THERE are different strokes for different folks when it comes to keeping warm in the bleak mid-winter. For some it's the comfort of a glowing log fire, for others the snug security of a warm goose-down duvet, for others again a beloved furry pussycat purring on your lap.
Whatever it takes to maintain your comfort zone in winter, there's nothing quite like a warming drink to restore your equilibrium and infuse your entire being with a comforting inner glow.
There are many countries that keep winter at bay with heated drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and they tend to be countries at the outer rim of the hemispheres, especially the northern hemisphere.
They are places, in other words, where strong, fiery drinks are essential to keep body and soul together. In Europe that means the Nordic countries of Scandinavia and the Baltic states; in North America, Canada; and in Russia, northern China, and the island of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. It's probably also true of Patagonia in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Nordic nations of Europe drink mulled wine, the onomatopoeic gl?gg in Swedish, gl?gg in Norwegian and Danish and glühwein in German and Dutch. Perhaps best known in the UK in its German manifestation of glühwein, or Christmas in a glass, this is a warming mulled wine, often using Port, claret, burgundy or an Italian red, with spices and fruits.
Its liquid flame reaches deep inside your being to bring comfort and solace to skiers shivering on snowy mountain slopes. For a good recipe, see the box at the end of this article.
The Japanese created the idea of drinking their sake warm, because in the frozen north of a Japanese winter, on Hokkaido especially, what could be more comforting than cupping the choko, or sake cup, in your hands and allowing the heat of the sake to work its magic. And not just in the north.
When I asked Yasuhiro Matsumoto, a sake master brewer, or toji, from the old sake brewing family in Kyoto, what his favorite style of sake was, he said kan zake, i.e. warm sake. Of course the Chinese too often love warm drinks for the way in which they chime with their body temperature.
A flame swallower creates an illusion of warmth, filling the mouth with inflammable liquid and spewing out flame as if it came from deep inside. The opposite effect is achieved by certain styles of wine, which on the face of it might not be warm at all, but which, once swallowed, send a message of inner warmth throughout brain and body, literally warming you from the inner core of your being.
As you may have gathered by now, the sort of wines I'm talking about are wines of power and strength, wines whose alcoholic content is the fuel for the combustible effect they create inside the body. And the most obvious of these comes from Portugal's Douro Valley: Port.
I have a friend who loves going on winter walks with a flask of Port in his coat pocket. The vapor exhaled into the cold air of a winter's morning soon turns to hot steam as he pours himself a sip of Port, a fifth of which consists of alcohol, and of that, a percentage is the pure brandy with which the wine is fortified. The very word fortified says it all.
Yes, in the Port-making process, pure spirit is added to stop the fermentation, leaving a wine that's a distinctive blend of the sweet and the strong. It's that same alcohol combined with a rich and spicy, almost mulled wine-like sweetness that fortifies the human body against the vagaries of a cold winter.
Mulled wine is essentially cooked wine and there is another such wine the very making of which actually involves cooking.
Thanks to the historical accident of becoming heated as it crossed the equator in ships, Madeira from the Portuguese island off the coast of Africa not only survived but became richer and more concentrated.
Called vinho da roda, it became so sought after that Madeira producers recreated the tropical heating process for their best wines by using the canteiro method, that is, oak aging in warm, humid lodges. Many of today's Madeira wines now use steam-heating in a process known as estufagem. With brandy added for extra ageing potential, they can be deliciously warming.
The temperature at which a wine is served is itself important when contemplating what to drink in the depths of a cold winter. Obviously most white wines and sparkling wines require chilling down so are not always the best way to keep you warm. The more tannins and the more alcohol in a red wine, the less you are likely to want to drink or serve it at below room temperature of roughly 16 to 18 degrees Celsius.
So the kind of table wines that are best drunk in winter are those with a naturally robust level of warming alcohol such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape from France, Spanish and Portuguese reds, and from the New World, powerful reds such as California Zinfandel, Australian shiraz, Argentinian malbec and South African Rh?ne-style reds from the Swartland. Whatever wines you choose to drink, I hope that the winter of your heart's content will be made satisfying and warming in equal measure.
How to make mulled wine
2 cinnamon sticks
1 half tsp grated nutmeg
2 bay leaves
10 cardamom pods, dehusked
1 vanilla pod
2 star anise
2 bottles merlot or Italian red (or substitute one bottle of ruby Port)
250g caster sugar
750ml brandy (optional)
1. Remove sections of peel from the orange, lime and lemon.
2. Put sugar in a saucepan over a medium heat, add peel and squeezed orange juice.
3. Tie the cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, cardamom pods and vanilla pod together in cheesecloth and add to the wines with the grated nutmeg and stir in sufficient red wine to cover the sugar.
4. Allow to simmer gently until sugar has dissolved into the red wine, then bring to the boil for 4-5 minutes, removing spices bag just before it turns into a thick syrup.
5. When the syrup is ready, turn the heat down to low, add star anise and the rest of the wine.
6. Add brandy to taste. Gently heat and after around 5 minutes, ladle into glasses and serve.