The Regency gentleman was well provided for when it came to drinks – brandy, port, claret flowed like water. But a lady, naturally, couldn’t be seen knocking back the hard stuff, could she? A daring glass of Champagne, a few delicate sips of wine with dinner and a glass of sherry for the dowagers were all acceptable, but after that it was lemonade and something innocuous like ratafia.
At least, I had assumed ratafia was innocuous until I came face to face with a bottle while buying wine last week at my favourite Burgundian cave. 18 per cent alcohol, it said on the label.
That sent me back to the original recipe books and, sure enough, alcoholic it most certainly was.
Here is the recipe from Domestic Cookery of 1812.
Blanch two ounces of peach and apricot kernels, bruise, and put them into a bottle, and fill nearly up with brandy. Dissolve half a pound of white sugar-candy in a cup of cold water, and add to the brandy after it has stood a month on the kernels, and they are strained off; then filter through paper, and bottle for use. The leaves of peaches and nectarines, when the trees are cut in the spring, being distilled, are an excellent substitute for ratafia in puddings.
It sounds as though it was sweet. Perhaps that meant everyone concerned could pretend it wasn’t strong enough to make a lady tipsy if she had more than a small glass!
Ratafia desserts appear to have been popular and range from alcoholic versions to innocent concoctions that retained the almond flavour without the alcohol. Here are three receipts for Ratafia Cream from the same recipe book:
Blanch a quarter of an ounce of bitter almonds, and beat them with a tea-spoonful of water in a marble mortar; then rub with the paste two ounces of lump sugar, and simmer ten minutes with a tea-cup of cream, which add to a quart more of cream, and having strained, ice it.
Boil three or four laurel leaves [bay leaves??]; peach or nectarine leaves, in a full pint of cream; strain it; and when cold, add the yolks of three eggs beaten and strained, sugar, and a large spoonful of brandy stirred quick into it. Scald till thick, stirring all the time.
Mix half a quarter of a pint of ratafia, the same quantity of mountain wine [Madeira], the juice of two or three lemons, a pint of rich cream, and as much sugar as will make it pleasantly-flavoured. Beat it with a whisk, and put it in glasses. This cream will keep eight or ten days.
I like the sound of the last one! If you would like to nibble a biscuit while getting genteelly cast-away on your ratafia, there is even a recipe for Ratafia Drops, which sound rather good.
Blanch and beat in a mortar four ounces of bitter, and two ounces of sweet almonds, with a little of a pound of sugar sifted, and add the remainder of the sugar, and the whites of two eggs, making a paste; of which put little balls, the size of a nutmeg, on wafer-paper, and bake gently on tin plates.
Now, of course, I must drink my bottle of ratafia – purely in the interests of research, you understand. Hic!