Mulled Wine

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, cold weather is upon us, and the holidays are enveloping us. Cloves have long contributed to winter fun. An orange stuck full of clovers is a fragrant addition to Christmas decorations. Christmas hams are often stuck with clovers. The spice goes sweet or savory. However, sweets probably offer the most common encounter with cloves during the holidays.

Cloves have long been favorite elements of spiced or mulled wines and ciders. The term “mull,” referring to a beverage, appears to have first come into use around the year 1600. The origin of the term in this context is unknown, though there are some theories. However, in this application, it simply means a drink that is sweetened, spiced, and heated. Mulled wine is a warming treat of a winter night. Enjoy.

Mulled Wine

10 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pinch freshly ground nutmeg
peel and juice of one lemon
peel and juice of one orange
2 Tbs. dark brown sugar
1 cup water
1 750ml bottle red wine

Put spices, lemon peel, orange peel, brown sugar, and water in a 2 quart sauce pan and bring to the boil. Reduce heat slightly and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the lemon and orange juice, then stir in the wine. Heat gently–you do NOT want the wine to boil. Ladle into cups or heat-proof glasses. (The kind of fancy glassware you’d use for Irish coffee would work well here.) Serves 6-8.

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How far would you go to prove a point? For Ferdinand Magellan, the answer to that question was “all the way around the world,” and the point he was trying to prove is when east becomes west.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI had set a Line of Demarcation one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. The line stretched from the Arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, cutting through Greenland and separating Brazil from the rest of South America. According to the pope’s decree, everything to the west of that line belonged to Spain, while everything to the east belonged to Portugal–European countries excluded, of course. This seemed like a good way to make peace between the long-time rival countries. It gave Africa and India to Portugal, along with a bit of land (basically, Brazil) in the New World, and Spain got the rest of the New World.

Well, that worked pretty well until 1511, when Portuguese sailors ventured beyond India, making it all the way to Indonesia and the Moluccas, or Spice Islands. Sure, India had ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, but the Spice Islands had nutmeg and cloves, and no one else did. This meant that Portugal now had a lock on the spice trade. It was not long before the question was raised in Spain of just how far east Portugal could go before it was straying into Spain’s territory. Surely, the Line of Demarcation separating the two country’s claims must continue on the far side of the globe. Maybe Spain could claim the Moluccas.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator, trader, and soldier of considerable skill and experience, had done an immense amount of service for the King of Portugal. After being wounded in a battle that he had been sent to in lieu of a response to an earlier request, Magellan asked for a small raise, to compensate for the limitations created by his injury. The King of Portugal told him he should find work elsewhere.

Magellan wanted get even with the King of Portugal, and the best place to do that was Spain. He explained that he could prove that the Moluccas were too far east to still be considered Portuguese, and the King of Spain was only too happy to outfit him with ships and provisions.

Magellan survived storms, mutiny (Spanish sailors weren’t crazy about having a Portuguese captain), hardship, and hunger. He discovered the straits that were later named for him and successfully navigated the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive the Philippines, where, though the first people he met were eager to associate with the newcomers, a tribe he met later was not so eager to befriend strangers. Because Magellan had both conceived the idea of the trip and successfully navigated all the parts of it that no European had ever seen before, the circling of the globe was attributed to him, even though the rest of the circumnavigation was done without him. The handful of men aboard the one ship that made it back to Spain were handsomely rewarded, however, even though the feat did not give Spain access to cloves.

Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tree in the myrtle family. Cloves are so fragrant that it is said that ships’ crews could smell them as they approached the islands where they grew. The English name comes from the French clou, which means “nail,” referring to the appearance of a whole, dried clove.

Because they came from even farther away than India, from a place with no land routes to the world’s markets, cloves reached Europe rather later than most other spices. They made their first appearance in the West in 335 A.D. (though they had been known in China for at least 500 years at this point.) They were presented to the Emperor Constantine by Arab traders specializing in delicacies from Asia. However, where cloves came from remained a mystery, and when the Roman Empire collapsed, cloves disappeared from Europe for nearly a thousand years. When Saracens began to invade Europe and Europeans started to fight Saracens, cloves resurfaced. By 1228, cloves were listed among dutiable imports in both Marseilles and Barcelona, so they had clearly made a comeback. But Europeans still did not know where the Arab traders were getting their cloves.

That changed, of course, when the Portuguese found the Moluccas. Portugal actually tried to keep this discovery a secret and published false maps of the region. However, suddenly become the world’s major source of a costly spice is kind of hard to keep under wraps—hence the voyage of Magellan on behalf of the Spanish.

The Spanish were followed by the English. In 1577, Sir Francis Drake began his famous global circumnavigation in the Golden Hind, and returned to England in 1580 with his ship heavily laden with cloves. But Portugal still controlled the trade—until the Dutch got into the act. When the Dutch showed up in 1605, they not only got rid of the Portuguese, they even destroyed most of the clove trees, sparing only those on a couple of easily defended islands. The Dutch also issued their own fake maps, again, to try to keep everyone away. The Dutch raked in the money for a couple hundred years, but by the end of the 1700s, competition was increasing.

A Frenchman named Pierre Poivre had succeeded in wresting a few clove seedlings from the Moluccas and transplanting them elsewhere, including Seychelles, Reunion, Zanzibar, and Mauritius. An avid horticulturalist with a surprisingly modern attitude about preventing deforestation, Poivre was appointed administrator of Mauritius in 1765. However, his enemies, wanting him to fail at what would be a massively lucrative operation should it succeed, sabotaged Poivre’s trees. Only one survived, but that one tree was to give rise to nearly all the commercially grown clove trees in the world today.

Sadly, the Moluccas faded from the scene, as so few trees survived Dutch occupation. Zanzibar and Mozambique now rule the clove trade, though cloves also grow in Brazil and Sri Lanka. Cloves remain a costly commodity, because they are so labor intensive. Every bud has to be picked by hand at precisely the right moment, and every tree has to be gone over day after day, as buds emerge. But they are intensely fragrant and flavorful, so they go a long way.


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Fun Fact: Capons

In ancient Rome, Julius and Augustus Caesar were both keen on trying to control what people ate. Strict laws limited the quality of foods and the amounts spent on foods, both when dining out and when dining at home. Ostensibly, this was intended to keep people healthy and moral. However, some suspect that it was really designed to bolster finances, as hefty fines were collected from people who were eating too well–and the first to break the rules and pay the fines were often those in the ruling class.

A particularly fussy chap named Fannius got a law passed (known as the Fannian law) that outlawed the eating of roosters while at the same time forbidding the fattening of hens (that made them too luxurious). To get around the law, Romans began castrating young male chicks, creating the capon (from Latin caponem, “castrated cock”). It was no longer technically a rooster, so could be eaten, and it was not a hen, so it could be fattened. It turned out to be such a nice, large, juicy bird that people continued to create capons even after the law (and the Roman Empire) vanished.

So people have always been looking for a way to get around the rules–and eat better!!

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Inmate Christmas in South Dakota

I attended a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Chicago this morning. The speaker was Clara Orban, author of a book on the wines of Illinois. Good program, as usual. Then after the program, the redoubtable Catherine Lambrecht, founder of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance and co-founder of Chicago’s iconic, but also guiding light of Culinary Historians, brought out a collection of brown paper lunch bags. She explained that driving around the Midwest as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance brings her into contact with a lot of local traditions. This one was from South Dakota.

Inmates are not allowed to get packages from their families, because it’s so hard to control what might be in those packages. Families can send money, but most don’t. So a wide range of churches, Catholic and Protestant, come together each year to put together these lunch bags. Each bag contains peanuts in the shell, hard candies, a candy cane, two handmade Christmas cards, and the official “Christmas Sack Fudge,” a recipe that has Velveeta as its base. There are 3,000 inmates in South Dakota, so 3,000 of these sacks are made each year.

Cathy Lambrecht had gone to the rather considerable trouble (though it’s the sort of trouble she goes to often) to recreate not only the fudge, but the sack with all its contents (though, she explained, since this was just for us to sample, she only gave each of us one piece of the fudge). Nuts and candies were not especially interesting, but I found the handmade cards really touching (it looks as though Cathy had photocopied the hand-drawn originals, but there were two in each of our bags). Remarkable to think of all these people making cards for the inmates. And the fudge, too, is made in the kitchens of the many families that take part in the project.

The fudge was surprisingly tasty. One could not detect the Velveeta, but I suspect the fact that it’s not overly sweet can be attributed to its inclusion. If you’re interested in the recipe, Cathy told us it was included in an article that appeared a few years ago in South Dakota Magazine. Here’s a link to the article, which includes the recipe, as well as more info on this tradition (and comments from grateful prisoners).

Cheers to the folks of South Dakota who go to the effort of brightening the holidays of those who have little else bright in their lives.

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Falling Water

When planning my trip to Pennsylvania, one of the things I definitely wanted to see was Frank Lloyd Wright’s fabulous Fallingwater, the secluded vacation house he built for the Kaufmann family in the 1930s, to give them a place to escape the bustle of Pittsburgh. Nestled amid greenery and perched in the mountains, Fallingwater takes its name from the waterfalls it straddles. I love waterfalls, so I’d always been enchanted by the photos I’d seen and the concept. I found the house and its history fascinating. However, the fact that was shared that both surprised me and interested me the most is that Wright didn’t really intend to have the house outlive the Kaufmanns. It takes millions of dollars every year to keep it from falling to pieces. Pretty crazy. But it is a remarkable bit of design, even if the engineering was not planned for the long term. Definitely worth visiting, however.

It’s a bit of a hike to the spot that gives one the most iconic view of the house.

And because this blog mostly focuses on food, here’s the view from the kitchen.

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Pittsburgh Rocks

Earlier this year, I was in Pittsburgh for a conference. I used to visit often, but it had been many years since my last visit. I managed to see a couple of new things, but there was one old favorite that I knew I had to revisit: the mineral collection at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I love rocks and minerals, and I can never resist a good collection, wherever I roam — and the Carnegie’s Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems is home to a very good collection indeed. A spectacular collection of specimens are beautifully displayed, singly or in groups, with great signage to help identify anything that is unfamiliar. I’d recommend allowing at the very least an hour to see this collection–more, if you really love rocks. (Here’s their website, if you want to plan a visit:

Here are just a few specimens I photographed this time.

Gypsum-Selenite in center

Gypsum-Selenite in center

Rhodochrosite and Quartz

Rhodochrosite and Quartz



Rock Crystal

Rock Crystal

Scolecite crystals

Scolecite crystals

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Sorghum Cake

Because of the research I do, into not only where foods come from but also how they were utilized, I go through a fair number of old cookbooks. Surprisingly, at least once we hit the 1800s in the United States, a lot of the recipes—most of them in fact—look pretty appetizing. By the mid-1800s in the U.S., booming agriculture and increasing transportation options were making a lot of previously rare ingredients available, and home cooks were taking advantage of the variety and abundance.

A recipe for sorghum cake caught my eye when I was combining research with trying to find something to take to a party. I modified the icing from the original, to make it a bit more interesting, but the cake was outstanding without modification. This not too sweet dessert received rave reviews from those to whom I served it.

If you don’t have a nearby store that sells sorghum, it’s readily available on the Internet. If you really can’t locate sorghum, unsulphured molasses could be substituted—but do try to find sorghum, if just to discover what this one-time staple is like.

Sorghum Cake
3/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sorghum
1 cup thick, old-fashioned-style applesauce
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (freshly ground makes a big difference here)
1/2 tsp. ground clovers
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the shortening and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Then beat in the sorghum and applesauce.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Then stir into the batter.

The batter can then be poured into greased and floured cake pans. The original recipe called for three, eight-inch round pans, to make layers. For the crowd I was serving, I choose a 13” x 9” sheet cake pan. For layers, bake for twenty minutes, or until done. For a sheet cake, bake for 10 minutes longer, and then test for doneness. Cool before icing.

1/4 cup butter
3 cups powdered sugar
milk or light cream

The original recipe stopped with those ingredients. I put a tablespoon of rum in the empty sorghum tin and swirled it around, to get the last little bit of syrup, and used that along with the cream to thin the icing. I also added a few grating of fresh nutmeg. Made a mighty tasty icing.

To make the icing, beat the butter until light and then gradually beat in the powdered sugar. This will be about the consistency of modeling clay. Add the liquid (milk, cream, or, like I did, cream plus rummy sorghum syrup remnants) until it becomes the consistency of spreadable icing. If you’re doing layers, you’ll have plenty for the entire cake. If you’re doing a sheet cake, you may have a little extra icing—but that’s never a bad thing.

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