Charles Dickens knew how to party – He loved a good time, and he was very good at arranging and enjoying them. He appreciated good food a great deal, and perhaps even more so, good drink – Evidence of such is found throughout his work. Of that body of writing, my personal favorite is his seasonal classic, A Christmas Carol, In Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. This year, that joy of good booze reflected in the novella got my attention – Time to offer up some Dickens Christmas cocktails.
Dickens’ work had, at first, rocketed to popularity. The Pickwick Papers in 1836 were quickly followed with Oliver Twist, and then Nicholas Nickleby. He became an international sensation, but sadly, it didn’t last. By 1843, he had made some serious social and financial gaffes, and was living well above his means. He was a critical disaster, hadn’t written anything popular in several years, and was almost bankrupt. A visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, a street children’s school, coupled with his own financial difficulties, profoundly impacted the man. Thankfully, his rumination lead to the conjuring of certain characters in his mind’s eye, and was then manifested in the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s epic redemption.
Trouble was, his publishers weren’t interested. Christmas in those days wasn’t as big a to-do as Dickens wanted to make of it, and the publisher just didn’t think it would sell. Yet Dickens’ epiphany at the poor kids school, and on a walk he’d taken through the slums thereafter, had shaken the man to the core. He felt driven to bring the plight of the poor to light, and to give them hope and cheer in so doing. Rather than quit, he hired his own illustrator, and editor, and paid for the printing as well. The rest, of course, is history.
Released on the 19th of December in 1843, Dickens’ self-published run of A Christmas Carol sold out by Christmas Eve, and only a year later, had gone through thirteen editions. Critics liked the novella, but more importantly, the reading public absolutely adored it. Written at a time when English traditions of the season were undergoing a sea change, A Christmas Carol caught fire – and that flame burns to this day – it’s never been out of print. What Dickens highlighted about Christmas, good will to our fellow beings, especially those less fortunate than us, and the celebration of the season with food and drink, is still largely what it’s all about today. And of course, it put him right back into the catbird seat as well.
Dickens love of food and drink, came not only from his late life epiphany, but from a troubled childhood. Turns out his father had been bankrupted and was sent to debtor’s prison. Twelve year old Dickens had to leave school and take a factory job, gluing labels on to bottles of boot blacking – It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how awful that work would be, or how little it would pay. He didn’t do it for long, just a few months, but it made an indelible impression on him, sparking a lifelong opposition to the industrial revolution and child labor. It also permanently fixed in his mind an abundance of food and drink as a sign of well-being.
He certainly did like his drink. Victorian society didn’t take all that kindly to the consumption of beer, wine, or spiritous liquors, but Dickens frankly didn’t give a rats ass about opinion. He not only hoisted a few when the spirit moved him, he did so openly, in pubs and taverns. Throughout his writing, he made it clear that he felt that rich or poor deserved a good stiff belt when they wanted one. Through his works, I learned of gin punch, negus, smoking bishop, and a raft of other such tipples.
Charles’ Great Grandson, Cedric Charles Dickens, wrote in 1980 a great little book titled, Drinking With Dickens. It’s a wealth of stories, reminisces, and recipes that’s a delightful read for any fan of the man and his work. Drinking with Dickens underlines Charles’ love for booze with a passion. There’s an accounting of the contents of his cellar after his death therein, which listed well over a thousand bottles of wine and spirits. Here are our swings at Dickens’ Big Three – Negus, Smoking Bishop, and finally his favorite, Gin Punch.
It’s important to note that these drinks are not lightweight. Almost all the recipes’ booze is measured in bottles, (sometimes plural), per batch. While they’re not super high proof concoctions, they’re still pretty hefty stuff, so as Cedric noted, “remember Sarah Gamp’s admonition: “Drink fair, wotever you do!””
Our first entry is Negus, mentioned by name or as punch in several of Dickens works, like this passage from the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”
Negus owes its name to Colonel Francis Negus, who lived from 1670 to 1732. He was an army officer, politician, and for a time, secretary to the Duke of Norfolk. Somewhere in the first couple decades of the 1700s, he reputedly came up with this port powered punch.
You’ll need a microplane or fine grater for this recipe. If you don’t have one, you can carefully pare the citrus peels, and use ground nutmeg. You’ll also want a double boiler, ideally. If you don’t have one, you can do the deed in a heavy bottom sauce pan over low heat, but you lose some of the booze power in so doing.
1 Bottle Ruby Port
1 Meyer Lemon (A nice big, juicy regular one will do, too)
1 Blood Orange
2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
Carefully zest the lemon and orange, taking care to get just the color, not the bitter white pith.
Juice the lemon and the orange – you can combine the juices.
In a sauce pan, boil enough water to fill a tempered serving jug, large enough to hold the whole batch of punch, plus another couple cups.
In a double boiler over medium low heat, add juice, zest, agave nectar, and port.
Stir the punch to integrate the liquids and agave nectar, then stir occasionally until the punch steams.
Fill the serving jug with hot water.
Add 1 cup of boiling water to the punch and stir to incorporate.
Pour the hot water out of the jug, then carefully pour the negus through a double mesh strainer into it.
Serve in the thickest walled mugs you’ve got, with a grating of fresh nutmeg atop each one.
Then there’s this – “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family,’’ Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit near the end of A Christmas Carol, ‘‘and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop!’’” This wassail punch has medieval roots, and the name likely stems from the traditional serving bowl used for the stuff, which does indeed look like a bishop’s mitre. Smoking Bishop is not a stand alone thing, by the way; there’s also Smoking Archbishop (claret), Smoking Cardinal (champagne), Smoking Pope (burgundy), and smoking Beadle (ginger wine) – Whew! In any event, it’s a classic mulled wine punch that’ll make your house smell fabulous. Seville oranges are a bitter variety that might not be in your local grocery store, but most definitely will be at the nearest Latin market. Neither the wine nor the port needs to be pricey – when you’re building something like this, workmanlike will do just fine.
Urban’s Smoking Bishop
6 Seville Oranges
1 Bottle Spanish or Portuguese Red Wine (a blend is good)
1 Bottle Ruby Port
1/2 Cup Agave Nectar
36 Whole Cloves
2 Sticks True Cinnamon
Preheat oven to 325° F and set a rack in the middle position.
Rinse oranges well, and dry thoroughly.
Stud each orange with six cloves, and set them in a roasting pan, or baking dish.
Roast the oranges for 60 minutes.
When your roasting time is about up, fill a heat tolerant bowl with very hot water.
Remove the roasted oranges, pour the water out of the bowl, and slide the oranges into that.
Combine the red wine and agave nectar and stir well to incorporate.
Add the wine mixture to the hot oranges, cover the bowl, and leave it in a nice, warm corner of your kitchen for somewhere between 12 and 24 hours.
After the fruit has steeped, juice the oranges into the wine blend – do that through a single mesh strainer so you capture cloves and fruit pulp. You can compost the fruit remnants and get your local squirrels loaded, too.
In a heavy sauce pan over low heat, add the wine and fruit juice mix, the port, and the cinnamon sticks.
Heat the punch very slowly, (so you don’t burn off the booze), until it steams – hence the ‘smoking’ thing.
Turn the heat off and leave the pan on the burner.
Remove the cinnamon sticks, and serve in nice, thick red-heated mugs.
And finally, here’s Dickens’ and Crachit’s favorite tipple, Gin Punch -“At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth … and at Bob Cratchit’s elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily.” While a decent gin is all that’s necessary, Christmas is about as reasonable an excuse as there is to try something really distinctive. One of the beauties of gin punch is that all those botanicals mix wonderfully with what you’ll add. I’ll say without hesitation that the best gin I’ve ever had is Gifford’s Dry Gin, from Blackfish Spirits Distillery in Auburn, Washington, and yes, they do ship. Tell Carrie and Mike that we sent ya.
Urban’s Gin Punch
8 Ounces Gifford’s Dry Gin
8 Ounces Fino Sherry
4 Ounces 100% Cranberry Juice
4 Ounces 100% Pomegranate Juice
1 Honey Crisp Apple
1 Blood Orange
1 large Lemon
3 Tablespoons Agave Nectar
1/2 a whole Star Anise
2 Sticks True Cinnamon
1/4 of a whole Nutmeg
Thoroughly rinse and pat the fruit dry.
Cut the fruit into wheels about 1/4” thick.
In a heavy sauce pan over low heat, add the fruit, cranberry and pomegranate juices, agave nectar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and star anise. Stir well to incorporate.
Let the mixture heat slowly for about 15 – 20 minutes, when it should start simmering – adjust heat as necessary.
Once the mix simmers, turn the heat down to low and add the sherry, stirring to incorporate.
Let that mix heat through for another 10 minutes, then add the gin.
Keep the punch on low heat for another 5 minutes, to heat through – don’t let it simmer, just gradually heat.
Ladle into preheated, thick mugs – the fruit will be delicious, but probably nobody needs a cinnamon stick, star anise, or nutmeg chunk…
M and I wish y’all holidays of great peace, with family, friends, and critters all around.