A Holiday Classic Drinks Story

  • 12/17/2018
  • Richard Foss

By Richard Foss, Dining and Cuisine Writer

It’s the time of year when people pull out their worn copies of Dickens, and if they’re paying attention they notice something: Charles is quite a sensualist when it comes to food and drink. When he talks about a bad meal you’re disgusted, and when he describes a good meal you get hungry. This is the case even though he’s referring to English food, which most Americans aren’t all that fond of. It’s a compliment to him as a writer that, along with the tears he evokes at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop and the laughter at the jolly but clueless Mr. Pickwick, he can make modern readers hungry for mutton, goose, and mushroom pudding.

Dickens also wrote about the drinks of his era, never more lyrically than when he described the chronically broke Wilkins Micawber making an alcoholic rum punch.

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.”

Many writers have celebrated the delights of drinking cocktails, but here is the great example of someone describing the joy of making them. What is this elixir he celebrated, and would a modern person like it? Might it be part of a modern Christmas celebration?

The answer is that it’s delicious, a kind of hot alcoholic lemonade with the sweet and tart flavors accented by fragrant lemon oil and spices. It’s also not difficult to make [the recipe is on the sidebar on this page]. Producing it is an impressive party trick; turn the lights low as you ignite it, and the flickering blue flames rising from the pot will transfix your guests (no matter how heartfelt their pleas, deny their requests to pause the process so they can take just one more video; letting it burn too long risks losing most of the alcohol.) When it’s time to taste, you’ll experience the Victorian love of fruity, spice-laden, mildly alcoholic hot drinks.

Besides that punch, other Victorian hot alcoholic concoctions include the mulled wine that fills the air at parties with scents of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, orange peel and rose hips. You know it’s in a room the moment you enter because the warm alcohol aromatizes the room as it picks up the oils of clove, citrus and spices. Both white and red wines are used for this purpose, but the longtime favorite is port — enjoyed everywhere and by everyone.

In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management opined, “As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it.” That sentence alone tells you a great deal about how Victorian standards for raising children differ from ours.

You have probably read about the most famous hot wine punch without knowing it. Right at the end of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has had a change of heart, he tells Bob Cratchit, “We will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”

It’s safe to say that most Americans have no idea what a bowl of smoking bishop might be, so this information will put you ahead of your neighbors. To make smoking bishop you stud oranges with cloves, roast them, and then add their spice-infused juice to a punchbowl of port wine, hot water and sugar. When Scrooge uttered that phrase using Cratchit’s first name, he was indicating that he intended to treat him as an equal and offered a favored drink of wealthy people like himself.

There are many other winter drinks that are suited to Christmas: hot buttered rum, brandy flips with hot cream and egg, and even mulled ale — hot dark beer with the same spices used in mulled wine. All of these are rarely seen in bars because they take time to make and Americans don’t know to ask for them. But if you want to show some traditional style at your holiday gathering there’s no better way to do it. Give the toast for the season, “Wassail!” and in doing so wish your guests good health in a blessing that goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. These drinks are tasty and can be potent, so make sure they have a designated driver and as such will be able to join you for Christmases to come.

Charles Dickens’ Punch 

This recipe is from a letter Charles Dickens sent to Amelia Austin Fillonneau on Jan. 18, 1847, accompanied by a note which said, “I hope it will make you a beautiful punchmaker in more senses than one.” The recipe reprinted with permission from Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl by David Wondrich, Perigee Books, copyright 2010.

Original recipe:

“To make three pints of punch, peel into one very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket), the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy– if it not be a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up five minutes, and stir again.

At this crisis, having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon, you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven ten minutes, or on a hot stove one-quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to the table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours take the lemon peel out, or it will have a bitter taste.” 

Suggested modern procedure:

Use a crockpot, and heat the sugar, peels, and alcohol to medium before setting the fire. This will eliminate any danger of cracking the crock.

Use six ounces of Demerara sugar, 20 ounces of rum and 6 of Courvoisier VSOP, the kind Dickens kept in his cellar. David Wondrich’s book has an essay on recommended rums– brands include Smith & Cross and Sea Wynde. For large parties I use Jamaican medium dark rum or a mix of Myers’ dark and an amber rum — the more expensive rums make a slightly better product.  You can use Raynal brandy, which has a cognac flavor but is far less expensive.

The fire melts the sugar and extracts the oil from the lemon peel. Dickens’s advice about lighting the spirits in a warm metal spoon works, but a barbecue lighter is even better.  Do not try to light the whole pot while holding the match in your hand. Note that alcohol burns with a pale blue flame, so if you are in a bright room you may not be able to see the fire.

Dickens used the British quart, which is 20 ounces, rather than the American; this recipe calls for 40 ounces of water. Before serving add a dash of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg into each cup after serving for an aromatic delight.

The punch can be drunk hot or cold, and if you remove the lemon peel will keep for days if kept cool and sealed. Dickens was a master punchmaker, and the sweet and sour flavor will delight your guests. When you serve it, raise a glass to the master of literature and hospitality.

Richard Foss is not responsible for kitchen fires or inebriation as a result of trying this recipe.

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Richard Foss

Richard Foss is a culinary historian, author and museum consultant who has lectured around the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He wrote the section on Croatian cuisine in the Encyclopedia of World Food Cultures and also contributed to the Oxford Companion to Sweets. He is working on his third book, which is about food in Spanish and Mexican colonial California from 1790 to 1846.