Friday, May 12, 2006

Bordeaux and the rest.

On May 15th …

The Exposition Universelle de Paris began on this day in 1855, and its enduring legacy has been the Bordeaux Classification of wine. The Exposition was France’s response to England’s Great Exhibition of 1851, and naturally they wanted to upstage their historic rivals. The obvious thing to do was to showcase French wine, and the Bordeaux Wine Brokers' Union was given the task of developing a classification system to accompany the display.

The good men ranked sixty-one wines in five classes or “growths” (crus) for red wines – all from the Medoc region apart from Château Haut-Brion from Graves - and two for white wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Within each class the wines were again ranked according to quality, which essentially equated to price. In spite of ongoing controversy about its relevance and its resistance to modification, the classification is still in use 150 years later.

Members of the jury who were lucky enough to taste them all apparently commented:

The Wines of Bordeaux give tone to the stomach, while leaving the mouth fresh and the head clear. More than one invalid abandoned by the doctors has been seen to drink the good old wine of Bordeaux and return to health.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, for most drinkers it would still be simply “claret”. There must have been a significant amount of indifferent claret in England at the time, if the number of recipes to “flavour” it are any guide.

Dr. William Kitchiner (1775-1827) was one of the wealthy eccentrics that England does so well. He was an enthusiastic cook, and his book “The Cook’s Oracle” (1817) went to many editions, which is not surprising because it is a very readable, delightful mix of recipes, advice, common sense and gossip.

In case you have some indifferent claret (or “burgundy” or tokay), here are a couple of ideas from his book.

Chili, or Cayenne Wine.
Pound and steep fifty fresh Red Chilies, or a quarter of an ounce of Cayenne Pepper, in half a pint of Brandy, White Wine, or Claret, for fourteen days.

Essence of Allspice for Mulling of Wine:
Oil of Pimento, a drachm, apothecaries measure; Strong spirit of wine, two ounces.
Mixed by degrees: a few drops will give the flavour of Allspice to a pint of Gravy, - or Mulled Wine, - or to make a
Bishop. Mulled wine made with Burgundy is called Bishop; with old Rhenish wine, Cardinal; and with Tokay, Pope.

Tomorrow: Saintly Pastry.

Quotation for the Day …

“French wines may be said but to pickle meat in the stomach, but this is the wine that digests, and doth not only breed good blood, but it nutrifieth also, being a glutinous substantial liquor; of this wine, if of any other, may be verified that merry induction: That good wine makes good blood, good blood causeth good humors, good humors cause good thoughts, good thoughts bring forth good works, good works carry a man to heaven, ergo, good wine carrieth a man to heaven.”James Howell (1594-1666)

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