With kind permission from the University of British Columbia, and the help of author of The Rossettis In Wonderland, Dinah Roe, I have a Christmas treat to share with you: Mama Frances Rossetti’s recipe for a frightfully boozy rum punch!
The Rossetti family’s little London parlour was always crammed with displaced Italian revolutionaries, carousing and debating while the cat warmed herself in front of the fire. Christina talks about “chestnuts, cake, and a social glass of grog”, although Dante Gabriel didn’t drink at all until much later in life. (That didn’t stop him, as a child, from feeding beer to a hedgehog and watching it stagger about, the unusual boy). However, I like to think he partook of the occasional sip of family punch. Especially if it was anywhere near as tasty as my attempt!
Let’s give it a go, shall we?
Frances doesn’t give especially detailed instructions, so most of this is guesswork verging on generosity. Here’s the recipe as it appears in Frances’ recipe book:
Lump sugar to taste
The lemons being first scraped white, therewith, boiling water.
Looking for further details, I found this fantastic article on Charles Dickens’ favourite punch, circa 1847, involving a pint of rum (!) and a glass of brandy. That, between myself and Mr May, would be lethal, so I’m going to tone down the quantities a bit for the sake of propriety.
Yes, this is classed as research.
I sliced the lemons (first scraping them white with a knife, because for some reason I don’t own cheese grater) and cut the orange into four. I ended up slicing the lemons in half because I didn’t quite believe the juice would get out through the zest. Maybe that was a mistake. We’ll see.
On the hob, I boiled a pint and a half of water, brought it off the boil and added the fruit. I left the lot to simmer for three minutes while I repeatedly got the maths wrong and ended up deciding on half a pint of rum, which, on reflection, was a bit much. Oh, well.
Both the brandy and rum were the finest El Cheapo supermarket bathtub plonk, because, unlike the myriad characteristics of gin, all brands of rum taste to me like aviation fuel. So I added the half pint of rum directly into the pan over a gentle heat, letting it ‘mull’ a bit in the fruit juice, which was beginning to smell pleasantly like Christmas cake.
I then ‘measured’ out roughly a quarter of a pint of brandy. I’m not used to brandy (the stuff I used smelled like a dentist’s surgery) so I took Charles Dickens’ advice (sorry, Uncle Thomas) and spooned it in, setting it alight spoon by spoon. To what benefit, I can’t say, but it made a nice “voomph!” sound and made me feel like some kind of pagan Goddess of winter debauchery.
At this point, mind your hair.
So! Next, I had a little taste test, resulting in flashbacks to childhood toothache remedies. It was quite bitter, and the lemons had crumpled slightly, leaving floating bits of lemon on the surface. I don’t know what Mrs Rossetti would have done, but she seemed the sensible type, so I removed the lemons and let the oranges take over.
I added a liberal quantity of brown sugar, and stirred the punch for a few minutes. The rum really needs a bit of sweetness to balance it out, but it’s all personal taste.
Once the lemons were out, the punch began to taste much more recognisably fruity (I suspect winter lemons in this country are just a bit mean-tasting) and the sugar and alcohol complemented each other nicely.
* Don’t let it boil
* Take a distinctly un-Victorian swizzle stick and give it a good stir.
* Pour into a tall glass
because I don’t own any other kind of glass.* As Christina wisely suggested, add cake.
* Toast General Pepe, repeat.
It actually tastes delicious. It is distinctly piratey – grog! – though the citron gives it a more festive kick than something you’d swig before pillaging a small coastal town.
Queer loaves are the best loaves.
Frances did her best to reproduce Italian food for her family. Indeed, Dante Gabriel was still sourcing cannelloni from Soho decades later. However, I always think of him when I buy my Christmas panettone. In 1874, he wrote to Frances:
I have been painting from a little Italian boy who highly appreciates Toscone; but on my giving him a piece of Panattone (that queer loaf) he said in a startled tone, “Quanto costa questo?”* I replied “Non credo molto,” & he rejoined “Crederei quasi neinte”. Such was his verdict on that comestible.
Buon Natale, everyone!
*“How much is this?”
“I do not think much.”
“I would think almost nothing.”