Monday, August 17, 2009

Roman Punch.

I became intrigued, as I pored over bills of fare during the research for my book Menus from History (available soon, I hope), as to what, exactly, was the story behind ‘Roman Punch’ - virtually an obligatory item at any dinner of any importance during the nineteenth century.

Punch has been featured on several occasions before on this blog. We have learned about the word ‘punch’ (including a recipe for St Barbara’s Artillery Punch), and we have enjoyed punch at a Prohibition Repeal dinner and punch on St Cecilia’s Day, and about Milk Punch. We have even had a recipe already for Roman Punch, in an amusing story about teetotal Presidential dinner. What we have not had is an explanation of ‘Roman’.

As with other punches, Roman Punch was served mid-way through the meal – sometimes semi-frozen, like a granita or sorbet – to cleanse the palate for what was to follow. There does not seem to be any single specific formula, although citrus seems to be an essential ingredient. So, why ‘Roman’? Here is one theory, from the Epicure’s Almanac; or, Diary of good living, by B.E.Hill, 1842.

The history of Ponch a la Romaine is somewhat curious, and deserves a mention. It had been, for nearly a century, the summer refreshment of successive Popes, and their cooks were threatened with the horrors of the Holy Office, if they ventured to impart the secret of its preparation.
The invasion of Italy, by Napoleon, in 1796, served to break through this terrible interdict; a young man named Molas, son to the chief confectioner of Pius the Sixth, no sooner saw the tree of liberty planted in the Eternal City, than he ran away from his father, leaving the pattipans and jelly-bags of the Vatican to their fate, and united his fortunes with those of the conqueror.
Young master Molas became a favourite servant of the ill-starred Josephine; when she died he obtained a situation in the culinary establishment of the Russian Prince, Lieven, and accompanied his Excellency to London, on his appointment as ambassador to our court. The Signer was the first to introduce the papal delicacy in London, and the guests who partook of it, at the Prince's table, were thrown into extacies. The recipe was sent to Carlton-house, in compliance with the wish of the Prince Regent, and his Royal Highness permitted copies to be given to a select few of those he honoured with his friendship; by degrees it became better known, and I remember, about seven years ago, a pastrycook's shop in the Quadrant where this delicious, but insidious punch, was to be eaten in perfection.
A French lady, once enjoying some such ice, is said to have exclaimed, “What a pity that this pleasure is not a sin !” Taste and morality so Parisian can neither need nor merit a comment.

So, ‘Roman’ punch could be called ‘Papal’ punch, perhaps?

The author gives a recipe for a frozen version which is based on another recipe for Punch à la Ford – which comes complete with its own story.

Punch à la Romaine.
Prepare the quantity of sherbet required in the same manner as recommended in the article, “Punch a la Ford.” For every half dozen lemons used, beat up the whites of three eggs, and pour half a pound of boiling clarified sugar upon it; mix this well, and, when perfectly cool, throw in the sherbet; let all be thoroughly iced. When you intend to use it, add spirits in this proportion, - to every six lemons, add half a pint of old Jamaica rum, half a pint of Cognac brandy, and a glass of Maraschino. If you make it in a large quantity, a bottle of Champagne will much improve the flavour. Serve in tall glasses; and if properly made, your mixture should be smooth, white, and as thick as cream.

Punch à la Ford.
(A recipe from Benson E. Hill, Esq., author of The Epicure’s Almanac.)
The late General Ford, who for many years was the commanding engineer at Dover, kept a most hospitable board, and used to make punch on a large scale, after the following method:
He would select three dozen of lemons, the coats of which were smooth, and whose rinds were not too thin ; these he would peel with a sharp knife into a large earthen vessel, taking care that none of the rind should be detached but that portion in which the cells are placed, containing the essential oil; when he had completed the first part of the process, he added two pounds of lump-sugar, and stirred the peel and sugar together with an oar-shaped piece of wood, for nearly half an hour, thereby extracting a greater quantity of the essential oil. Boiling water was next poured into the vessel, and the whole well stirred, until the sugar was completely dissolved. The lemons were then cut and squeezed, the juice strained from the kernels; these were placed in a separate jug, and boiling water poured upon them, the general being aware that the pips were enveloped in a thick mucilage, full of flavor; half the lemon juice was now thrown in; and as soon as the kernels were free from their transparent coating, their liquor ras strained and added.
The sherbet was now tasted; more acid or more sugar applied as required, and care taken not to render the lemonade too watery. “Rich of the fruit, and plenty of sweetness,” was the general's maxim. The sherbet was then measured, and to every three quarts a pint of Cognac brandy and a pint of old Jamaica rum were allotted, the spirit being well stirred as poured in; bottling immediately followed, and, when completed, the beverage was kept in a cold cellar, or tank, till required. At the general's table I have frequently drunk punch thus made, more than six months old; and found it much improved by time and a cool atmosphere.

Interesting, isnt it? we tend to think of ‘punch’ as a freshly-made party beverage today, not a cellared item aged for months.

Quotation for the Day.

I’ve made it a rule never to drink by daylight, and never to refuse a drink after dark.
H.L.Mencken (1880-1956)

1 comment:

Diana vW said...

Hi there!
Do you own a copy of my book The Von Welanetz Guide to Ethnic Ingredients? It has lots of history in it.