Europe in summertime is out of reach for most Cape Codders — it’s our busy time, and there’s too much work here to leave the Cape in June. I’ve learned to travel for the holidays instead. Winter days in Europe are short, but the nights are brightly lit, and the stone streets and plazas are filled with cafés and Christmas markets. At the best of them you’ll find handcrafted items you’ve never seen before.
Regardless of what’s for sale, it’s a good idea to begin and end at the hot drinks stand. In Germany, that means spiced wine. The first cup warms your limbs, gives everything you see a sparkle, and makes decisions about what to buy so very much easier. The second cup is for taking a seat and slowing down to chat about everything you saw and loved that day.
After my first Christmas trip, I started making spiced wine at home. It’s absurdly easy, and it makes an ordinary dinner into a celebration. It can replace or enhance dessert, and it creates that after-dinner space for lingering that is so important when darkness falls at 4:30 p.m.
After my next trip, I gave each household in my family a spiced wine kit for Christmas. It may not have been everyone’s favorite gift that year, but now when I visit, I can whip up a batch without having to shop.
The wine you use shouldn’t be expensive. You can use any red, and especially a red blend, but I do think syrah is ideal. You’re looking for something that is fruit-forward and vibrant, because you’ll be adding the spicy notes. I have learned, through trial and error and against my own nature, to take it easy with the spices. Too much and you’ll just need more honey to balance them out.
If you don’t have honey on hand, use good maple syrup. I’ve settled on the mix of spices here, but strictly speaking no single ingredient is required. The star anise does impart an herbal, mysterious quality that’s hard to replace. Cardamom is a magical spice that you should add to your cabinet, but if you don’t have it on hand, don’t let that hold you back.
3 or 4 bottles red wine
3 black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pod star anise
1 cardamom pod, crushed
1 cup honey or good maple syrup
Fresh orange zest for garnish
Pour the red wine into a large pot and warm it over low heat. Don’t let it simmer — heating it to just below that will release the flavor of the spices without damaging the wine.
If you have a mesh tea strainer, put all the spices in it except the cinnamon stick. Or just toss them all into the pot. They’re easy to fish out later with a slotted spoon.
After 15 minutes, add two tablespoons of honey per bottle of wine, stir, and sweeten further to taste. This should not be a challenging cup — it should be like a warm blanket, something you want to roll around in. It will take more honey than you expect.
Once the wine is ladled into a cup, my household demands a zest of orange peel about two inches long to make the drink complete. I think that makes it taste like perfume. Have it your way.