The Georgette Heyer readalong on twitter is currently nearing the end of 'Devil's Cub', which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading at a slower pace than usual and with a whole bunch of Heyer fans to discuss every detail with. It's a book I've already written about twice here, and which I've read so many times that my opinion of it has probably evolved as far as it's going too, but after a chance comment last night I started thinking about the drinks Heyer mentions in it. I followed that with a morning of dedicated reading, and a little bit of of liquid research (mostly in the form of chocolate).
The thing that makes 'Devil's Cub' such a very good book in my view is its humour. I think it's Heyer's comic masterpiece, which for a writer who revels in comedy is really saying something. Towards the end of the book I find all my sympathy is with the hero's uncle - Rupert. Rupert (incidentally the name of the man who gave me my first job in wine) has been dragged to France, against his better judgement, to track down his nephew. All he wants to do is eat and drink, all he gets to do is chase around the country looking for people he's had enough of. His moment of revolt comes in Dijon where he finds some excellent wine, and from there on in he's doesn't even pretend to care about what else is going on.
As a fellow wine lover I have complete sympathy for him, quite apart from enjoying the comic flourish of cases and cases of wine being added to a chase (and chaise) across rural France. Before we get to Rupert's excellent reasons to visit Dijon there are quite a few other references to unpick though.
The first thing to consider is what does what you drink signify both in 18th century England, and in the world of Georgette Heyer. Hugh Johnson's 'The Story Of Wine' is not just comprehensive, it's enjoyable to read and if you see a copy in a charity shop (when they reopen) buy it. He tells me that drinks had become an aristocratic talking point in England in the 17th century, and reminds me that the grandfathers of the first Georgians had seen chocolate and coffee arrive, tea become fashionable, and gin, rum, and cognac become more or less drinkable. It's also when Claret became popular with the English (it has a different history in Scotland thanks to the auld alliance).
By the 18th century a catholic taste in wine was a signifier of good breeding - still very much true when Georgette Heyer wrote 'Devil's Cub' in 1932, and still a class and education signifier now, although a more nuanced one since we discovered a whole new world of wine beyond Europe, and Supermarkets got into the business of selling everything from the cheapest plonk to 1st growth claret en primeur.
Wine in the 1780's (when Devil's Cub is set) signifies wealth as well as class. The tax was prohibitive, so if you're drinking the real thing you belong to the aristocracy, the gentry, or the upper reaches of the professional classes (who would have included the younger sons of the aristocracy). English taverns would sell wine purporting to be Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and French - although there was a good chance they would be home made. Red wine could be made of aloes, blackberries and turnip juice, 'Port' was found made of turnip juice fermented with 'wild fruit' beer and lead oxide amongst other unappealing sounding things.
On a more respectable note Mrs Rundell gives a few recipes for English wines in 'A New System of Domestic Cookery' first published in 1806, when war with France would have made importing wine difficult, and throughout the 18th century it's possible to find the very grandest of aristocrats boasting of their home made port (which I hope and trust avoided turnips).
It's also worth noting that there's a political allegiance in what you drink at this time. For Tories who might even go as far as having had Jacobite sympathies in the 18th century claret was a rallying cry. Port by comparison was seen as a patriotic (anti French) choice from the war over the Spanish succession. By the 1780's the port that was being drunk would be closer to what we recognise today, and not something that needed to be sold as a patriotic duty to drink.
The first spirit we get in Devil's Cub is Brandy - another bit of drink history trivia is that whisky didn't really become respectable until the late 19th century when phylloxera devastated European vineyards. The authentic spirit would be pot distilled, and I'd guess a basic bottle of Martell or Courvoisier would be close enough to what Heyer had in mind - or indeed something even more basic, as distilling practices have significantly improved since the 18th century. For some interesting recipes to replicate both fake and smuggled brandy, along with a host of other things, Ruth Balls 'Rebellious Spirits' is a fabulous book.
From brandy, the discerning Rupert moves to Burgundy - where we will join him later. He also talks about Port. Early on the port wine in question would have been table wine - stronger than the northern French wines we might have been familiar with thanks to the extra sun, but not fortified. My hot tip generally is to look for Portuguese wine in supermarkets. Around £10 will get you a really excellent wine from the Douro if you want something special. You'll get something thoroughly decent for a bit less. In time, and probably to protect and stabalise the wine during transit, brandy started to be added. Initially this produced something both rough and fiery, but time in the bottle - which you would be getting by the 1780's softens the effect. There are a range of port options, an L.B.V will hit the right balance between relative youth and palatable smoothness. If it's unfiltered you'll get an authentic 'Crust' of sediment too.
Vidal is not considered dangerous until after his 3rd bottle, and the idea of the 3 bottle me is a popular one - happily for everyone's liver's bottles at this time would have been closer to pint size - or about 2/3rds of a modern bottle, and the last inch or so of wine would probably have had to be discarded for the bitter sediment in it, so those 3 bottles aren't quite as bad as they sound.
The next drink I found was ratafia - thought of as a lady's drink, and dismissed as such by anyone with a discerning palate. This is sort of fair. A modern off the shelf version of ratafia would be Amaretto. You can find contemporary recipes to make your own (Mrs Rundell will oblige for a start) which sound like Ameretto is what you'll get. There's also a ratafia made like Pineau des Charentes. This is a family of drinks that mixes unfermented fruit juice (grape for Pineau, but I've also had really good apple versions) with an eau de vie. I personally prefer this, it's still sweet, but makes an excellent aperitif, and doesn't taste like marzipan.
Vidal (the hero, despite what he does next) threatens to render the heroine blind drunk by forcing her to drink a flask of Hollands, if she won't get on his yacht. Hollands is Jenever, which we can think of as Dutch gin, although it's not very like the London gin most of us will be more familiar with. Jenever is the spirit that came over with William of Orange, and might have been marginally more respectable than anything being made in London in the 18th century. By the 1780s the gin craze was done and and successive efforts to crack down on consumption had made it more expensive. If you haven't had it, jenever is hard to describe. It's distilled from a malt wine, and feels heavier and more oily in the mouth than a London gin. It's flavoured with juniper, which is familiar, but can be aged in wood - so in a lot of ways it's more like a juniper flavoured new make whisky. For abducting in the Heyer approved fashion you want Oude Jenever.
It's not all booze though. A lot of coffee is drunk - which makes it an excellent drink to accompany Heyer with, and quite a lot of chocolate for breakfast. This seemed like a really good time to try Marie Antionette's Hot Chocolate Elixir with Orange Blossom and Almonds from Sue Quinn's 'Cocoa', the action has after all moved to Paris by this time. I've been meaning to make this for ages, but it's elaborate enough that I hadn't got around to it. It's informed by records at Versailles which sounds authentic enough to accompany a romance, and the following quantities serve 2.
200ml of whole milk, finely grated zest, and juice of an orange, 60 ml of double cream, 1/2tsp orange blossom water, a pinch of salt, 1tsp of caster sugar, 40g of dark chocolate 960 to 70% cocoa solids) grated, and some toasted slivers of flaked almonds. Put everything apart from the chocolate and almonds into a pan and heat, but don't allow to boil. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir un til melted. Return to a moderate heat and whisk briskly until the mix begins to thicken and you have a good froth. Serve with the almonds scattered on top (they're optional but you might as well go for them). This is rich, so it really does serve 2 much better than it makes a large mug for 1.
Which brings me back to Rupert, dragged from the prospect of a good time in Paris and forced to set off for Dijon. What Rupert has failed to realise is that he's going to end up in the best part of Burgundy, with some of the most sought after (and expensive) wines in the world. Heyer never tells us what he finds, but my guess would be that it's probably Nuits Saint George or Gevrey-Chambertin. These are wines that had been prestigious since the time of the Valois Dukes of the 15th century. When I started in the wine trade Nuits Saint George was almost a generic term for a good Burgundy, it has more than doubled in price since then so that it's hard to find a bottle for under £50.
In fact it's hard to find any really good pinot noir from Burgundy for much under £30 now, and even something quite ordinary will be over £10. If we want to drink like Rupert (and in quality terms, I do) we need to be inventive. By the 1780's Burgundy was expensive enough to be ripe for abuse. Pinot Noir naturally produces highly perfumed, relatively light wines. It's a challenging grape to get the best out of - which is part of the reason it's so sought after, and also why it started to be mixed with Rhône wines, or the Gamay grape - both of which would introduce body and more obvious fruit. At this point honey was also being added to the fermenting grape juice to increase the sugar content and thereby the alcohol content.
Until relatively recently the perception was that red burgundy should be a heavy, strong, dark, and tannic wine. The tannins are right for pinot noir, but not the rest of it. So Rupert might not have noticed if what he was drinking was a good Cote du Rhône (but anything that costs more than £10 and isn't Chateau Nuef du Pape and you can't go far wrong, but a Saint Joseph from closer to Lyon would surely be a good bet to end up in Dijon). A Beaujolais village would certainly be as soft and smooth as the wines he mentions (gamay grape, not overly tannic, very food friendly).
Or, for the wine drinker who doesn't mind spending a bit, but doesn't want to go overboard (still between £10 and £20) there are the wines of South Africa. If you can find a good South African Pinot Noir in this price bracket, please tell me, I've had them in the past and they've been really memorable. The extra sun gives them the body, fruit, and colour that Heyer would have expected, but not so much that they're as jammy as the Australian ones. We get the perfume and the elegance of a wine that hasn't had honey and god knows what else added to it, and they've been making wine in South Africa for long enough to have some really old vines (they give a wine a particular silkiness). There is also New Zealand, which is almost as famous for Pinot Noir as Burgundy, and a lot easier to find - but somehow doesn't excite me quite as much.