The normal course of action this month would be for me to pontificate about the spirit of Christmas, but who really wants to read yet another moralizing treatise on the acceptable sentiments to hold during this annual season of advent and tradition? I must say, I don’t really feel like writing one—they’re a dime a dozen this time of year. Instead, I think I will write about brandy.
Bear with me. I think it will be worth it, and I will even try to keep it seasonal.
If you haven’t sipped a neat brandy you have likely encountered it in the form of those Chocolate Cherry Brandy Liqueurs that show up on grocery shelves about this time of year, and you have either hated them or felt mostly indifferent about them. I don’t believe there are many people who actually love them except perhaps the odd credulous youth who might hope foolishly to achieve inebriation. The enjoyment lasts for a maximum of about seven minutes after which the lesson always learnt is that nausea comes quickly to those who eat an entire box of brandy chocolates in one sitting. Henceforth (parents rejoice) the youth is turned off hard alcohol for a good while.
A more sophisticated use of brandy is in the crowd-pleasing flambé, in which heated brandy (or some other strong liquor) is poured over a freshly made dish of some sort and ignited. The dish burns with the blue flame of alcohol as it is presented to hungry and bedazzled guests.
Some snobbish food types insist that a flambé changes the flavour of a dish favourably in subtle ways, but others argue that the change is so subtle as to be unnoticeable to all but the most refined palates (which is to say only noticeable to snobbish food types due to some sort of placebo effect). In any case, it would seem that the flambé might be a waste of perfectly good brandy for the sake of presentation.
Not so with the Christmas pudding.
The Christmas pudding appears to have originated in Britain in the 17th century, but it has become a part of annual Christmas traditions for many people around the world, often in the form of a family recipe that has been passed down for generations. It is made with ingredients that were once luxurious but are more commonplace now, although the pudding remains a rich and heavy dessert. Dried fruits are steeped in brandy and then mixed with sugar, spices, suet, eggs, and flour or bread crumbs. The whole mixture is then steamed in a sealed container for hours and then left to sit for weeks, months, or even a year. (In some traditions next year’s pudding is prepared at Christmas time, and the pudding that was prepared last year is eaten this year.)
When it comes time to serve the pudding, it is once again steamed, and then ignited to burn off the brandy so that the sweet, spicy flavours are all that remain to be enjoyed. Here the brandy has gone beyond the showy purview of a flambé and has served an essential role in the pudding’s preservation as it is the alcohol in the brandy that keeps the pudding from going bad for so long.
There is plenty more that could be said about brandy. Its history is entangled with the history of humanity in the same intriguing way as any alcoholic beverage. But I will end by noting that brandy falls in the category of distilled alcoholic beverages which are also known as spirits. And so with brandy’s association with such traditional Christmas treats as Chocolate Liqueurs and Christmas pudding, it turns out that I have written about a spirit of Christmas in spite of myself.