Early one icy December morning several years ago, my husband and I were happily exploring a traditional Christmas market in a small village near Strasbourg, in France’s Alsace region. My gloved hands were tucked deep into my heavy coat as I peered into stalls displaying handcrafted ornaments, brilliantly colored wooden toys, trays of holiday cookies, stacks of Muenster cheese rounds and pyramids of sausages, all lit by strings of lights that cast a warm, festive glow.
The market was busy, but we noticed an especially large crowd around one vendor, so we headed that way to investigate. As we approached, we could see steam rising in the cold winter air and smell the fragrance of cinnamon, cloves and wine. There was something else, too: an earthy aroma I didn’t recognize. Men and women were walking away from the vendor, a cup in one hand and a paper boat with a fork sticking up in the other, to sit on the stone wall of a nearby bridge or at one of the many benches that dotted the square.
As we edged closer, we were enveloped by the scent of hot mulled wine. We could see the stall master scooping up fried potatoes, thickly covered with melting cheese, from a huge, shallow metal pan. Never had anything looked or smelled so good to me. A chalk sign read vin chaud and pommes de terre aux Muenster. That was the aroma I couldn’t recognize: the distinctly earthy (my French son-in-law says too earthy) haystack smell of perfectly ripe Muen-ster cheese. Of course we had to have some. Although we flinched at the thought of drinking wine at 9 in the morning, it seemed to be the thing to do. We handed over our euros and took our treats, finding a spot on the stone wall. As we watched the world go by, people chatting and shopping, greeting friends and neighbors, we discovered that a cup of hot wine on a cold morning is quite civilized.
The Alsace region is best known for white wines such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc. But it also produces noteworthy Pinot Noirs. A Pinot Noir, I suspect, is what formed the base of the hot wine we drank at the market stall.
All over Europe, especially in colder areas such as Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany and Austria, hot wines are a holiday tradition. They are easy to make, and they pair well with a variety of appetizers, from Stilton cheese and dried fruits to fried potatoes with melted cheese!
Food writer and cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan lives outside Winters. She is the author of A Pig in Provence and the recently published Gather: Memorable Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Seasons.
Hot Spiced Wine
Peel of one orange
Peel of one lemon
1 bottle Pinot Noir, Syrah or Merlot
1 cinnamon stick, about 4 inches long
4 whole cloves
1 star anise
1 piece vanilla bean, about 2 inches long
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Place the orange and lemon peels on a baking sheet in a 200-degree oven until dried, about 45 minutes. Put all the ingredients into a nonreactive saucepan and heat over medium heat. Bring just to the edge of a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to low and simmer 5 minutes. To serve, ladle the wine into heat-resistant glasses. Serves 6.