Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Holly Tree Inn with a Burnt Coffee

Life is full of surprises. Today's surprise was that I don't own a copy of 'A Christmas Carol', and now I'm wondering if I've ever actually read it, or just seen endless adaptations over the years. I've not been wildly enthusiastic about Dickens (quite like him, but the books are generally long and I've always enjoyed Wilkie Collins more) but even so, not having a copy of A Christmas Carol seems particularly remiss.

Another book I don't own is 'Drinking with Dickens' which sounds right up my street - so maybe this time next year I will not only have made sure I've read 'A Christmas Carol' but have done much more research on his drinking habits and preferences as well. Meanwhile I read a reference to the Victorian parlour game of snapdragon recently (which Dickens also mentions) and it made me think of Burnt Coffee.

Snapdragon sounds like a health and safety nightmare (you have to retrieve raisins from a bowl of burning Brandy or something - I'm having internet problems today which is reminding me why keeping written notes would be really helpful). I found the recipe for Burnt Coffee in Ambrose Heath's 'Good Drinks' written in the 1930's, but he gives no details about its provenance. It seems like the sort of thing Dickens might have liked though, and I love it. This was an excellent discovery last year that saw me through the worst of the winter.

'The Holly-Tree Inn' is a reprint of 1855's Christmas issue of 'Household Words' from Hesperus press, I have about 4 of these, there may well be more. The great thing about them is that you're not just getting Dickens as the cover suggests, but stories from a range of contributors. This one has a theme to make a narrative framework (the introduction tells me this was only the second time Dickens had done that). A group of travellers are snowed into an the Holly-Tree inn, and tell each other stories. Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Adelaide Anne Procter, and Harriet Parr are the other contributors to this one,

The Burnt Coffee is simply a small cup of strong black coffee with a good spoon of brown sugar stirred in, and then a healthy tot of Brandy gently poured on top. You light the brandy, blowing out the flame before all the spirit is burnt off. The result is a little like an Irish coffee without the cream. It's sweet without being too sweet, potent without being too strong, and generally delicious. I like the drama/ceremony element of lighting the brandy and think this is enough of a nod to dangerous Victorian parlour games to capture the spirit of the thing without risking serious burns.

It may not be the most authentic match, but it's a good one.

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