The Mulled Wine
The old ticking clock in the bookcase tells me I have a few minutes. One last check through the rooms of the cottage. Yes, all the pillows plumped, all the candles lit. Cakes and chocolates, cheese and grapes sit on crystal platters amongst lilies and roses, red berries and branches of fir. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols plays softly in the background. Christmas in every corner of the house. I curl up in a favourite chair to await the arrival of my guests and hear a raw December wind swirling round past the windows in sharp gusts that make the wind chimes sing carols of their own and just as I’m lost in a reverie of other Christmases, other songs, I hear them. Car doors slamming, laughing voices coming up the walk. I open the door to smiling, cold weather faces.
A funny thing happens at The House of Edward with every party I give. I lose complete control of my guests. I greet them warmly, I take their coats, and before I turn around, they’re off. I find some in the library, some in the snug. A few are staring at the night sky painted on the guest room ceiling whilst one has found the old porter’s chair in my bedroom and is now deep inside its tufted leather with his feet propped up on the star-shaped ottoman. There is laughter coming from the living room where a few are gathered round the bird tree. Oohs and ahhs emanate from the corner of the bedroom where the tree with the collection of glass grapes sparkles midst the fairy lights and tartan ribbons. The large tree by the fireplace, overladen with trinkets of every shape and size is surrounded by young and old as they point out each bauble to one another. I once found one old gentleman in a paisley chair looking at pop-up books.
And then, just as everyone has scattered to the four corners of the cottage, the back door flies open, letting in a rush of arctic air and two furry, cold-nosed sheepdogs. Edward and Apple, who love parties more than life, burst through to vociferous greetings from all. The stars of the evening, they make the rounds to every delighted guest, welcoming each one with their own unique brand of honest hospitality, and just like that, as happens every time, I have lost all control of my party.
Sometimes I think of galas thrown by the likes of Brooke Astor or Pamela Harriman. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the same scene occurring at one of their fabled gatherings. I see place cards and formality, muffled conversation and polite, practiced smiles. Not the raucous laughter I now hear coming from somewhere in the vicinity of my office. Not the happy bark I just heard bursting from my bedroom. Ah well, I think, as I stand all alone in the kitchen, people seem to be having a whale of a time.
But I do have a secret weapon of sorts that never falls to round them all up in short order. Removing the lid of the fat, red pot simmering on the stove, I began to ladle out my holiday mulled wine into glass mugs. The fragrance of star anise and clove, cinnamon, apple, and red, red wine begins to drift through the kitchen and down every hallway and, sure enough, here they all come... one by one, two by two, into the kitchen for a mug of their own. I’m telling you, this mulled wine does it every time, though I cannot take credit for the recipe.... it’s from the always reliable Ina Garten and I highly recommend it for this weekend. Keep a pot on the stove and for goodness sakes, make enough! You’ll want some just for you when everyone has left.
8 Cups Apple Cider
2 (750-ml) bottles good red wine, preferably Cabernet Sauvignon
1/2 Cup Honey
4 Cinnamon Sticks
2 Oranges, zested and juiced
8 Whole Cloves
6 Star Anise
Oranges, peeled for garnish (I sometimes use Clementines for this)
Combine the cider, wine, honey, cinnamon sticks, zest, juice, cloves and star anise in large pot. Bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or so. Pour into mugs and add an orange peel to each and serve.