Years ago, I came across a book called “Apertif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style” by Georgeanne Brennan. At the time, I was an extremely poor student who had just returned from blowing all my savings on a trip through Europe, and I was thrilled to find the book at a fire sale (literally – it’s still a bit sooty) at my local bookstore. The author describes beautifully the significance and tradition of the apertif in French culture, and is full of gorgeous photos (by Kathryn Kleinman) and recipes for various “vins maison” or homemade fortified wines.
One day during my trip, when I was in a little town called Saintes Maries des le Mer, I met a couple who ended up inviting me to their grandmother’s house for lunch. Before the lunch (which turned out to be a delicious ratatouille, crusty bread and cheese) the grandmother offered us an apertif, and brought out a bottle of her homemade artichoke wine. I had never tasted anything like it (nor have I since) and I fell in love with the idea of these artisan, house-made drinks.
After reading more about it, I also fell in love with the tradition of the apertif, the brief social gathering that takes place before lunch or dinner throughout much of the Mediterranean. It is a fairly defined custom in which time is set aside to socialize with friends and family – including children – and share a drink (alcoholic or not, and generally not very strong) and light snacks before the meal. So civilized! Every once in a while when Dave and I have had a long day, we’ll come home, put on some jazz, set out some olives and cheeses, pour a glass of wine and just sit and talk and unwind. It’s a deliberate, conscious effort to calm down, connect and enjoy ourselves. And it works. I always feel better and more centered.
The book doesn’t have a recipe for artichoke wine, but it does have a number of delicious and exotic sounding vins maison, including one called Vin Marquis, which I have made several times over the years. A lot of the recipes call for things that aren’t readily available to me (like green walnuts and the leaves and blossoms from a peach tree), but the Vin Marquis is an easy one and I decided to make some yesterday. The recipe is large, but since the wine needs to age for 6 months I’ll often make it in May or June and then share it with people at Christmas (or give it as presents).
This recipe calls for 7 bottles of medium-dry white wine (I use Sauvingon Blanc, but the recipe calls for Chenin Blanc or Riesling), 7 oranges (I used 2 tangerines this time, just to mix it up), 1 lemon, 4 1/4 cups sugar, 1 vanilla bean and 3 3/4 cup vodka. You roughly chop the oranges and the lemons, and combine all in a very large (or 2 large) wide-mouth jars. Store in a cool dark place (I use the refridgerator) for 40 days, stirring every other day or so. After 40 days, strain the wine through a seive lined with cheesecloth into a clean non-reactive bowl discarding all fruit.
Wash the bottles and sterilize them, either by submerging in water in a pot and boiling for 10 minutes, or by putting them in a cold oven, setting the temp to 250º and baking for 30 minutes. Use new corks and soften them by soaking in boiling water for several minutes. Using a funnel, fill the bottles to the bottom of the neck and cork. I have a little tool for this – the Handy – that I got at a wine supply store, but you can do it manually too (it’s just tough). Store the wine for at least 6 months before drinking.
Oh – and the strawberry brandy is finally ready! Yum!