Negus and Ratafia

Negus and Ratafia

Negus is the name of a drink made of wine, most commonly port, mixed with hot water, spiced and sugared. This mulled wine, created by Colonel Francis Negus (d.1732), was served at the balls in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and The Watsons, and noted in other classic literature such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Negus comes up a lot in the novels of Charles Dickens: Fezziwig serves it at his party in A Christmas Carol, and Miss Potterson of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters (the delightfully dreary riverside pub in Our Mutual Friend) is a fan.

This beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other.  …  The wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it.  ~  Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

1 bottle of port
25 fl oz (750 ml) water
1–2 tbsp brown sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
About 1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Optional extra spices: 1 cinnamon stick and/or 8 whole cloves
Segments of orange and lemon, to serve

1) Put the water in a saucepan and add the lemon zest, a tablespoon of sugar and the spices. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer very gently for 10–15 minutes. Add the lemon juice.

2) Strain, return to the saucepan and reheat. Add the port; taste it, and add a little more sugar if you like. Pour in the port and heat very gently to serving temperature. Put slices of lemon and/or orange into glasses before pouring in the Negus — or serve it from a pitcher (jug).

Ratafia is defined as a sweet cordial liqueur flavored with fruit kernels or almonds. Origins are uncertain, flavors ranged from cherry to herbal, recipes varied, and in time “ratafia” came to denote any alcoholic or aromatic water. During the Regency, ratafia was a wine, or more often brandy, based drink infused with spices, herbs, and fruits. Along with orgeat and negus, ratafia was a popular drink at Almack’s Assembly.

ratafia quinces
Quince ratafia

Ratafia originated in France as a homemade elixir imbibed when ratifying treaties and other business transactions. Perhaps this use played a part in the unusual name, although most etymology sources trace to the Arabic araq, literally “sweet, juice” used of native liquors in Eastern countries. In France the most commonly used fruit to flavor ratafia was a quince, and vodka, cognac, and wine were equally popular for the base liquor.

Other sources of historical alcoholic beverages note ratafia as a traditional Spanish drink. One fascinating legend from Catalonia in Spain recounts a tale of three bishops meeting to discuss an issue of a small territorial council. After signing the final agreement they asked for a drink to quench their thirst. The fruity concoction served in three glasses was new to the bishops, and they liked it immensely. Upon learning that the locals had no name for it, one of the bishop’s quipped, “Rata fiat!”, which is Latin for “It is signed!” The legend ends with this quote by Jacint Verdaguer, a Catalán poet: “…this Catalán liqueur, which is the most Catalán of all liqueurs, was baptized with a Latin name, and that name is known everywhere.”

Wherever ratafia originated, and however the name was given, what is clear is the wide array of recipes. Simply put, ratafia can be made with just about any liquor — or even grape juice allowed to ferment with the infused fruits and spices — and literally any mixture of fruits, spices, nuts, and herbs can be added. The only true common trait is a length of time for the ingredients to blend and ferment.

ratafia infusing

A Google search for “Ratafia recipes” will yield dozens of results. The following recipe for ratafia is in Robert’s Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff, published in 1828.

1 quart brandy
1/2 pint cherry juice
1/2 pint currant juice
1/2 pint raspberry juice
Cinnamon sticks

1) Into one quart of brandy pour half a pint of cherry juice, as much currant juice, as much of raspberry juice, add a few cloves, and some white pepper in grains, two grains of green coriander, and a stick or two of cinnamon.

2) Pound the stones of cherries, and put them in wood and all. Add about twenty-five or thirty kernels of apricots.

3) Stop your demijohn close (translation: place into an airtight container) and let it infuse for one month in the shade (refrigerator), shaking it five or six times in that time at the end of which strain it through a flannel bag, then through a filtering paper, and then bottle it and cork close for use; you can make any quantity you chose, only by adding or increasing more brandy or other ingredients.




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