Wine of the gods

An exquisite drink from the seventeenth century


Bacchus (1595), by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Uffizi Museum, Florence)During the seventeenth century a meal was often concluded by drinking spiced wine to stimulate the digestion. Hippocras was such a drink, which was already known during the Middle Ages. But there were other kinds of spiced wine as well. Vin des dieux ('wine of the gods') is such a spiced wine, and even today the recipe can be found on the (French) internet.

The recipe of François La Varenne in Le confiturier François from 1660 is uncomplicated: wine, add slices of russet apples and lemons, add sugar, strain and serve. On this page is a slightly more recent version that is probably the source of the modern internet-version, with cloves and orange blossom water added as extra ingredients. The recipe is from the third edition of L'Escole parfaite des officiers de bouche from 1676. The first edition appeared in 1662.

The appealing youngster on the left is the wine god Bacchus or Dionysus as painted in 1595 by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610).

L'Escole parfaite des officiers de Bouche (1662, reprinted until 1742)
The book L'Escole parfaite des officiers de Bouche is actually a collection of texts that describe the several tasks pertaining to the table of the large household of standing. Several offices are described in the sub title: "contenant le vray maistre-d'hostel, le grand escuyer-tranchant, le sommelier royal, le confiturier royal, le cuisinier royal, et le patissier royal" (see title page below).

Title page of the third edition of the Escole parfaite des officiers de bouche (1676)The maître-d'hôtel - He is the supervisor of the kitchen (la cuisine) and the 'cold kitchen' (l'office): the personnel, the equipment, the purchase of goods and foodstuffs as well as the organization of the meals belong to his tasks. This means planning the menus, laying and decorating the table, serving the dishes and making sure the eaters have clean hands. The maître-d'hôtel is indeed the master of the household, all persons described below answer to him.
The carver - This part teaches how to carve and serve all manner of fowl, meat, fish, game and some fruit. It is illustrated with engravings to make it more comprehensive.
The sommelier - He is responsible for laying the table (with knives and spoons, there is no mention of forks!), folding the napkins in appealing forms, arranging the buffet, and making sure the wine is served cold.
The chef d'office - He supervises the office, the 'cold kitchen'. This is where the dishes for the last course, the dessert, are prepared: fruit, comfits, confectionery. The chapters in this part show the widely differing tasks from the cold kitchen: preparing compotes, fruit paste, marmalades, cookies, marzipan, dried conserves, wet conserves, fruit jellies, more dried preparations, crèmes, syrups, distilled waters and spiced wines and how to make ice, the preparation of tea, chocolate and coffee, ratafia, perfumes, fragrant 'candles', hair powder and hair wash, make-up for skin and lips (pomades). The chef d'office appears to be a combination of a hairdresser, chemist, barman, ice-cream vendor and confectioner, all in one person.
The kitchen chef
- This section presents the actual kitchen recipes, with the appropiate season and the place in the menu for all kinds of meat, fish and vegetables both on meat days (en gras) and on fish days (en maigre).
The pastry baker - The last part deals with baked food, especially the savoury dishes that are served during the first or main course. It begins with recipes for savoury and sweet dough, followed by recipes for cold and hot pasties and tarts either with meat or fish or with vegetables or nuts, and deep-fried pastry (fritters and choux). The final chapter gives suggestions for a formal meal and an ambigue, during which meat and dessert are served simultaneously.

According to Barbara Ketcham Wheaton (Savouring the past) the composer of L'Escole parfaite has made ample use of older publications. She calls him a 'plagiarist' rather than a writer. The oldest source of L'Escole dates from 1555 and is called the Livre fort excellent de cuysine. The success of L'Escole parfaite was probably due to the combination of the different aspects of running a large and noble household in one volume. L'Escole parfaite was reprinted several times between 1662 and 1742, but from 1708 onwards most obsolete recipes were left out. The recipe for 'Vin des dieux' survived this revision, and can also be found in later editions.

The original recipe
This version of vin des dieux is from the third edition of L'Escole parfaite des officiers de bouche published in 1676 (p.239/240). The first edition dates back to 1662, but I have not seen that text. The same recipe is used in Das Kochbuch der Renaissance by H-P von Peschke and W. Feldmann, where it has been erroneously ascribed to La Varenne. La Varenne's recipe, without cloves and orange blossom water, can be found in Le confiturier François (1660, recipe IV.6).

Vin des Dieux
Ayez deux gros Citrons, pelez-les & les coupez pat tranches, avec deux Pommes de Reynette pelées & coupées de mesme que les Citrons : mettez le tout dans un plat, avec trois quarterons de sucre en poudre, une chopine de Vin de Bourgogne, six Cloux de Girofle, un peu d'eau de fleur d'Orange ; couvrez bien le tout, & le laissez tremper deux ou trois heures ; passez-le dans une chausse comme l'Hypocras : si vous voulez, ambrez-le, & le musquez aussi comme l'Hypocras, & vous le trouverez excellent.
Wine of the gods
Have two fat lemons, peel them and cut them in slices with two Russet apples, peeled and cut the same way as the lemons. Put everything in a dish, with three quarter pounds powdered sugar, a pint of Burgundy wine, six cloves, a little orange flower water. Cover all this well, and let it steep two or three hours. Pass it through a stocking like hypocras. If you like, add amber and musk, also like hypocras, and you will find it excellent.

Modern adaptation of the recipe Print the recipe
For my adaptation I have taken half the amount of fruit, and left out the animal aromatics ambergris and musk. These aromatics are practically unavailable. Regarding straining through a stocking (or sleeve): you could use a nylon stocking for straining the wine.
For 1 bottle; preparation in advance 15 minutes plus two hours waiting; preparation 10 minutes.

Wine of the godsIngredients
1 bottle of wine (choose a simple pinot noir)
1 russet apple (BE Bramley or Roman Beauty AE according to my dictionary)
1 lemon
100 gram (3/4 cup) icing sugar
5 cloves
1/2 deciliter (3 Tbsp + 1 tsp) orange flower water

Preparation in advance
Peel the apple, remove the core, and cut into slices.
Peel the lemon and make sure you also remove the pith (the white part under the thin yellow skin). Slice the lemon and remove the seeds.
In the original text the fruit and wine steep in a shallow dish. But fruit floats, and there is a large surface for the wine to oxidise. You can prevent this by covering the wine directly with a sheet of plastic foil, or lessen it by using a carafe, with some cloves between them. In that case, divide the slices into quarters. Put alternating layers of apple and lemon in the dish or carafe, with sugar and cloves in between. Pour the wine over it, and the orange flower water. Let this rest in the refrigerator for two hours.

Strain the wine through a stocking, cloth or a coffee filter into a decorative carafe, or back into the original wine bottle, and keep in the refrigerator. You can also leave the fruit in, and strain the wine through a tea sieve directly into the glass.

To serve
Chilled as aperitif or digestive.

What to do with the fruit
The apple slices can be nibbled. But, being drenched in wine, they are not suitable as a children's snack. The apple pieces can also be used to make an apple pie or apple fritters. I do not think many people will want to eat the lemon.

All descriptions of ingredients

AmbergrisAmbergris - Not to be confused with amber that is a resin. Just like musk (a secretion of the gonads of the musk deer and some other animals), ambergris was used in medieval Arab dishes, but now they are mainly ingredients for perfumes. You could say ambergris is a pellet of the sperm-whale. It is a wax-like substance in which indigestible remains like the beaks of squid are encapsulated. From time to time the sperm-whale emits large pellets, just to be rid of them. 'Fresh' ambergris smells of shit (manure, if you think that sounds better) and has a dark colour. Influenced by sunlight, salt water, and air the ambergris matures. It looks lighter, greyish, and the smell gets to resemble isopropanol (that is what Wikipedia says). Ambergris is one of the ingredients of Chanel no.5.
You can find ambergris washed ashore on ocean beaches, or fish it up from the sea if you are lucky. If you want to buy some, be prepared to pay a lot. There is a vegetable substitute, labdanum resinoid, the purified resin of the cistus rose (Cistus labdanifer), that can be used instead of ambergris (this also happens in the perfume industry).
Russet apples - The russet family is large, so there are many varieties. In French (and Dutch) these apples are called reinettes. According to the French Wikipedia the oldest mention of a Reinette dates back to 1540. There are two theories on the meaning of the name. Either it simply means 'queen of apples' (from the French reine, 'queen'), or the name is derived from ranette, a diminutive of rana [de grenouille], the spots on the belly of a frog. Indeed, russet apples have a speckled skin.
Hypocras - Spiced wine. In the Middle Ages hippocras was served as a digestive at the end of a meal. There are many different recipes for hippocras, one of which is this French recipe for hippocras from the fourteenth century.
Musk deer, woodcut from the Hortus Sanitatis (1490). Source: WikipediaMusk - Aromatic substance from animal origin that is now used mainly in perfumes and fragrances. The Arab cuisine made use of it in the kitchen during the Middle Ages as a spice. In Europe musk was in culinary use during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is practically impossible to buy musk, and that is a good thing. Musk is obtained by killing the musk deer, which is now almost extinct. So the industry mainly uses synthetic musk, and the kitchen can do well enough without it.
Pinot Noir - During the fourteenth century Burgundy wine was improved because the duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Hardi (Philip the Bold, 1342-1404) ordered all vineyards to replace the Gamay grape by Pinot Noir.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)