Friday, October 18, 2013

Ratafia: Not as Weak As You Might Think

Writers of books set in the early nineteenth century often talk about how there's history--facts and dates chronicled with exacting care--and then there's the shared world readers have come to expect based on countless other books set in that period.  One of those shared-world ideas is the notion that ratafia--a fruity drink--is weak disgusting punch that causes any heroine worth her salt to turn up her nose.  I certainly have used a character's response to ratafia more than once to show personality.  So I was surprised this week to run into a recipe for red ratafia, dated 1764, that didn't quite match my own expectations.

Take of black-heart cherries 24 pounds; black cherries, 4 pounds; raspberries and strawberries of each 3 pounds.

Any liquid that includes three pounds of raspberries is okay in my book.

Pick these fruits from their stalks, and bruise them, in which condition let them continue 12 hours; press out the juice, and, to every pint of it, add a quarter of a pound of sugar.

A quarter of a pound of sugar per pint?  Now we're talking.

When the sugar is dissolved, run the whole through the filtrating bag, and add to it three quarts of clean proof spirits.

Tradition has it that ratafia was made with brandy, but I consulted a chef I know and she said that "clean proof spirits" might have been a clearer alcohol like gin.  Either way, it's still a relatively small amount compared to the amount of juice from all that fruit.

Then take of cinnamon, four ounces; of mace, an ounce; and of cloves, two drams. Bruise these spices, put them into an alembic, with a gallon of clean proof spirits, and two quarts of water, and draw off a gallon with a brisk fire.

Now, there's the first mention of water, which in my mind is what would have made the ratafia as insipid as it is usually described.  But notice that those two quarts of water are going against a gallon of alcohol, plus it's being boiled away over a fire.  I understand this is considered a distillation.  According to my friendly chef, today's alcohol might be distilled several times along the way, making it more potent.

Add as much of this spicy spirit to your ratafia as will render it agreeable to your palate; about one fourth is the usual proportion.

So, we're adding spiced liqueur to fruit juice and sugar in alcohol.  It is possible compared to other alcoholic drinks at the time that this would be considered a weak drink, but it would still have packed plenty of punch (pardon the pun).

I wondered too whether ratafia might have evolved over the years.  Perhaps what was a strong drink in 1764 had weakened considerably by the middle of the nineteenth century.  However, I found nearly identical recipes in a popular British encyclopedia from 1797 until at least 1823.

And now I have a whole new respect for those frilly little ladies sipping their ratafia!


Helena said...

It sounds yummy! I think I'd prefer it without the alcohol - but I suppose that then the fruit juices would go off. I wonder if one could specify which alcohol base one preferred, as one can with Pimms (vodka or gin).

Regina Scott said...

I suppose if you were making the ratafia, you could choose which type of "clean proof spirits" to use. Otherwise, you'd have to drink whatever the hostess had called to be made up. And I quite agree--just the fruit juice part sounds good to me!

Vigo said...

in Catalonia (Spain) the ratafĂ­a is a very traditional drink, and it is easy to find many recipes online and work it out.

Interesting blog, sorry that my English is rather poor. :S


Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Vigo! Appreciate you commenting!