere I haven’t yet visited: Vienna. I’m not sure why I haven’t got round to just booking a flight as it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for ages, but I’ve heard the Christmas markets are magical and what a great place that would be to drink gluhwein and eat Sachertorte!
While my thoughts about mulled wine took me immediately across the Channel, it’s home here in UK where hot wine has been popular since Victorian days and is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when Scrooge (at the end of the book when he’s become a reformed, nice man) invites Bob Cratchit to talk over a ‘Christmas bowl of smoking bishop’, a popular mulled wine punch at the time. In the classic American film, It’s A Wonderful Life – which is shown on TV every Christmas! – the guardian angel Clarence orders ‘mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves’ in a bar. Well, I think I’m definitely with Clarence on this one: I don’t like cloves. But when it came to making mulled wine in the Single Gourmet Traveller’s kitchen, my mulled wine expert, in the shape of my son, told me we had to have some.
Jonathan has been making mulled wine for the last few years on a regular ski trip with some friends to France in February. He was therefore appointed Chief Mulled Wine Adviser for this post. It was him telling me that they always put port in their mulled wine that led me along the British path with my mulled wine recipe. Port may come from Portugal but there is something quintessentially English about it. We had to put in cinnamon and nutmeg, I was told, but he preferred muscavado sugar to honey. Honey is a popular sweetener but Jonathan thinks its strong taste overwhelms the wine flavour. The wine itself should be of a good quality – not your ‘best’ wine, but good otherwise the mulled wine will be vinegary and unpleasant. Another essential ingredient was citrus – some lemons and clementines. And if we were going with port, then claret (the old English name for Bordeaux wine) would be best. In my 1923 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book we found vague instructions:
We were going to have to come up with the exact measurements for ourselves. I think Jonathan’s usual skiing mulled wine is more free flowing – just throwing things together at the end of a long day on the slopes. But now we needed an actual recipe. I’d invited friends round for supper and mulled wine midweek and thus the Sunday before, Jonathan and I had a trial run to come up with our recipe. Waitrose had kindly sent me some wine and vouchers so I could buy ingredients.
We also needed to come up with a ‘recipe’ during the trial run because my mulled wine adviser wasn’t sure he could get away from work in time on Wednesday to make it with me. I was going to be on my own! For the meal, my thoughts turned to Christmas carols. Many people like to go carolling with a group of friends at Christmas time and collect money for charity. It can be brutally cold and thus having some mulled wine and hot mince pies to warm you up after seems like a great idea. For such occasions, if you want to serve supper too it needs to be simple. We managed to squeeze 8 round my table last night because a few invited people couldn’t make it, but at first I thought we might be perching on chairs and sofas and thus something easy to eat was needed. Keeping with the British theme, I decided to make a Cottage Pie (cottage because I prefer beef to the lamb of a Shepherd’s Pie). A large pie was made earlier in the day and was perfect for keeping well in a low oven when a couple of people were delayed at work.
I went off piste from the British theme with the starter.
Well it wasn’t really a ‘starter’ but more a collection of things to eat with some Waitrose champagne when people arrived. I’ve been drinking Waitrose’s own label champagne for years; it’s a really good one. And I always have some in my fridge because you just never know when you’ll need some champagne!
I decided to serve the mulled wine at the end of the meal with Christmas pies and some of my Christmas Brandy & Vanilla Ice Cream and a choice of cheeses.
I made the mulled wine just before I was expecting friends to arrive, so I could just gently warm it up when we wanted to drink it. Happily, Jonathan texted me from work to say he was just leaving so if I needed any help with final tastings, he’d be around. As it turned out, the recipe we’d worked out on Sunday worked brilliantly and no adjustment was considered necessary. Here is it:
The Single Gourmet Traveller’s Mulled Wine Recipe
1 x 75cl bottle of Waitrose Reserve Claret
250 ml Waitrose Late Bottled Vintage Port
750 ml water
8 tablespoons light muscavado sugar
1/2 (approx. 3cm) cinnamon stick
a good grating of nutmeg
1 clementine stuck with 8 cloves
1 lemon, sliced
1 clementine, sliced
Put all the ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring very slowly to simmering point, stirring to incorporate the sugar as it dissolves. Keep it at a barely simmering point – so you just see the odd pop in the surface – for about 20 minutes. It’s important not to boil it or the alcohol will evaporate and the mulled wine spoil. Also keep the lid on all the time – this means you need to watch the temperature more carefully, but if you leave the lid off the alcohol will evaporate away. Mulled wine is easy to make but needs gentle care in the making!
When it’s ready, strain into a jug. You need to strain off the bits of spices as well as the fruit. Now serve!
I have to say I was rather nervous about how this would turn out. How would I tell Waitrose it was a disaster? But in the end it was a huge success! Everyone loved it. My friends had fun picking out the ingredients: ‘some cinnamon?’, ‘citrus’, ‘freshly grated nutmeg?’ (hugely impressed by Colin picking out it was actually freshly grated and not ready grated!). Kate said it was the best mulled wine she’d ever had. Everyone liked its smooth taste; soft on the palate but still rich with the claret and port; sweet but not too sweet. There was such a large pan of it, and we’d already drunk champagne and wine, I thought I’d have some over to make some mulled wine jellies. But when Jonathan went round offering seconds, it all went. But that was great. It was so nice to have some of my closest friends round for a fun meal; it was great to experiment with the recipe with my son and come up with something so much appreciated. Can we have the recipe? friends asked as they left. Look at my blog! I said.
A very big thank you to Waitrose Cellar for asking me to write this post and providing me with the ingredients for my mulled wine.
For more mulled wine ideas from Waitrose Cellar, click here.