Never a Mull Moment
“I’ll mull it over” my mother used to say when she really meant, “No, you may not go to the party.” You can mull over problems, wear a dress trimmed in mull, visit the island of Mull or disastrously mull something up. Better still, you can dispose of your cheap over-the-hill wine by mulling it for the holidays. The word “mulled” in this case means heated and spiced. Any liquid can be mulled, but popular choices include beer, apple cider, mead and wine.
In medieval times mulled wine was served throughout the chilly winters and was considered so healthy that it was called Hipocris or Ypocras in honor of the great physician Hippocrates. Given the less-than-sanitary state of water during the Middle Ages, mulled wines and similar drinks probably did help keep people healthy. Mulled wine was a favorite in Victorian England and negus, a type of sweet mulled wine based on highly alcoholic Port, was even served to children at their birthday parties – leaving tipsy, sugar-buzzed kiddies to mull up their playroom.
There are as many variations of mulled wine as there are for its chilled summer equivalent Sangria, but most involve varying additions of spices, sweeteners, fruit and spirits. Before wine storage and preservation techniques were well understood, wine often went bad rather quickly. By adding such enhancements, the wine could be made drinkable again.
Not surprisingly, warm, mulled beverages have the highest levels of popularity in cool northern European climates. Mulled wine is so beloved in Scandinavia, where it is known as glögg, that bottles of pre-mixed fruit extract, spices and flavoring are sold in supermarkets for quick preparation. As an indication that Lafite and Latour were not always revered with today’s worshipful (i.e. expensive) devotion, cookbooks in the 1500’s described methods of mulling “clarey”, clarey being a reference to claret, the word many Britons use to refer to fine red Bordeaux.
When preparing mulled wine, it is important to note the warming temperature should never exceed boiling point so as to avoid the loss of alcohol – unless, of course, that’s your objective. Spicy mulled white wine can be delicious, but red wine is the most traditional base. Dark spices, such as cloves, cinnamon and star anise are common seasonings. In Romania, peppercorn is sometimes added to their vin fiert, or “boiled wine” and in Moldova, both honey and black pepper are used to prepare mulled wines. Dried citrus peel adds a touch of tangy bitterness. Sugar or honey provides sweetness. Orange slices amplify acidity and brandy additions bump up the alcohol. In many European regions it is common to add almonds and raisins during the warming process, afterwards spreading them onto gingerbread or toast. In Germany mulled wine is known as glühwein, or “glow wine”, which is what happens to your head should you consume too much because mulled wine is invariably based on cheap or overly-mature wines. Perhaps that’s why my mother wouldn’t let me go to the party, choosing to mull it over instead.