And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
-Leonard Cohen, Suzanne
I remember my dad telling me that when he was little he mostly got Christmas oranges (mandarins) and nuts in his stocking. When I was younger I thought that was unspeakably lame. I now realize that oranges would have been a novelty at any time of year, but to have such a sweet fruit in the dead of winter was truly a luxury.
I’ve been trying to cultivate a deeper respect for food we bring from afar. Given the season, I’ve been rekindling the ancient occidental obsession with oriental spices. To that end, I’d like to share a story from Herodotus:
What they say is that the dry sticks, which we have learnt from the Phoenicians to call cinnamon, are brought by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices, which no man can climb, and that the method the Arabians have invented for getting hold of them is to cut up the bodies of dead oxen, or donkeys, or other animals into very large joints, which they carry to the spot in question and leave on the ground near the nests. They then retire to a safe distance and the birds fly down and carry off the joints of meat to their nests, which, not being strong enough to bear the weight, break and fall to the ground. Then the men come along and pick up the cinnamon, which is subsequently exported to other countries.
Bearing in mind the countless oxen and donkeys that gave their lives so that I might have cinnamon, I prepared mulled wine.
It is imperative to steep only fresh, whole spices in the wine. Don’t use old, powdered spices as they make for a gritty and revolting drink.
Put red wine on low heat. (Full disclosure: I often use leftover red wine that was opened the night previous but wasn’t finished. The next day it has lost most of its subtle pleasures, and is good for mulled wine…) Sweeten to taste with honey, maybe one part honey to ten parts wine, by volume. Add the whole spices. To me, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves are essential. Black peppercorns and orange zest play worthy supporting roles. After zesting, I also squeeze the orange’s juice into the wine.
In an attempt to preserve as much of the alcohol as I can, I heat the mixture on low for a few hours. Afterwards you can strain out the spices and hold the wine on the burner. I’ll also top it up with brandy immediately before drinking.