Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Coca-Cola's roots in Bordeaux Wine

Did you know that the original Coca-Cola was once made with Bordeaux wine? The recipe for Coca-Cola was invented by John Pemberton in Columbus, Georgia in 1885 and he named it Pemberton's French Wine Cola (he also sold a cough syrup and a hair dye that are both now long forgotten)

Pemberton sold it as a medicine and made claims that it cured headaches, dyspepsia, impotence and neurasthenia and it's thought that he may have been trying to create a pain reliever for himself and other wounded Confederate veterans. Although the recipe is still secret French Wine Cola was made with wine mixed with coca, kola nut and damiana and Pemberton claimed that the drink would benefit "scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion."

French Wine Coca was essentially an imitation of Angelo Mariani's blend of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves called Vin Mariani, created in 1863. Mariani's beverage achieved extraordinary success in the 1880s, inspiring a host of knock-offs, of which Pemberton's was merely one of the more successful.

Vin Mariani was very popular in its day, even among royalty such as Queen Victoria, Popes Leo XIII and Saint Pius X (Pope Leo even awarded a Vatican Gold Medal to the wine and also appeared on a poster endorsing it). Thomas Edison also endorsed Vin Mariani, claiming it helped him stay awake for longer hours.

However with the introduction of prohibition in 1886, Pemberton had to make a non-alcoholic version of the popular drink so he substituted sugar syrup for the wine, changed the name to Coca-Cola, and advertised it as the ideal temperance drink . Vin Mariani disappeared into the history books . . .

Perhaps he would have been better just sticking to Bordeaux!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

James Bond and Bollinger

Champagne House Bollinger has released a limited edition champagne cooler in the shape of a bullet to celebrate the new Bond film Quantum of Solace. Conceived by French designer Eric Berthès, the lockable steel bullet-shaped case engraved "Bollinger 007" holds a magnum of Bollinger's Grande Année 1999 champagne. Packaged in a wooden box, the whole weighs over 50lbs and costs about £3900.00 - only 207 numbered Bullets have been produced.

The relationship between James Bond and Bollinger goes back many years due to the friendship between the Broccoli-Wilson family, producers of the Bond films and the Bollinger family. Various Bonds have drunk Bollinger in Ian Fleming's the books as well as the movies: from Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and now Daniel Craig.

Bollinger has featured in Live and Let Die, Moonraker, View to a Kill, License to Kill, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Champagne Gets Sexier with Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova

German designer Karl Lagerfeld has designed a Champagne Bowl that’s moulded from Claudia Schiffer’s Breast for Moët & Chandon. It is a reinterpretation of an iconic 1787 dining service made especially for Queen Marie Antoinette. Reportedly, that bowl was the exact size of Antoinette’s breast. Legend has it that it was the exact size of one of her breasts, and used, in turn, to model the well-known coupe-shaped Champagne glass. The bowl, which comes with a stand of three porcelain replicas of Dom Pérignon and a platter bearing the signatures of Lagerfeld and Schiffer, sells for over £2160.00 with a bottle of 1995 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque.

Both Schiffer and Lagerfeld have had a long association with Dom Perignon, the former appearing in a series of ever-more suggestive ads for the brand. Last September Supermodel Eva Herzigova (who became a household name after winning the Wonderbra contract, thanks to a 30ft billboard displaying her assets with the caption 'Hello Boys') featured in a series of eye-popping poses in a provocative new advert for Dom Pérignon champagne.

However in October the British Advertising Standards Authority banned an advert for Saile and Sabga Champagne for being over the top. The image depicted a bikini-clad woman emptying the bottle over a man's torso and was deemed to be a metaphor for seduction. The ad appeared in Ryanair's in-flight magazine and is now forbidden to be used again.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Alexandra Burke at Number 1

The X Factor winner Alexandra Burke has taken the Christmas number one slot with Hallelujah, beating Jeff Buckley's version of the song into second place and pushing former X Factor winner Leona Lewis's Run into third place. Burke's single became the fastest-selling by a female solo artist, with 576,000 copies sold. Leonard Cohen wrote Hallelujah more than 20 years ago and his original version is at Number 36.

Official Charts Company (OCC) managing director Martin Talbot said: "chart placings at 1, 2 and 36 are remarkable for a 25-year-old song which has never previously reached the top 40."

It is the first time in almost 52 years that the same song has been at numbers one and two, according to the OCC. That was when Tommy Steele and Guy Mitchell held the top two spots with Singing The Blues in January 1957.

Alexandra comes from north London and lives with her mum who used to sing with Soul II Soul. She started singing at the age of 5 and when she was 9 years old she was passed the microphone at one of her mother’s gigs. Aged 12 Alexandra entered Star for a Night. She was the youngest person in the competition and was beaten to first place by Joss Stone.

In 2005 she auditioned for The X Factor and got through to the Judges Houses stage. However, Louis said she was too young and ended her X Factor dream in Dublin. However she didn't give up and her tenacity – and talent have paid off. Bravo Alexandra!

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Madonna Orders £5000 of 24K Silver Sparkling Rosé Wine

Madonna has ordered 25 bottles of the 24k Silver wine from a vineyard in Valencia, Spain called Artesanos del Vino – costing £5000. The drink is made with a liquor which has specks of the precious metal suspended in it and is said to be popular in celebrity circles.

Alberto Fernandez, director of the wine producers, Artesanos del Vino, said: "We have many rich and famous clients who will serve our product at their Christmas parties. "It's made by mixing a liquor containing silver dust into a sparkling rosé."

His company also sells wine laced with gold. He said: "Historically there have always been people looking for an elixir of eternal youth through gold. "The Chinese, Greeks, Arabs and Indians all did it."

Madonna may have had help from her father Tony Ciccone, a vintner himself, in sourcing the expensive drink.

He has been running Ciccone Vineyard in Michigan with his wife Joan since 1995 and produces award-winning gewürztraminer and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio and dessert wines.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Turkey Salad and M de Malle White Wine from Graves

Boxing Day is a day when you need to relax and there is a great recipe for a festive Turkey Salad that you can use which is easy to make. You will need a bold white wine to accompany this dish and M de Malle would be lovely. It's a dry white Graves and is bold enough to cope with the ingredients in the recipe. It's a beautiful, brilliant green tinted gold colour with hints of white blossoms, exotic fruits, spice and good lemon acidity.

Turkey Salad

4 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp chutney
3 tsp curry powder,
whipping cream, as needed
2 sticks celery, chopped
handful of chopped dried cranberries or dates
half a bunch spring onions, chopped
handful of chopped pecans or walnuts
sliced turkey

Combine mayonnaise and chutney, add the curry powder and stir in a little cream to moisten. In a larger bowl, combine celery, dried cranberries (or dates), spring onions, nuts and turkey. Stir in the curried mayonnaise, adding a little more cream if needed to moisten more.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

The Christmas Tree

Legend has it that during the 7th century, Saint Boniface - a monk from Devonshire – was the creator of the very first Christmas Tree. He was sent to Germany as a missionary, with the aim of converting the pagans to Christianity. In order to stop sacrifices at their sacred Sonar Oak near Seismal, he chopped the tree down in 725 A.D. Supposably with one mighty blow, Saint Boniface felled the massive oak and as the tree split, a young fir tree sprang from its centre. Saint Boniface told the people that this lovely evergreen, with its branches pointing to heaven, was indeed a holy tree, the tree of the Christ Child, a symbol of His promise of eternal life. He instructed them henceforth to carry the evergreen from the wilderness into their homes and to surround it with gifts, symbols of love and kindness.

Incidentally Saint Boniface was later to become the Patron Saint of Brewers so sending him to beer loving Germany may well have been a masterful mission.

Luther is credited with hanging lights on the Christmas Tree. It is said that he was walking on a bright snow covered, star lit night pondering the birth of Christ. Enthralled by the evergreen trees, the stars and the landscape, he took a tree inside and put candles on it to represent the majesty he felt about Christ's birth as Jesus came down from the stars to bring us eternal life.
The first known decorated Christmas Tree however was at Riga in Latvia, in 1510. Tannenbaum songs date back to the late 1500's.

Decorating the Tree with tinsel is said to come from a legend about a poor old woman who was unable to provide decorations for her children's Christmas tree. During the night, spiders lodged in the tree and covered it with their webs. The Christ Child, seeing this, realized that the woman would be sad to see her surprise spoiled. He turned the spider webs into silver, and the next morning the poor family was dazzled by the brilliant "tinsel" that shone on the tree.

Although commonly believed to be Prince Albert, it was in fact Queen Charlotte, one of Kew's royal residents in the 18th Century, who brought the first ever Christmas tree to Britain from Germany, introducing the custom of decorated indoor trees to this country!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Frankincense Wine

Frankincense was one of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus by the Wise Men. It is still used in religious ceremonies by the Parsees, cultural descendants of the Wise Men. The Three Wise Men (or Magi) were very likely Zoroastrians from Persia. As part of their religion, the Magi paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time a highly regarded science – hence their ability to follow the Star of Bethlehem.

Frankincense is the resin produced by various trees in the genus Boswellia. The trees grow in the dry areas of north-eastern Africa and southern Arabia. The resin is harvested by nomadic tribes, who visit the trees periodically. They make small cuts in the bark and return to collect the ‘tears’ of solidified whitish resin a few weeks later.

Frankincense has long been valued for the sweet-smelling fumes it produces when burnt. Ancient Egyptians used the resin in religious rites, in anointing the mummified bodies of their kings, and to treat wounds and sores. Incense containing frankincense was found in Tutankhamun's tomb. It was often added to wine to give a calming effect which would numb the senses. Strangely enough in a new study appearing online in The FASEB Journal, an international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have found that burning frankincense can alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.

Christmas Smoked Salmon

Apparently sales of smoked salmon this Christmas are thriving with the East End's oldest smoked salmon business being flooded with orders. Forman and Field's is having its busiest Christmas in its 105 year history. Fish has been smoked in Britain since medieval times, but the style of smoked salmon that we're most familiar with - pink-fleshed and firm, with a melt-in-the-mouth tenderness - was introduced from abroad less than 120 years ago by Jewish immigrants who settled in London's East End, where they set up smoke houses. The mild 'London cure' remains one of the most popular styles of smoked salmon to this day.

The Scots had their own history of smoking haddock and herrings, but when they saw salmon being smoked in London they started doing it too, and two types of cure grew up. The Scottish cure is often more robust, sometimes peaty, often using whisky.

Whichever cure you prefer there is nothing more sublime than biting into smoked salmon on fresh buttery bread – as for a wine to savour it with why not try a chilled glass of Domaine de Ricaud Bordeaux Blanc (£5.37)? It's produced in the Entre deux Mers region not far away from Cadillac - south east of Bordeaux. It's an easy drinking white wine with a pale, golden colour and the aromas of ripe soft fruits and summer blossoms. It has well balanced acidity and would be perfect with smoked salmon.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas Hyacinths

I love the scent of flowering Hyacinths at Christmas – the flower represents rebirth and takes its name from an ancient Greek legend. Apollo was teaching a handsome young Greek called Hyakinthos the art of throwing the discus. Zephyr, who was the god of the West Wind, was overcome with jealousy and he blew the discus back. It struck Hyakinthos on the head and killed him. From his blood grew a flower, which the sun god Apollo named after him.

The wild Hyacinth is a native of Turkey and the Middle East, along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Hyacinths were grown in Europe in the time of the Greeks and Romans. Both Homer and Virgil noted the sweet fragrance. After this, the Hyacinth faded from history, and did not reappear until the 16th century when it was reintroduced into Western Europe from Turkey and Iran. In the Victorian language of flowers the Hyacinth flower symbolizes sport or play, and the blue Hyacinth signifies sincerity.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Christmas Pudding Charms

It's traditional in our household to put a sixpence into the Christmas Pudding mixture (having warned unwary guests first!). It is supposed to bring wealth and good luck to whoever finds it on their plate on Christmas Day. We also get each member of the family to take a turn at stirring the mixture. As they do, they can each make a wish.

Christmas puddings are traditionally made with 13 ingredients to represent Christ and the 12 apostles. Brandy is poured on the pudding and lit to form a halo of flames which represents Christ's passion. The sprig of holly on top represents the crown of thorns, as well as symbolising protection against evil.

There is a legend about how the Christmas Pudding came about. One Christmas Eve an English king found himself deep in a forest with only a little food for his journey. He knocked on the door of a wood man's cottage and asked for food and shelter. The occupant had few provisions, so the king’s servant mixed together all the food the woodsman would spare with the small amount the king had left. The result was a sticky mixture of chopped suet, flour, eggs, apples, dried plums, ale, sugar and brandy. This mixture was boiled in a cloth and was the first Christmas Pudding.

Putting charms in your Pudding dates back to the 16th century but in Victorian times silver charms were popular and they take the form of a boot, bell, wishbone, thimble, ring, button and horseshoe. The boot was for travel, the ring for an impending marriage, the wishbone for the granting of a wish, the thimble was seen as bad luck predicting spinsterhood whilst the bachelor's button was lucky for a man.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Christmas Cake

Christmas Cake is a very British tradition and dates back to the Middle Ages. People ate the porridge on Christmas Eve, using it to line their stomachs after a day of fasting. Originally it was a plum porridge but as exotic spices and dried fruits from the East were brought back from the Holy Land by the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries it evolved into a fruit cake. Early versions of the rich fruit cake, such as Scottish Black Bun dating from the Middle Ages, were luxuries for special occasions. Christmas Cake as we know it today comes from two customs which became one around 1870 in Victorian England.

All Christmas cakes are made in advance. Many make them in November, keeping the cake upside down in an airtight container. A small amount of brandy, sherry or whis
ky is poured into holes in the cake every week until Christmas. This process is called “feeding” the cake.

I love eating mine with a slice of cheese – Single Gloucester,
preferably, or sometimes a good cheddar and maybe a glass of port or sweet Sauternes. Sainte Hélène has a gorgeous tangerine tang along with the flavours of honeysuckle, apricots and cinnamon so its lovely with a slice!

Friday, 19 December 2008

Christmas Stockings

Christmas Stockings have a legend about how they came into being. Saint Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

A poor man with 3 daughters had no dowry to offer for their hand in marriage and one night after the daughters had washed out their clothing, they hung their stockings over the fireplace to dry. That night Saint Nicholas, knowing the despair of the father, stopped by the man's house after the family had gone to bed. He peeked in the window and saw the daughters' stockings hanging by the fire. Saint Nicholas took 3 small bags of gold from his pouch and threw them carefully, one by one, into the stockings. The next morning when the daughters awoke, they found their stockings contained enough gold for them to get married.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Christmas Gold Chocolate Coins

It's thought that gold chocolate coins came into being with the giving of coins (gelt) at the Jewish Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) to children. The festival is held from late November to late December and as cultures intermingled chocolate gold coins became fashionable at Christmas.

Giving gold coins at Christmas has ancient roots stemming back to Roman times when coins and sweets were given during the ancient Roman celebration Saturnalia. The Romans believed that sweet gifts would ensure a good year, so fruits, honey, and cakes were popular gifts. Wealthy Romans gave each other gold coins for good luck. The Three Kings brought Gold as a gift to the infant Christ and an old legend tells the story of how Christmas Stockings originated with the gift of 3 gold coins to a poor man with 3 daughters from Saint Nicholas.

Interestingly chocolate and money have more in common than you might think - chocolate beans were used by the Aztecs as currency! Thanks to Columbus and Cortez chocolate, as a drink was introduced to Spain and spread to France in 1615, when Princess Anne of Austria (daughter of Philip II of Spain) served the drink at her royal wedding to Louis XIII. Soon after, chocolate became all the rage among the fashion-conscious French. By the mid-1700’s, chocolate houses that served the “excellent West India Drink” in pots were common in Paris, London, and Venice. In 1847 Fry & Sons of Bristol, which merged with Cadbury Limited in 1919, created the chocolate bar and the rest is history!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Soups for Christmas Eve: Sweet Chestnut

I had not heard of Chestnut Soup until recently but it is a traditional British dish served at Christmas. It has a smooth, velvety texture and will be delicious with a glass of dry sherry – that should you in the festive spirit!

Chestnut Soup

Bag of chestnuts
1 stick celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 potato, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tbsp Sherry or Madeira
½ pint chicken stock
small carton of cream
salt & pepper
4 rashers smoked bacon

Pierce the chestnuts with a knife and roast in a medium oven (if you don't pierce them they will explode and make a mess!). When cool, peel and chop into small pieces. Place the chestnuts, celery, onion, potato and garlic into a pan with a knob of butter and the sherry, and heat until softened. Add the chicken stock and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Add the cream and the sherry and simmer for 5 mins. Cut the bacon into strips and fry the bacon until crispy, sprinkle on top of the soup and serve.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008 - Interest In Wine's New Fine Wine Website Launched

Nick has launched a new website for our sister company Interest In Wine which you can find at

Interest In Wine is an online wine shop, where as a fine wine merchant, and specialises purely in Bordeaux Classified Growths. Whether you are a connoisseur, enthusiast, buyer of en primeur or wine futures, student, investor or an occasional buyer of fine wine or vintage wines, I believe we have developed a site that can be enjoyed by all.

There are in-depth profiles on each Château we represent and comprehensive Tasting Notes from Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, a Blog which updates you on the ever moving world of fine wine – including the release of vintage wines and fine wine prices – as well as detailed notes and maps of the Appellations of Bordeaux.

We hope you become a regular visitor to's online wine shop and should you have any queries, please feel free to contact Nick at

Monday, 15 December 2008

Christmas Wines To Drink With Cullen Skink and Fish Chowders: M de Malle

Graves is famous for its whites and sweet dessert wines as well as reds and is Bordeaux's oldest vineyard. It was planted in the first centuries of Roman occupation on the outskirts of Burdigala (the Roman name for Bordeaux). The whites are delicious and complex with the sémillon grape dominating the blend. They are rounded, powerful, elegant, aromatic and well balanced with notes of boxwood, grapefruit, passion fruit, honey, herbs and melon.

Graves is named after the soil which lies beneath the vines as Graves means gravel in French. This gravel is the result of glaciers from the Ice Age, which can be up to 3 metres thick and is finer than elsewhere in Bordeaux.

The gravels are full of quartz, ochre, white, red and pink quartzites, jasper, agate, flint and lydian which can be seen scattered on the surface of the soil between the vines. The gravel reflects the sunlight, redistributing its heat onto the bunches of grapes which helps their ripening. It also offers excellent drainage. The soil is comprised of alluvial deposits carried by the Garonne River from the Pyrenees Mountains and the ground underneath is almost pure sand or hardpan (iron-oxide cemented sand). Graves is protected from poor weather by the dense Landes pine forest and from heat by the breeze from the river, the Graves terroir has a perfect micro climate for growing vines.

M de Malle is a dry White Graves wine which will be super with Cullen Skink and smoky chowders. It comes from Château de Malle, which also makes a fantastic Second Growth Sauternes. It's a brilliant green tinted gold and is fresh, fine and elegant with hints of white blossoms, exotic fruits, spice and good lemon acidity. Château de Malle is a classified historic monument and is an exquisite residence surrounded by magnificent Italian style gardens and has remained in the same family without ever changing hands. It's a lovely wine – try it and see!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Christmas Wines To Drink With Cullen Skink and Fish Chowders: Montagnac Chardonnay

Chardonnay, the grape responsible for some of the world’s greatest white wines, has become so fashionable and familiar to consumers it is now an international brand. In bars and restaurants all over the world you hear people asking for "a glass of Chardonnay" – but it doesn’t all taste the same!

In fact, the variety of styles of Chardonnay continues to increase as winemakers experiment further and it is planted in an ever growing number of locations. Although it is planted everywhere now, from Lebanon to Argentina, some of the best value Chardonnays are produced in areas such as the Languedoc in the south of France.

One of the great advantages of wines from the Chardonnay grape is the ability to take on oak flavours from the barrels in which they are matured and sometimes fermented. However this was over-milked and some wine producers over oaked their Chardonnays – this was particularly the case in Australia and California, which went through a phase of producing wines so over-oaked that it was difficult to detect the flavour of the grape.

Although the consumers are now discovering the beauty of un-oaked Chardonnay there are still some wines that are drastically over-oaked, however; sometimes, one suspects, to obscure the mediocrity of the underlying wine. When you contemplate buying a bottle of Chardonnay, read the front and back labels carefully. Somewhere there will usually be a statement of the oakiness to be expected. Look for phrases like ‘barrel fermented' and 'matured in oak barrels'. Only tasting the wines will tell you whether they have got the balance right or to your taste.

You can see how wide the scope of the Chardonnay grape is when you realise that many of the world’s best sparkling wines, including Champagne, rely on Chardonnay as part of their blend. Chardonnay is also used to make the Chablis wines in Burgundy. The fact that Chardonnay grapes are used to make Chablis surprises many people who dislike the Oaked Chardonnays that have been mass produced using oak chips – I recommend trying Montagnac Chardonnay (£5.37) which is un-oaked, crisp and fresh – and half the price!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Soups for Christmas Eve: Cullen Skink

With all the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas it's relaxing to have something simple but special on Christmas Eve so I have hunted down some recipes that are easy to make and can be frozen in advance to save time on the night.

Cullen Skink

Cullen Skink is a thick, smoky and creamy Scottish soup that comes from the town of Cullen in the North East of Scotland. It's similar to a Fish Chowder and takes its name from the town and the Scots word for shin of beef “skink”. Traditionally it's made with Finnan Haddie which is smoked haddock named for the fishing village of Finnan which was originally cold smoked over peat.

4 smoked haddock
1 onion, finely chopped.
1 pint milk
small carton cream
4 large potatoes chopped finely
salt and pepper
bay leaf
parsley, chopped or

Skin the smoked haddock before cooking and place in a saucepan with the milk and bay leaf. Poach gently for a few minutes. Remove the fish from the pan and flake it into small pieces. Add the onion and potatoes and cook gently until soft. Remove the bay leaf. Return the smoked haddock to the pan with the cream. Simmer for a couple of minutes, season with salt and pepper, add the parsley or watercress and serve.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Spiced Irish Beef at Christmas

On the Irish theme Spiced Beef is traditionally eaten over Christmas. It used to be made at home but these days most butchers have their own secret recipes and you can buy the meat "ready spiced" from them. It takes about three weeks for the beef to absorb the spices before it's cooked. It leaves the meat pink in the centre with an almost black "crust" of spices and a quite unique flavour. It can be served hot or cold and many Irish people in Southern Ireland will eat it at some time over the festive season.

Spiced Irish Beef

7 lb/ 3 kg joint of beef
2 tsp ground cloves
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp allspice
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp mace
2 tsp saltpetre
2 tbsp black treacle
2 tbsp brown sugar
cold water to cover
bottle Guinness
½ cup salt

Combine all the ingredients except the beef, water and Guinness. Place the beef in a bowl and cover with the mixture. Rub it in once or twice a day for a week. Tie up the meat into a good shape and place in a pan. Cover with cold water to which a bottle of Guinness has been added. Simmer gently for 5-6 hours. When cool, press lightly between two plates.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

While Shepherds Watched their Flocks is attributed to Irish hymnist, lyricist and Poet Laureate, Nahum Tate. The exact date of Tate's composition is not known, but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady's 1700 supplement to their psalter, New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696.

It was the only Christmas hymn authorised to be sung by the Anglican Church; before 1700 only the Psalms of David were permitted to be sung.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Christmas Sweets and Treats - Crystallised Ginger and Gingerbread Men

Ginger has been used for over 5000 years when the Indians and ancient Chinese considered it a tonic root for all ailments. The Romans used Ginger as a spice but when the Roman Empire fell Ginger almost disappeared from the pantry until the Arabs took control of the spice trade from the East. Thanks to Marco Polo's trip to the Far East, Ginger came back into favour in Europe, becoming not only a much coveted spice, but also a very expensive one. Back in the 14th century a pound of Ginger held a value equal to that of a whole live sheep! In medieval times it was commonly imported in a preserved form and used to make sweets.

Henry VIII used Ginger as a remedy against the plague and Queen Elizabeth I is credited with inventing the Gingerbread Man, which has become a popular Christmas treat. Queen Elizabeth presented courtiers with Gingerbread likenesses of themselves. The Queen's habit of jesting with her court gives this tale some credence. Elizabeth's cooks relished opportunities for lavish decoration, and the Gingerbread men she handed out may have included gold leafing and other outlandish decorative touches.

Grimms Fairytales popularised Gingerbread decorations in the tale of Hansel and Gretel and in the 17th century Nuremberg in Germany, became known as the Gingerbread capital, thanks to the elaborate Gingerbread scenes that the bakers of that city would create, which included complex Gingerbread houses, animals, and people decorated with gold leaf. Only professional Gingerbread bakers were supposed to make Gingerbread, except during the Christmas season when the rules were relaxed.

In the 1800s Crystallized Ginger began to appear and in the Colonies it was often served at the end of a dinner to aid digestion. Up until then, Ginger had just been available dried or powdered. Crystallised Ginger is the Ginger root that has been dried and preserved with a light sugar coating. It is pungent with a spicy-sweet flavour and is moist and chewy. Try it with Château de Sainte Hélène – it's divine! Sauternes pairs beautifully with crystallised fruits!

Gingerbread Men

3 tbsp golden syrup
75g caster sugar
1 tbsp water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1½ tsp ground ginger
75g butter
½ tsp baking soda
225g plain flour

Put the syrup, sugar, water and spices in a saucepan and melt over gentle heat. Increase the heat and bring to the boil, stirring well. Take off the heat and add the butter and baking soda. Add just enough sifted flour to make a firm dough then set aside to cool.

Once cold roll the dough out and cut into shape with a sharp knife (or with pastry cutters). Decorate with currants and place on a greased baking sheet. Place in an oven pre-heated to 180ºC and bake until crisp and golden. You can decorate them with coloured icing for a festive look.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas was a real person. He was born around 907 in the castle of Stochov near Prague. He ruled Bohemia for 5 years but died young in 929. The castle is gone now, but there is still an oak tree there that was supposedly planted by his mother, Ludmila, when Wenceslas was born. His nannies watered the tree with his bath water, which supposedly made the tree strong. The church Wenceslas attended also exists today.

The words to the carol Good King Wenceslas were written by John Mason Neale and first published in 1853. The music is from a 13th century song called Tempus Adest Floridum and the music was first published in written form in Finland in 1582 as part of a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones. In case you're wondering, the Feast of Stephen is celebrated on December 26th – Boxing Day.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Christmas Truce

Silent Night is famous for being one of the hymns that was sung by the soldiers during the Christmas Truce during the First World War. Though World War I had been raging for only four months, it was already proving to be one of the bloodiest wars in history. Soldiers on both sides were trapped in trenches, exposed to the cold and wet winter weather, covered in mud, and extremely careful of sniper shots. Machines guns had proven their worth in war, bringing new meaning to the word "slaughter."

In a place where bloodshed was nearly commonplace and mud and the enemy were fought with equal vigour, something surprising occurred on the front for Christmas in 1914. The men who lay shivering in the trenches embraced the Christmas spirit. In one of the truest acts of goodwill toward men, soldiers from both sides in the southern portion of the Ypres Salient set aside their weapons and hatred, if only temporarily, and met in No Man's Land.

What caused this? British troops thought they heard music some described as "from the heavens." It was, some laughed, Christmas Eve, so maybe a delusion for those who hungered to be home instead of on a muddy battlefield. Then the sound grew distinct. It was from the German trenches, which in some narrow spots were only 50 yards away. In a tongue foreign to most Britishers, voices across the way sang Stille Nacht – Silent Night.

When it ended there was a short time of silence. Then one of the British soldiers began singing The First Noel. Halfway through, the entire regiment joined in. When the British followed with Oh, Come All Ye Faithful, German soldiers joined in with harmony of the Latin version, Adeste Fideles, bringing two warring nations together in song. Later one soldier described it as “the most practical demonstration I have seen of Peace on earth and goodwill towards men”.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Christmas Sweets and Treats – Sugared Almonds

Sugared Almonds may have been the first sweets in history and were a favourite of the Romans. Almonds are the seeds of a tree closely related to the peach and the plum. They were first cultivated in Europe by the Greeks and are mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. In France the towns of Metz, Nancy, Paris, Verdun and Toulouse are famous for their sugared almonds. In the 15th century, Marguerite of Burgundy, distributed sugared almonds to the common people at her wedding to Guillaume IV.

The typical sugared almond is made up of an inner core called "anima" (soul), consisting of a shelled, peeled whole almond which is then coated with layers of sugar through several soakings. Sugared Almonds are known as dragée (from the Greek meaning sweets) and these are confectionery that can be used for decorative and symbolic purposes as well as tasting delicious! Dragée are traditionally associated with weddings and special celebrations. Throwing or handing out dragée at such occasions has nowadays been replaced by confetti and in the past they were meant to ensure prosperity, fertility, happiness, and good luck.

You can actually make your own Sugared Almonds:

100 ml sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of ground ginger
pinch of freshly grated nutmegpinch of salt
1 egg white
1 ½ tbsp water
300 grams whole almonds

Mix sugar, spices and salt in a bowl. Whisk the egg white with the water, add to the spice mixture together with almonds. Mix thoroughly, then spread the mixture on a cooking tray that has been covered with grease proof paper. Roast at 150˚C for about 30 mins.

These are lovely with a Sauternes – try Château de Sainte Hélène – it's sweet tangerine and apricot flavours are perfect with desserts, crystallised fruits, sweets, nuts and chocolate!