One evening in December, I found myself under the weather but with an unbreakable date. I had promised to take a fellow cheesemonger on his first visit to Drink. For anyone who hasn’t been, Drink is an elegant bar in the Fort Point neighborhood of Boston with highly skilled bartenders and no drink list. One orders by indicating an ingredient or ingredients they’re in the mood for – for me, that often means something like Bourbon or grapefruit juice. Then, the bartenders make cocktail suggestions based on these clues.
All I could muster up this particularly cold evening was,”I have a sore throat.” A few minutes later, head bartender, John Gertsen emerged from the back with a steaming pot of negus. A warm, sweet and comforting blend of port, hot water, sugar and lemon, negus was a popular drink in Victorian times, and is mentioned in more than one of Charles Dickens’ novels. In Dombey and Son, Mr. Feeder, “after imbibing several custard cups of negus, began to enjoy himself.” Just as I did after imbibing my several wineglasses full of negus at Drink (I also slept like a baby that night)!
Mrs. Isabella Beeton, in her weighty tome, Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) describes negus as a, “beverage usually drunk at children’s parties.” Instead, I recommend putting the children to bed and keeping the negus for the adults. I’ve made this recipe a few times, using Quinto do Infantado Ruby Port. And, something I have learned – a nice, round lemon slice will sit just right inside of a wine glass and, each sip of negus will be better for passing through the lemon.
Mrs. Beeton’s Negus
INGREDIENTS: To every pint of port wine, allow 1 quart of boiling water, ¼ lb of sugar, 1 lemon and grated nutmeg to taste.
DIRECTIONS: Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to ¼ lb) on the lemon rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use.
Negus was my drink for a stressful holiday season, when its comforting, calming sips hit the spot. However, the less taxing months of January and February mark the arrival of Seville oranges and allows one to graduate from negus, to the more grown-up Smoking Bishop. Smoking Bishop is also made with port and sugar but, instead of water, it calls for dry red wine and tasty Seville oranges replace the lemons.
Seville oranges are thicker-skinned and more sour than normal eating oranges and have traditionally been imported to England in January and February where they are prized for use in marmalade. Because of the seasonality of the oranges, the basic Bishop recipe (without the port) was often made in large batches and kept on hand for use in summer Bishop’s Cups and especially for making Smoking Bishop bowls at Christmastime. Scrooge himself must have been saving a bit because, after his Christmas Eve self-realizations, he kindly offers a bowl to poor Bob Cratchit. This recipe comes from Cedric Dickens, the great-grandson of Charles Dickens.
6 Seville oranges
¼ lb sugar
1 bottle Portuguese red wine (we just use a simple dry red)
1 bottle port
Bake the oranges in the oven until they are pale brown, and then put them in a warmed earthenware bowl with five cloves pricked into each. Add the sugar and pour in the wine – not the port. Cover and leave in a warm place for about a day. Squeeze the oranges into the wine and pour it through a sieve. Add the port and heat but do not boil. Serve in warmed goblets and drink hot.
This recipe will serve at least four. (If you’d like to keep some of the port-less mixture around for later, Mr. Dickens suggests fortifying it with “a tot of orange brandy” and says to add the port and a bit of water before serving.)
I have had success serving both negus and Smoking Bishop with a nice selection of cheeses, including not limited to Stichelton (our raw milk Stilton*), Bleu du Bocage, Montgomery’s Cheddar or Robie Farm Swaledale. I like to put out a baguette and a nice blob of creamy butter to lubricate the stronger blues. Another nice touch is the addition of our Spanish caramelized walnuts. With a minimum of expense and preparation time, either of these lovely steaming cups can be made for small parties or intimate gatherings, ideally served in front of a fireplace or while watching a good Dickens mini-series. Cheers!
*For more information on the differences between Stilton and Stichelton, click here.
Julie Cappellano is the General Manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.