Gluhwein to warm the coldest of nights

It is time for Capetonians to snuggle under a blanket with a good movie, a good companion, be it male, female or furry, and a glass or two of mulled wine.

This beverage is also known as gluhwein in Germany (roughly, “glow-wine,” from the hot irons once used for mulling), with the same recipes used in Russia. It’s called vin fiert “boiled wine” in Romania and “muddled” in Old English.

Whatever its name, mulled wine has been warming people for centuries. Nordic Glogg contains raisins, flaked almonds, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon and orange peel and is left to stand for 24 hours before warming gently than adding sugar and finishing off with a generous amount of vodka.

For most people, the transition of changing from summer to winter means red wine instead of white. When researching mulled wine, I found the exact origin is as murky as the drink itself. There are claims that wine was first recorded as spiced and heated in Rome during the second century. Others say mulled wine dates to before the eighth century BC as Homer’s Odyssey writes about Circe, a lascivious goddess, who drugs Odysseus’ crew with a blend of spices and wine. Whatever, mulled wine is not considered a high-class beverage. In England during the Victorian era, spicing wine improved the flavour of poorly stored wines shipped from France. In ancient Egypt, spiced wine was used for medicinal purposes and was considered to be a remedial elixir of the afterlife. It is believed that Egyptian medicinal wine was laced with pine resin, figs, and herbs like balm, coriander, mint, and sage.

In medieval Poland, a cream was added to mulled wine, making wine soup that was regarded as an extremely refined breakfast.

British writer Charles Dickens elevated mulled wine, called Smoking Bishop, into a traditional holiday drink and it appeared in several of his books including his short story, A Christmas Carol, sealing its place in this yuletide culinary history. Since then, recipes have evolved with the tastes and fashions of the time. In the revised edition Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, dated 1869, it says:

In a saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and cinnamon stick.

Cut the orange in half and squeeze the juice into the simmering water. Pour in the wine, and heat until steaming but not simmering. Serve hot in mugs or glasses that have been preheated in warm water.

This is a hit and miss concoction which could end up tasting like cough mixture because she does not supply the exact proportions and the taste might suit one person but be distasteful to another. British chef Jamie Oliver has a completely different idea. He first makes a syrup base by putting the sugar in a large pan along with some clementine juice and peel, lemon and lime peel, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, nutmeg and vanilla, and then pouring in enough red wine to just cover it all.

Starting from basics, the first question is what type of wine – a good one or a cheapie?

Since mulling wine disguises a lot of the nuances of taste, don’t select one with a delicate flavour. Instead, go for a bigger, bolder, full-bodied red such as syrah, malbec or pinot noir, although white muscat and other fortified wines have also been used.

Next up is spice. Choosing the right quantities over a mishmash that’s overpowering and tastes like something that might have been used to ward off horse fever, is essential. Europe’s fascination with oriental spices introduced cloves, stick cinnamon, nutmeg, anise and cardamom, while early recipes include exotic spikenard, saffron, star anise and ginger.

And then there is fruit, usually the zest, lemons, limes, clementine’s and oranges. In fact, I recall making mulled wine using oranges studded with cloves. Although one foodie feels that adding fruit will sour the wine unnecessarily and does something funky to the sugar structure that makes for nasty after-effects.

And then there’s the question of sugar – or honey – and should the sugar be white, brown or castor.

Spiced wine was a tipple originally designed to show off the wealth and generosity of a medieval household. In those days, along with being considered a luxury item, the English specify that sugar was uniquely for the lords and honey was for the people. Sugar was also thought to contain medicinal values similar to the added spices.

A point that every recipe stresses is that the ingredients must be heated, but not boiled, and served hot. Mulled wine is usually served in glasses, which should be warmed first to prevent breakage.

If this all sounds too complicated and yet you want to impress friends and family you could buy sachets. Longtime friend and Peninsula Ramblers member Ian Pearce buys the spices at Pick and Pay, bound in a small cheesecloth bag called Gluhwein. Inside are cloves, ginger and cardamom with dried lemon and orange peel. He heats two bottles of wine with two sticks of cinnamon and the sachets. He cuts an orange in half and squeezes some juice into the wine and slowly heats it. He sweetens the concoction with honey but says two teaspoons of sugar can be added to taste. He likes it less sweet but his partner, Glenda Doller adds honey to hers. Most importantly, do not let it boil, it should just simmer gently.

For something more daring and pyrotechnic, go with German enthusiasm and try the visually appealing mulled wine called Feuerzangenbowle where sugar cubes are soaked in rum and lit on fire over a vessel of hot gluhwein. The rum-soaked caramelised sugar drips into the mulled wine and flavours it with smoky sweetness. Another friend has tasted mulled wine made with a base of Rooibos tea. Whatever you do, experiment and send us your perfect mulled wine recipe.