Sunday, November 20, 2011

Un Bon Vin Chaud

I wrote this article for a magazine last year, and seeing as we are in the season again, I thought I'd share it here.  --Le Capitaine

Warm the Soul
Christmas in Beaune. Photo: Tiaré Ferrari.
 By William Widmaier

A few years ago I was walking in the center of the old part of Beaune, France, heart of the Burgundy wine world. It was the middle of December and the cold was getting to me despite my long coat. The strong breeze that snaked through the narrow cobblestone streets drove the cold deep into me, sinking into my bones. As I walked past a café, there in the window was the hand scrawled sign I was hoping to see. I walked in, stepped up to the bar, “un vin chaud s'il vous plait.” Salvation was at hand.

The first time I had vin chaud was at Yosemite. We went camping in those quasi-cabins they have there, where the walls are made of canvas and only enclose 3 sides plus a roof. It was early spring and much colder than we expected. Patches of old dusty snow were still on the ground here and there. I was around 7 years old. We loved going camping and Yosemite, back then, was a favorite, but this day I was cold. And the cold was sinking deeper. “Papa, j’ai froid.” My father turned to my mother, “Colette, et ci tu nous preparé un peu de vin chaud?” She made some on the camp stove, and when I drank my small half-cup the warmth spread throughout my little body, and I was happy.

January in Paris –not a time that inspires love songs about the city of lights. Coming out of the subway it was so cold you had to watch your step to avoid patches of black ice. Paris is like New York in that you routinely walk, un-intimidated by distances that in other cities would demand a car or the calling of a taxi. But today it was cold and after a mile or so I began checking out the café windows, looking for that hand written sign or a plate-du-jour chalkboard with those two magic words. It didn’t take too long. This time I was reminded that not all vin chaud are created equal. “What the heck is this in my cup?” Whoever had prepared the vin chaud thought that corn starch was part of the recipe. No, I don’t think so. The thick sludge I encountered at the bottom of my cup did quick work to kill my joy. But at least I was warm.

Saint Remy de Provence. Home of Nostradamus, Van Gogh, a wonderful Provençal hand thrown pottery store in the heart of the old town, a fantastic candy and chocolate maker, an awesome take-out pizza joint, and a half dozen restaurants to languish in. It was Christmas and we’d been shopping at the farmer’s market, then in the multitude of shops among the small winding streets in the center of town. Sure, we were in Provence, but it still gets cold in the winter. And that cold eventually works its way from the cobblestones, through the soles of your shoes, to your tired feet. That’s when you know its time to call it a day. Then again, maybe it’s the perfect time for a nice vin chaud? We entered one of those great café restaurants. “Avez vous du vin chaud?” This time it was quite good, though with the dry edge of a southern French wine. I wondered, “Did he use a Cote du Rhone, or a Baux de Provence?”  It didn’t matter. Sitting in the café, sipping away, warmth spreading out from my belly, all was right with the world once again. I held up my cup to the bartender, “Merci.”  He gave me a knowing smile “Je vous en prie.”

Los Angeles. A cold night – yes they do have them on occasion in Los Angeles. I’m at the Los Angeles Petanque Club playing against the young and very French sous-chef of L’Hermitage Beverly Hills. It’s not uncommon for club members to bring a little something to share amongst players during the night games. Tonight, my opponent brought a large thermos of vin chaud, and damned if it isn’t the best I’ve ever tasted. “Oh la, c’est bon!” There was that mischievous smile you get from chefs when they know they’ve got something good. Now, most chefs never give away their secrets, but seeing as he was beating me in the game at hand, I had the benefit of using both age and winner’s guilt. After some cajoling he gave up a secret or two.

Here’s my recipe, with a few of those secrets included. It never fails to cheer, especially when shared amongst friends.

      1  750ml bottle of French red wine, either on the lighter side, such as a Beaujolais Village or pinot noir, or for a dryer edgier feel go with a Cote du Rhone.
      1/8 cup orange liquor, preferably Grand Marnier
      1/8 cup Benedictine
      1 large orange
      1 tablespoon of honey
      1 tablespoon of brown sugar
      6 cloves
      3 teaspoons vanilla extract
      2 cinnamon sticks
      1/8 teaspoon of ground ginger
      3 shakes of aromatic bitters, such as Fee Brothers or Angostura Bitters

Slice the orange into 1/4 inch thick slices, leaving the ends whole. Put slices into a large pot, squeeze all juice out of Orange ends into pot and discard ends. Add vanilla, honey, sugar, cloves and ginger. Muddle a bit to break up orange slices and get everything acquainted.

Add the bottle of wine, cinnamon sticks and the bitters. Turn heat on medium, stirring occasionally. Do not let it come to a boil.

Have a large thermos ready if you plan on transporting, or a big heat-resistant punch bowl or similar container if serving immediately.

Put both the Grand Marnier and Benedictine in the thermos or punch bowl.

As soon as the wine mixture is too hot to touch, but before it boils, transfer it into the thermos or punch bowl, blending it with the Grand Marnier and Benedictine.

It is now ready to serve, and warm the soul.

January 3rd, 1940, vin chaud is being distributed free to French soldiers a few months before the Battle of France, where things go very poorly for La Belle France.