Those of us who read and write Regency-set historical novels (set in the early 19th Century Britain) are often presented with food riddles. What is jugged hare? And how about scotch collops? Not to mention spotted dick!
We also notice that the Regency era offered a variety of different drink options, from the innocuous (tea and coffee) to the potent (Napoleon brandy and “blue ruin” gin). You never read about people drinking water, probably because it wasn’t safe. Boiling and fermenting would do a lot of decontamination… so you can see how the Regency characters could talk themselves into thinking of brandy as an aid to good health.
One drink that seemed particularly popular with the ladies was “ratafia” (pronounced rah-tuh-fee-uh, all syllables equally accented). In Regency novels, ladies of quality sip this drink all day long, while the gentlemen are downing brandy and whisky. I once assumed ratafia was some kind of mild cordial, sweet and only slightly alcoholic, as befitted a pious lady of a good family.
Then a friend of mine, another Regency novelist, embarked on an experiment. Lynn Kerstan decided to make ratafia as Christmas gift for her writer friends. When the little bottle arrived in the mail, I promptly took a swig. That’s when I realized that the proper Regency ladies were quite deceptive when they pretended this was some innocent sweet cordial.
It was probably 90 proof. Seriously.
When I pointed this out, Lynn sent me the recipe she’d used:
1 quart of brandy
½ bottle champagne
1/2 cup of gin
¼ cup of sugar
2 cups of cherries, pitted and squashed
2 cups of blackberries
Dash of cinnamon
Dash of nutmeg
1 teaspoon powdered rosemary
Three cloves (bruised)
¼ cup crushed almonds
Mix in a gallon glass jar. Cap jar and shake. Store in dark cupboard for three weeks, removing once a week to shake jar. After three weeks, strain liquid through a cheesecloth, pressing down on solids to release their liquid. Distribute and store in several pint jars or tightly corked wine bottles.
Notice that the recipe starts with brandy, and then adds champagne and gin! The orange and cherry provides the cordial-ish taste, while the herbs and spices add a depth of flavor. And the sugar, well, that doesn’t just make it sweeter. I think the purpose of storing this concoction for weeks and stirring it occasionally is to ferment it even further. (I found another recipe that primly suggested an addition to stop fermentation—vodka. Yep, that’ll take care of that intoxication problem.)
With the brandy base, Lynn’s version was most similar to those created in the Regency. I’ve found less potent variations, some which are basically a long-refrigerated sangria (red wine, fruit, sugar, and three weeks in the fridge). Italian ratafia starts with Montepulciano red wine and adds only cherries as the fruit. A French variation uses a variety of berries, including gooseberries. The Catalan version has unripe (green) walnuts soaked in the liquor before the fruit is added. I even found one that deepened the flavor with peach and cherry pits (which are poisonous if opened). Each of these adds both a spice like cinnamon and a savory herb (usually rosemary).
Ever after, I imagined those Regency ladies primly sipping their ratafia at the afternoon al fresco musicales, and then as an after-supper liqueur, and finally as a nightcap, then stumbling off to bed in a stupor, and waking up with a hangover. Ratafia is not for sissies!
Here’s a less potent variation that we can enjoy this summer without too much guilt. I devised it myself after testing a few recipes. (The extreme measures I take for research!) I decided to follow Lynn’s example and stir it once a week. I didn’t have any cheesecloth, so I just strained it through a wire mesh colander.
Alicia’s Less Potent but Still Classy Ratafia
Into a large capped glass jar, like the kind you use for sun tea, mix:
1 bottle of dry but fruity red wine (Italian and Spanish wines are best, I think)
1 pound of mixed and then crushed berries—your choice, but make half cherries for deepest flavor, and you can leave in the pits in for that dangerous thrill
½ pound of peach slices
2 oranges peeled and sectioned (I once tried tossing in the peels too, but that was a bit bitter. Next time I might just try the zest of the oranges)
I/4 cup of white sugar
A vanilla bean, sliced, or a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ground rosemary
¼ teaspoon of ginger and anise
A few crushed almonds
Close the jar and shake to distribute. Then put it away in a dark cupboard or the refrigerator (my choice) for three weeks. Once a week, shake the jar to re-distribute.
After three weeks, strain it through cheesecloth or a fine mesh. Then pour it into bottles or smaller jars.
Now try it out. I’m a wimp and add water at this point, but if you’re made of stronger stuff, you can drink it straight. Keep it tightly capped and refrigerated. It goes great with barbecued meats on a summer night.
And don’t forget to wear your lacy gloves and sip primly from tiny cordial glasses!