Lovely, lovely basil

About 5 years ago, M and I visited Lyon, the self-proclaimed gastronomic capital of France (along with a few other places). Altogether a grand place to sally around for a few days, for me one of the highlights was a restaurant which advertised that it specialised in la cuisine de nos ancêtres. Clearly, this was like a flame to my moth, so we booked – and in booking ended up in a conversation with the chef-patron, who was a medievalist (and I get going around 1650). Long ish story, brilliant outcome – when we rocked up a couple of evenings later, he’d done me my own menu, going as late as he felt happy with in terms of his experience of historic cookery. This wasn’t just ‘inspired by’ either – although the place offered a modern (well, standard French) menu, most of it was cooked on chafing stoves and over a wood fire, or spit-roasted. Pant-wettingly exciting to a food historian, anyway.

The point of that preamble is that as part of this rather unique meal (I can find no trace of the restaurant online now, and fear it has since disappeared, along with its scholarly and brilliant chef that night), included as an apéro, basil wine.

Basil wine may sound a bit odd. It probably is a bit odd, if you only ever drink kir or beer before a meal. But it was absolutely divine. I love basil anyway, and this was slightly honeyed (not too much – honey, ik), palette-cleansing and appetite whetting all at once. I drank, I loved, I asked where you could get it….and of course he’d made his own.

Cue about three years of obsessing. Eventually, perusing Maria Rundell, I found a recipe for clary wine. And this is where I and books diverge. Let’s face it, there’s no such thing as historic cookery, there’s just cookery. And there should be no surprise that some old recipes taste good, because some new recipes taste good. And some, old and new, don’t. And tastes change. And, a crucial point for the study of cookery in the past, recipe books don’t tell us everything. If I were to pick a load of recipes books off your shelf, would I truly get a picture of how you eat? Even if you’ve annotated the recipes you’ve done (and many people don’t), I’d never pick up all the recipes you cook and which aren’t in those books – the instinctive ones, the ones you don’t need to look up, and the ones which have moved so far from how they were originally written that no one would guess how they started. Recipe books are great! But they can only ever be a starting point and a way of generalising about experience, past and present. A recipe is a snapshot – kind of realistic, but always filtered through the viewer’s personal experience, by which I mean, in this instance, likes, dislikes, what’s in the cupboard…. There is quite simply no guarantee anyone, ever, actually cooked any recipe written in any cookery book unless you have cast iron proof to the contrary. And then they may have changed it next time they cooked it.

All that is simply justification for my total bastardisation of Rundell’s recipe in the name of wanting basil wine. Mainly, purists will doubtless point out, that fact that pretty much all herbal wines use flowers, not leaves. Yeah, well, I had leaves, ok. And I had to scale it down. A lot. So, Annie’s mash up of what is probably a very nice recipe is as follows:

4pt water – 1.5lb sugar – 2fl oz yeast – 12fl oz  basil leaves. Later – 4fl oz brandy. I take a pint to be the old pint, I.e. 16fl oz, and yes, that is a liquid measurement for dry leaves. Don’t pack them in too tightly. And yes, I use about a third of a tsp, maybe half as I’m a bit crap at measuring, of powdered yeast, with a little lukewarm water.

All you do is simmer the water and sugar together to make a weak syrup and leave to cool completely. Stick this in a demi-john and add the yeast and basil leaves, no need to tear or chop. Put one of those plastic corks with a thing with water in it on top to keep out nasties and allow bubbles to escape as it ferments (I’m sure there’s a technical term). Leave for a bit – I did 2 weeks the first time, two months the second and I can’t remember the last batch. Eventually it will stop bubbling. Strain the liquid off into a big bowl/bucket and discard the basil (see – if you’d’ve chopped it, it would be a total arse to get out of your demi-john now). Add the brandy. Bottle – kilner style bottles are safest as two of my batches underwent secondary fermentation and became basil champagne. Leave for 4 months.

I have no idea how alcoholic it is, but I get fairly happy after two glasses…..

Here, for reference, is the original.

Maria Rundell, 1818 edition