Saturday, December 17, 2016

Lamb’s Wool and Smoking Bishop: Christmas Punch Traditions

No “Christmas Gambols” would be complete
without a bowl of punch (1783)
In my last post I talked about how Christmas traditions in Britain and North America changed from the 18th to the 19th century, as the holiday became more domestic and child-centric. One thing that remained constant, however, was the place of punch in Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Closely related to the tradition of wassail (a mulled cider or ale also known as lamb’s wool) punch obtained an almost iconic status in the 19th century through the writings of Charles Dickens.

Punch itself has its origins in India, and its first mention in European historical sources comes in a letter from one English East India merchant to another, written in 1632. From India it spread, via merchants and sailors, to the Caribbean, and on to the eastern seaboard of America and to Europe. There is some speculation that the word “punch” derives from the Hindi word panch, meaning five, for the five ingredients, but many punches have more or fewer ingredients.

Majolica punch bowl by George Jones, ca. 1875
Mr. Punch supports an orange-rind bowl
In any case, by the early 18th century, punch had settled into a consistent formula: one measure of something acid (usually citrus juice), two of something sweet (sugar), three of something strong (brandy, rum, sometimes wine), and four of something weak (water, tea, milk). In the 19th century, punch recipes began to change again. As punch historian Elizabeth Gabay notes, “The fixed proportions were no longer always followed; many different fruits, liqueurs, wines, and even beer were added and generally punches became less acidic and more sweet and rich. At the same time, the nature of Christmas and New Year celebrations changed, becoming more dramatic and ritualised. The same punch every year became an essential part of the festivity.” Special punch bowls and cups, intended to be used just for the holidays, also became common.

Scrooge and Bob Cratchit
Illustration by John Leech (1843)
Charles Dickens’s descriptions of yuletide celebrations, particularly Christmas Carol (1843), helped to solidify punch’s status as central to the holiday. Scrooge sees a vision of an ideal Christmas, which includes “seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.” At the end of the story, a reformed Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” Smoking bishop was made with port and a roasted orange; Dickens himself seemed to prefer a rum punch:

“To make three pints, take a strong, common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) and in it place the finely sliced rinds of three lemons, a double-handful of sugar lumps, a pint of dark rum and a large wine glass of brandy. Set alight and allow to burn for three or four minutes (extinguish by covering with a lid). Add the juice of three lemons and a quart of boiling water. Stir, cover, leave for five minutes and stir again. Taste and sweeten if necessary, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour into an ovenproof jug or bowl and cover with a leather cloth. Place in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Remove the lemon rind before serving.”

In the American colonies, punch developed in its own way, eventually producing that classic Christmas drink, eggnog. Egg punch was common in Britain, but the Americans made it richer and more custard-like. One observer in 1815 noted that in “the South it is almost indispensible at Christmas time, and at the North it is a favourite at all seasons.” George Washington’s recipe for eggnog included rye whiskey, Jamaican rum, sherry, eggs, sugar, cream, and milk. Eggs and milk were harder to come by in the winter, and more expensive, so eggnog was a true holiday treat.

Pressed glass miniature punch bowl and cups,
probably late 19th century
There are a number of large bowls in Alice’s ceramics collection that look like they could hold a fine batch of punch, but none that are specifically identified as such. There is, however, a very small punch bowl, with six matching thimble-sized cups. This miniature set would have been a salesman’s sample, carried by a traveling sales representative of the manufacturer to display to potential retailers. Perhaps it was passed on to a lucky child after the model was discontinued, to be the star of a dolls’ Christmas party!

This post is largely drawn from the site A History of the World Through a Bowl of Punch, particularly the post “Celebrating Christmas and New Year with Punch.” This blog holds a wealth of information about punch, including recipes!

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