Muddling Through ; A short history of Mulled Wine
Nothing shouts Christmas like mulled wine. That combination of good, rich red wine with cloves, cinnamon, sweetness and spice. It’s comforting, warming and the winter months really wouldn’t seem right without it.
The fact that so many of the core ingredients (aside from the wine) come from the Middle East makes it seem all the more ‘Christmassy’. Those exotic flavours of nutmeg, cinnamon and spice are forever twined with the images of three wise men riding across deserts and the nativity. It’s incredible to think then, that mulled wine has a history that goes back far beyond Christianity itself. The heating of wine either for medicinal or comforting purposes has probably been around for as long as wine itself. Certainly by the classical era the Ancient Romans had developed a real taste for hot, spiced wine. For centuries the ‘Hippocratic Sleeve’ was used to seperate the liquid from the adornments. The ‘sleeve’ was the invention of Hippocrates, who lived some five hundreds years BC and the wine his invention enabled bore his name ; ‘Hippocras’.
Hippocras came to have a very defined recipe, bringing together all the extra bits – the cloves, spices, long pepper, ginger into one recipe. It was in the Middle Ages that Hippocras really took off. It became a favourite of the aristocracy who could afford the exotic spices from the Orient that would ‘mull’ the wine. You could even buy pre-made ‘Hippocras powder’ which could be added to red wine. Aside from the reputed medicinal purposes of mulled wine, the taste most have seemed otherworldly to the Medieval palate. There are however, a few differences between the Medieval ‘Hippocras’ and our modern day mulled wine. For one thing, the wine didn’t necessarily have to be red, white could be used although the former was much preferred. Similarly the wine didn’t need to warmed either – the term ‘mull’ is just an evolution of ‘muddle’; meaning the wine was ‘muddled’ with all the spices and sugar.
After apparently falling out of favour around the 17th century, it was the Victorian Era which really saw mulled wine become the festive-favourite that it is today. Wine was becoming more widely available and the popularity of port and Claret both lend themselves well to the mulling process. Charles Dickens was said to be a fan of mulled wine and it is no surprise that it features in ‘A Christmas Carol’ – and so forever bonding the season with the spice creating an inseparable combination; Mulled wine and Christmas.
Want to try it yourself? Here’s my quick recipe for a Medieval inspired Hippocras,
Get a bottle of something decent, but raw. Southern French would be a good shout ; something like a Corbiere, a generic Syrah-Grenache blend or even a cheap Bordeaux Superior.
Get it gently heating in a pan and chuck in a couple of cinnamon sticks, some ginger, cloves and if you can some grains of paradise and long pepper. The aristocracy would add sugar (brown is best) but if you’re more of a peasant then go with honey. Grate in some nutmeg and add a bay leaf or too. It can be augmented with fruit ; apple, citrus or almond works well. A 17th century would have you add brandy and milk, but I’m not sure that’s entirely wise.
Allow it to simmer without boiling for around 15 minutes. And by the way, it’s a fallacy that alcohol ‘burns off’ in mulled wine, you would have to simmer the wine for hours to achieve this!
Or just go to a Christmas market and get it in a white polythene cup, it’ll still taste fantastic.